The NHL needs to start acting its age

Photo by: Klim Musalimov

As an NHL fan, it’s been a difficult past few weeks to remain committed to the season’s final stretch, and no, it’s not for usual fan-of-the-Leafs reasons.

Sure, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been skidding recently and a bunch of their trade deadline transactions are blowing up in their face, but I digress; the NHL has larger issues than a team that everyone dislikes anyway.

The first issue in the grand scheme of things is probably not a huge deal. Last week, the NHL inked a 10-year deal with Fanatics to make them the league’s official on-ice jersey supplier. Fanatics has had a standing partnership with the NHL, among other professional sports leagues, to produce their jerseys — though they previously only occupied the purely commercial space, catering to fans wanting marginally less expensive jerseys than the Adidas ones.

Fanatics, as someone who collects jerseys, is not good. And that’s speaking politely.

Besides the fact that the differences between a Fanatics and Adidas-made jersey is immediately obvious, with differences in materials and the application of various design details, but can also be riddled with issues.

Social media is littered with stories of fans who have bought Fanatics jerseys online, only to receive versions that have wrong names or numbers, or even upside-down logos. The jerseys are also known to fall apart easily.

Sure, it’s reasonable to expect their quality to improve with a more lucrative and important contract, but it’s also worth questioning what this company did to deserve this contract. It was rumoured that more reputable companies like New Era were interested in acquiring the jersey rights, who has an established, long-standing contract with the MLB. It feels like a slap in the face to go instead with a brand that has done little but establish themselves as second-rate.

This deal makes no sense, especially considering the North American pro-sport landscape. The NFL’s jersey sponsor is Nike, a top-of-its-class brand. So are the NBA and MLB’s jersey deals. I mean, even the MLS, a league which many NHL fans refuse to accept is making massive and rapid gains on them in terms of following, is signed with Adidas. The NHL isn’t doing a lot to hang with the other big dogs. 

That’s if you feel like they even are one. ESPN, the network the NHL just signed a seven year broadcast deal with, doesn’t seem to think so, if their chief pundit Stephen A Smith is any indication.

When it was brought up on First Take, one of the most popular sport talk shows in North America, that the New York Rangers could be the next New York team to win a championship, Smith responded, “Oh Lord”, before host Molly Qerim asserted that the NHL, “didn’t count.”

Even their own broadcasters, who have seen NHL viewership dip by 22 per cent  despite their lucrative contract, see the NHL as a second-tier league.

The NHL’s decision to sign with Fanatics is emblematic of larger issues within the league. Nike didn’t even put in a bid for the NHL’s jerseys, and it was suggested that they have, “distanced their brand from hockey.”

It’s not hard to see why, either. The NHL has spent the past several years dutifully cultivating their reputation as an organization that’s set in their ways, and isn’t willing to pay up or make changes to improve either the on-ice product or fan experience.

These days, it feels like the NHL doesn’t care about their fans.

They cook up a fresh batch of controversy every time you check. It was hard to see a job in hockey PR getting much more difficult after Hockey Canada’s widely documented scandals, but somehow, the NHL managed to deliver.

In January, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov exercised his — admittedly perfectly valid — right to not wear the Flyers’ Pride Night jersey or participate in warmups, citing religious beliefs as an explanation. However, what was concerning was that no one seemed particularly interested in exercising their right to question him rigorously about that decision.

Provorov faced no repercussions from the league or his team, and was allowed to play in the game later that night. His coach, John Tortorella, who notably said he’d bench any of his players who protested the national anthem, defended Provorov to the media saying he did “nothing wrong.”

Whatever. If Provorov wants to out himself as a homophobe, regardless of his reasons for it, that’s his prerogative. However, the failure from any of those in power to do anything about it and show support to the community Pride Night was intended for makes the event feel hollow, and shows cowardice and complicity in what followed.

Provorov has become something of a martyr for an undesirable sect of the NHL fandom, who see him as pushing back against a changing NHL, that Ron DeSantis notably said abided by “woke notion[s]”. And, to his credit, Provorov has inspired a changing front in the NHL, though in a regressive, frustrating sort of fashion.

Since his non-public, public stand against the heinous crime of caring deeply for another person, his position has gained some momentum.

Since January, a number of teams including the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks decided to nix their pride events altogether, looking to avoid possible blowback. The Blackhawks went as far as to say that the decision was made in the interest of safety for their Russian-born players, who they believed could face repercussions back home for taking a pro-LGBTQ+ stance. That would almost be a good argument, if it weren’t completely contrived. Where was this feeling when they hosted a Ukrainian Heritage Night no less than two weeks ago?

