To experience hockey at it's best, stop the constant changes to the game
or the past two weeks, I’ve written articles touching on the fan experience and hockey.
The first issue touched on television production of hockey games on TV and the brutality of multiple camera use during game play. The second issue talked about the fan experience inside the St. Pete Times Forum, and the lack of traditions that the fans in attendance have.
I’ll be honest and say I’ve struggled to write my third piece – thinking I had the right ideas early on (mass transit options to the game, ticket pricing and how discounts are ridiculed) and then having to nix the thought for one reason or another, explaining that would be a blog post unto itself.
Then I was fortunate to remember the NHL General Managers meetings just concluded, and that during those meetings, another research and development camp was given the green light.
For those of you who don’t know, the R & D Camp is held during the summer months for the NHL to test out various ideas and rule changes. Some of these changes are subtle (eliminating the two-line pass rule for the sake of opening up offensive chances) while others change the game in more radical ways (bigger nets with a different shape – pitched in a post-lockout camp; having only one faceoff circle in each offensive zone). The Lightning had a blog post with photos from last summer’s camp, which I encourage you to take a look at.
OK, so what’s the point? How on earth does this have anything to do with the fan experience? Well, that exactly is my point. In trying to change the game to excite fans – the NHL adds confusion and eliminates consistency of how the game is played.
How can you improve the fan experience? Stop changing the game and let’em play!
The NHL can be rather hypocritical with tradition: It boasts and revels in the original six franchises and the heritage of the game, but it’s very quick to change the game and how it’s played as a marketing strategy.
For a league so endeared to the past, you’d think the NHL would hold steady with the rules and only change things out of necessity. However, that’s not the case.
For example, the reviled shootout to decide winners of hockey games that are still tied after overtime. I must say I am in the minority among my hockey fan friends when I say I actually like the shootout. But I understand where people come from in their disappointment that the shootout is used to decide games. It has been a very big change from what life-long hockey fans have known.
And just why was the shootout added? It’s supposed to bring excitement to the game. I can’t say, however, that I’ve heard fans tell me they live for the shootout, or that it improves the game.
Usually it’s the opposite.
Do you expect the NBA to implement a slam-dunk competition to decide games that are tied after overtime? Or Major League Baseball to use a home run derby to settle an extra innings affair that hasn’t been completed by a certain inning? Do you know how those ideas would be received if David Stern or Bud Selig (the respective commissioners of the NBA and MLB) proposed those changes? They’d likely be fired.
The basic rules of sports like baseball, football (both the American game and European/world footie) and basketball haven’t been juggled around as much as the rules for ice hockey. And with every juggling of the rules, the casual fan ends up more alienated from the game.
How can you grow to appreciate and love a sport if its basic rules keep changing? The inconsistency in the rules repels people.
Even without the R & D camp or radical rule changes on the fly; inconsistency with the rules is still an issue. The blame for that lies within it’s on ice officials, video review teams and league-disciplinarian Colin Campbell.
I’m talking about rule enforcement and their application in the game.
I’ve already said my piece regarding my personal discontent with on ice officials and the league’s hands-off approach in oversight of them.
The basic premise is this (and most every hockey fan can vouch for this): rule enforcement changes as the months of the NHL season change. You will not have referees call a game in the same fashion in February as he would in October (at the start of the season) or in May (during the playoffs). From a new fan perspective, how are you supposed to learn the rules of the game if the rules of the game aren’t the same all season long?
That same inconsistency is constantly on display with league discipline after particularly brutal on-ice incidents.
The best way for the NHL to improve the fan experience for the fans (old and new) would be to stop messing with it and start being consistent in applying the rules that already exist.
Enough of the gimmicks and enough of tinkering with the rules. Enough of changing the game for the sake of change. Have one final, grand conference that settles the basic rules and put it in a lock box and be done with it.
The game markets itself, as is. Trust in it. Be true to it. And please stop bastardizing it through constant change.