The Pittsburgh Penguins lost a game 10-1 last night in Chicago. It was their second regular season game in as many nights. Did you even know the NHL season had officially started?
The NHL has long battled an uphill climb for attention over the years, and the league is already off to a rough start in promoting its product in a crowded sports landscape. The timing for dropping the first pucks of the season this week could not have been much worse for a variety of reasons, but the league should take accountability for designing their schedule the way it was and for not doing enough to promote the start of the new season to the casual hockey fans out there.
Unless you are a hardcore hockey nut, then the start of the new season likely crept up on you out of nowhere. Or, perhaps, reading this post right here is what alerted you that the hockey season has in fact already started. You should not be blamed for not knowing when the season got underway, because that is responsibility falls on the league to promote and make you aware. Think about it for a second. You know exactly when the NFL kicks off. You know exactly when the first pitches of a new Major League Baseball season are thrown out. And you are likely to be somewhat aware of when the NBA will get its regular season underway. But you probably had no clue the hockey season has officially started, right?
It has. And some teams have even played multiple games. But that means a handful of teams have played games on back-to-back nights to start the season, which seems unwise as some of those teams had to play on the road against a team playing their season opener. That includes the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who were routed in Chicago by the Blackhawks a night after losing an overtime game at home against the St. Louis Blues. It also includes the Philadelphia Flyers, who were blanked by the Los Angeles Kings in their season opener a night after topping the San Jose Sharks. Why the NHL would have teams playing back-to-back nights to start the season is beyond me, as is the idea of placing one of its top eastern market franchises in a position to play on the West Coast to open the season in the late-night hours.
Scheduling conflicts also presented problems for Philadelphia fans each of the first two nights, because of season-opening intros and a TV window that was not wide enough for the Pittsburgh-St. Louis opener, the Flyers-Sharks game was delayed until a 10:50 p.m. ET start. And because the game was not locally televised, it was placed on the NHL Network to start until moved over to NBC Sports Network while the game was already in progress. This is not the ideal way to handle the schedule to start off a new season. On Thursday night, the Flyers and Kings had another later-than-usual start, meaning a handful of dedicated Flyers fans lost some sleep at the end of the week.
Fortunately, the Penguins and Flyers were the only two teams to open the season on back-to-back nights, so this is just a minor problem for the league. But having the defending champions have to do so with the schedule seems unjustified and the result on the ice gave a not-so-flattering product advertisement for the league with a 10-1 victory by the Blackhawks.
What is amazing is why the NHL chose the dates they did to open up the season. The NHL will always believe in its own product and the core fans will be fine with it, but to schedule 14 teams to play their season openers on a Thursday night already dominated by the NFL’s Thursday Night Football and with the MLB division series going on just seems like poor planning. There was also a college football game between two top 25 teams in action, although the NHL cannot look forward and project which college football teams will or will not be ranked when putting the schedule together.
But to make the decision to open up the bulk of the league up against a Thursday night NFL game is poor business management from the league’s perspective. Throw in the baseball playoffs and you have a real head-scratcher. And it was entirely avoidable from the start. Why not have a league-wide opening on Wednesday night and make an actual event out of the night from coast to coast?
Opening up against the NFL and the baseball postseason immediately puts the NHL’s regular season hiding deep in the shadows and will ensure it easily gets overlooked. Maybe the NHL has accepted its fate in the pecking order of sports. If so, then that is unsettling as the league tries to expand and grow its product. Maybe the fault falls on the teams, and perhaps it varies by market, but once again the start of the NHL season has seemed to get underway with all of the sports attention focused elsewhere. That even includes preseason basketball as the NBA continues to improve its push to promote its product. The NHL’s loss has long been the NBA’s gain. People tune in to summer league NBA games and will be more likely to discuss what’s happening in a preseason game before they even think about what happened in an NHL regular season game few knew was being played.
As a casual hockey fan myself, I generally do not tune in much to the NHL until after the college football bowl season and the NFL playoffs. Unless the NHL is ever going to shorten its season, then they will continue to run the risk of playing in the background while the general sports focus is on football, baseball, and basketball.