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Sports Authority

O’Connell: NHL experiences golden age

| Thursday, September 17, 2015

Though it still resides behind its beefier brothers, the NFL and the MLB, in American sport culture, it’s hard to argue against the early 21st century’s growing reputation as the golden age of the NHL and professional hockey in America.

Though some teams, such as the consistently-mediocre Phoenix Coyotes and the sneakily-good Florida Panthers, still struggle to draw crowds, stadiums and rinks from toasty southern California to glitzy Brooklyn are projected to sell out almost every game in the 2015-16 season, which opens in roughly 20 days. Combine the continued monetary success of nontraditional market teams in places like Los Angeles, Nashville and Tampa Bay with the revitalized fervor for hockey in the states of Illinois and Pennsylvania, amongst others (credit to Minnesota here — the State of Hockey never saw even a hint of decline), and the financial future for the NHL seems bright.

What’s more, the league recently signed a landmark $600 million deal with Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which will give the baseball group the rights to hockey’s out-of-market TV broadcasting and internet streaming. Though the NHL will still maintain control of the means and production values of hockey content streamed by MLBAM, the six-year contract will allow new markets at home and abroad to experience hockey from the comfort of their living rooms. For a sport whose arguably biggest barrier to fandom lies in its lack of accessibility for both viewers (TV schedules are crowded) and players (ice melts), this deal could spell even further expansion of popularity for hockey, which is only just starting to produce consistently-elite domestic talent.

This year, the NHL will seek to create a faster, more frenetic game, with adjustments to goalie equipment being considered and new 3-on-3 overtime rules already in the process of being put in place. As a hockey fan, it has been a while since there has been this much buzz around a new season.

The NHL’s big wigs seem to recognize this swell of popularity, too — that much is made clear by the recent announcement of two yet-to-be-named expansion teams that will be joining the league in the next few years if all goes according to plan. Though we don’t know for sure the locations and names of the new teams, all signs seem to point to a return to Quebec and the rebirth of the old Nordiques franchise in the east, as well as the very first major league team to be hosted in Las Vegas in the west.

It’s difficult to say what expansion will do for the league’s revenue. Besides, not all of the recent news has been good for those with a financial interest in professional hockey – the recent stagnation of the Canadian dollar, combined with ballooning costs for maintaining the league’s many arenas, is causing some salary cap strife amongst the teams with the highest payrolls. But this much is clear: The product the NHL is putting on the ice is attracting more consumers, both in person and over the airwaves, than it ever has before. Really, the numbers aren’t even close.

This is a beautiful time for the sport of hockey. Fans can only hope this trend continues upwards from here.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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