These should be the best of times for the NHL, especially in the U.S. TV ratings are up 50 per cent on the NBC group of channels over this time last year. But instead of trumpeting the good news, the NHL is instead defending itself over suspensions and fines for violent behaviour by its players.
According to John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer, the league is hearing from its business partners over the rash of suspensions and fines.
“They’re paying us a lot of money to associate with our brand,” said Collins who came to the NHL from the NFL. “So when our brand is under attack in the press on issues as serious as player safety, they want to know that the league is on top of it and has a plan for dealing with it and hear the league articulate it. That feedback is always going to be there.”
Have hockey’s violent incidents so far this spring had an impact on the league’s attempts to penetrate Corporate America?
“It affects the business, our ability to attract new fans, to grow the business, to attract other blue-chip advertisers and brands (who want) to associate with the games,” said Collins, who joined the NHL five years ago. “It also affects our ability to attract casual fans who maybe haven’t watched all year and now they’re hearing the buzz about the game.
“But I think Brendan (Shanahan) has done a great job in being clear about what the league is trying to accomplish. So when you have these moments, whether at the start of the season or in the first round, he’s very clear about why these decisions are made. That takes a lot of steam out of it.”
There have been dissenting voices from within the player community. Jonathan Toews, Kimmo Timonen, Henrik Zetterberg and David Perron are among the players expressing concern about the incidents and the penalties assessed. Collins says the advertising and hockey community needs to be reassured that the situation is being addressed.
“It’s really important that the league is clear about what they’re doing in the player-safety department,” stresses Collins.