In the past two weeks, a few other relatively inconsequential NHL players picked up Provorov’s torch. Perhaps looking to add notoriety to their dwindling careers, the San Jose Sharks’ James Reimer and the Florida Panthers’ Eric and Marc Staal all declined to wear Pride warmup jerseys or participate in warmup, also citing their religions.

This is disappointing for a number of reasons.

First, as a former Leaf, I always was a big fan of James Reimer and really rooted for his success when he left town. It’s really disheartening to hear when one of your childhood idols comes out to say that he believes that many of your friends, peers and role models all live lives of sin and shouldn’t exist.

The hypocrisy is also frustrating. Sure, we’ve already mentioned Tortorella and the Blackhawks, but what about the Staal brothers? They’re Canadian and some of the longest tenured players in the NHL; what’s their excuse? Not to mention that Eric Staal wore a Montreal Pride jersey last year. He denied it happening, even when told there was photographic proof, which would be funny if it wasn’t so infuriating.

As well, if the Staals were really so passionate about maintaining family values and stopping the spread of “sin” and “indecency,” where were their comments against Hockey Canada’s rampant sexual assault coverups? They both represented Hockey Canada on the international stage multiple times, if it was really such an issue for them, you’d think they’d have something to say about that. They didn’t do it because they’re impassioned, devout religious-types, they did it because Ivan Provorov made it expedient.

Ivan Provorov opened the door but the NHL, its owners and its management propped it open and ushered them through. Why? Because, just like the Fanatics deal, it was the easy thing to do.

The NHL doesn’t care about their fans. They care about lining their pockets in whichever way nets them the most money without rocking the boat, nevermind if that boat is heading right over a waterfall. They’re not going to change because they don’t want to. They’ve always made money a certain way, and if they can keep doing that without sacrificing their “ideals” or upsetting the established fandom, they’ll just keep plugging away, progress be damned.

As an NHL fan, I’ve never felt more jaded and disillusioned.

I’ve poured a lot of money and even more time into this bush-league organization, but these days, it feels like I spend just as much time trashing it.

The prevalent and perpetuating culture of toxicity in hockey that allows the monstrous Hockey Canada scandals to occur are frightening and horrifying but unfortunately not shocking, and it’s this continued prevalence makes me question my love for this sport every day.

Seeing other sports innovating and expanding into new markets while the NHL languishes in its half-century old, centralized market defies logic. It becomes doubly disappointing to see top talents like Ohtani and Trout go head-to-head in international play, while the NHL has no plans of capitalizing on its better-than-ever talent pool in international tournaments, Olympics or otherwise.

Even when the NHL does make a half-baked effort to grow the sport, it falls flat on its face. For example, the Florida Panthers, who have secured a cushy spot among the NHL’s lowest arena attendances every year. NHL legend Jaromir Jagr said that his Czech league team drew larger crowds. They offered 2-for-1 deals on tickets with free parking included within the past five years. Sure, their mediocrity could be the reason behind the bad attendance, or it could be the arena’s location; located one hour outside of Miami, the arena is accessible only by toll highway and near a retirement community.

Alternatively, the Arizona Coyotes, who have been deplorably bad nearly since their inception, have been embroiled in controversy after controversy, refusing to pay vendors and contractors properly, tardiness or refusal to pay financial dues to their host cities, illegally testing draft prospects, lawsuits, near and actual bankruptcy they’ve seen it all. They’ve been forced to move arenas or even cities several times, with their most recent host locking them out of the rink. They have since been playing in a 5,000-person capacity college arena. Their visitors’ dressing room is separated from the student concourse by a tarp.

Sure, either of these teams could have been moved to Quebec, who had a state-of-the-art arena built in the last decade and could sell out a game on Christmas, but I digress. I guess I’ll leave those sorts of decisions to the owners who have sparked more labour stoppages than any of the other four major North American sports combined.

It feels like a joke at this point, only we’re all still waiting for the punchline.

I truly believe that ice hockey is the greatest sport in the world. I feel that everyone should get a chance to play, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like some of the most important people in the sport share that sentiment. I want to tell people to go pick up a stick or go see a team play, but when the community around it feels so unwelcoming, how am I supposed to do that?

Sports are supposed to be a haven, a place for people to enjoy and channel their passions into something fairly inconsequential. The NHL is preventing that.

Slowly but surely, the NHL is turning my love for hockey into an unrequited one, and I have no doubt many other fans are starting to feel the same.

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