Time to ‘dump and change’ from traditions

The old hockey guard needs to allow players to transcend simply the game to remain relevant

The Carolina Hurricanes began the regular season with a new way to celebrate a win at home.

Rather than the traditional stick lift at centre ice, they tried something else to interact with the fans. Dubbed the “storm surge,” players begin by standing at one end of the ice and then proceed to skate across to the other end and crash into the boards, much to the delight of some of the Hurricanes’ faithful fans posted up there that stayed to celebrate.

It was a departure from tradition that was refreshing, an indication that the players wanted to express themselves in a new way.

Brian Burke, a long-time NHL executive and now analyst on Sportsnet, went on Sportsnet 590 The Fan to give his thoughts about it: “I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s professional. I don’t think it belongs in our league.”

While Burke said he personally does not like it and does not care if the fans enjoy it, the idea of something belonging or not belonging in the NHL seems to hold firm in a league bounded by tradition.

Expressing yourself in ways that go against traditions and clichés in hockey has almost always been met with criticism by both popular figures and fans in the sport.

Whether it is dancing during pre-game warm-ups, busting out a new celebration after scoring a goal or even merely suggesting that the NHL should abandon the dress code, anything that even resembles going against the grain and an abandonment of “professionalism” is discouraged.

This is a problem, and the result is this sort of weird clique that is associated with playing hockey and being a hockey fan. These rules and traditions might very well seem completely normal to those submerged in the sport and culture, but to someone looking from the outside in with little to no exposure to the NHL and wanting to get a gauge on the sport, one of the first conclusions they would come to is that, despite the non-stop action when play actually begins, the NHL is straight-up boring.

It can be hard to grow a sport, which the NHL has been trying to do, when the culture surrounding the sport seems to suffocate any indication of personality right out of it.

The NBA, meanwhile, could be seen as a polar opposite to how players express themselves and the amount of support they receive compared to the NHL.

Certain NBA stars have used fashion as a way of expressing themselves before the game that it can be hard to tell whether one is heading to the locker room or a GQ photoshoot.

There is no shortage of clips of teammates having fun on the court during warm-ups dancing and staying loose.

Through social media, players have been able to state their political opinions and instead of being silenced, head coaches stand with them and receive support from their commissioner.

All of this has benefitted the NBA. Some players have been able to transcend the sport that they play and become marketable names. Whether it is through commercials for major brands or being referenced in a song, the massive amount of attention some NBA stars garner can ultimately turn average onlookers of the game into new fans. The sport grows even more.

It looks as though those that are involved with the NHL can learn something from the NBA.

For the 2017-18 regular season, NHL viewership on U.S. networks dropped to a multi-year low. Across NBC, NBCSN and NBC’s digital platforms, regular season games averaged 417,000 viewers, down from 474,000 in the previous year. The NBA, meanwhile, went on an absolute tear for its regular season during the same time frame.

As an article from CNBC noted, “TNT’s live NBA game telecasts averaged 1.7 million viewers this year, making it the most-watched regular season since 2013-2014. More importantly to advertisers, the coveted 18-34 and 18-49 demographics saw a 14 per cent and 15 per cent increase.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who began in the position in 2014, gave an interview to Strategy + Business with an answer as to why he thinks the NBA has seen a rise in television ratings and an increase in viewership with those darn millennials.

“I attribute it to the fact that our players, because they are young people themselves, are so highly attuned to other young people and to popular culture […] demonstrating to the public and to their fans that they are more than just basketball players, that they have points of view about what’s happening politically, that they have particular fashion tastes and music tastes.”

The NHL needs someone like Silver who embraces players expressing the multidimensional nature of themselves.

If his leadership within the NBA is showing us anything, it is that promoting the self-expression of players and allowing their personality to be on full display can help grow a sport faster than it could ever imagine.

The players become more noticeable, not only within the country but worldwide, too.

A more meaningful connection can be made between players and fans and I think the sport as a whole becomes more appealing because of this.

As Silver noted, “It’s become part of our brand, in essence, that there is an expectation for our fans, even some who don’t agree with a particular point of view of a player, that this is a platform in which players should feel comfortable expressing themselves.”

If the NHL wants to expand and become more relevant to a new audience, it must embrace a progressive attitude like Silver’s and allow players to speak their minds and be who they are.

To start, let the post-game rituals continue and the formal attire go. Traditions in hockey are nothing but obstacles that prevent it from growing further.

Once the game ends, let them have their fun.