FeaturedNational Hockey League (NHL)

Why the NHL Should Be More Like the NBA (Marketing Perspective)

The NHL has always had a hard time evolving.

The MLB has players weekend, where players can pick nicknames to wear on their jersey instead of their last name. The league and union are even discussing rule changes that could shorten the game and make it more exciting for fans.

The NFL has players wearing custom cleats, celebration cameras in end zones, post-game jersey swapping (in even covid times), and features players with a wide range of personalities.

In the NBA players are so powerful that lots of players shoe endorsements paying them tens of millions of dollars a year, some stars are comfortable signing one year deals so they can re-up for a higher percentage the next year, franchise faces like Lebron James have a say in personnel moves, and they can force trades with ease.

I purposely left that point about forcing trades for last, because we just saw a similar situation play out in both the NBA and NHL before the start of the last season in each league. A situation that may have shown NHL players they can force an evolution in the league and it’s power structure.

So what happened in the two leagues that is so similar?

James Harden of the Houston Rockets made it known that he wanted out of town. He didn’t show up to training camp right away. He partied mask-less, a move that forced him to sit out additional time when he did show up. He looked like he didn’t want to be there when he was there.

Harden forced his way to Brooklyn to form a big three with Kevin Durant and flat-earther Kyrie Irving.

Eventually the organization decided it was enough and moved him to Brooklyn – a contender he wanted to go to.

In the NHL universe, the same sort of things happened, although not to the extent of Harden – and the indiscretions were spread across multiple players with a bit more subtlety than the Harden circus.

Pierre-Luc Dubois made it known he wanted out of Columbus. Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic made it known he wanted out of Winnipeg. Dubois didn’t sign a contract until the day the first set of training camps opened while Roslovic flat out refused to show up to camp in Winnipeg.

Laine wouldn’t deny trade request rumors saying things like “right now I’m here” and “I don’t want to be a distraction” when asked about the rumors. In his last game in Columbus, Dubois had one of the most obvious “I’m not trying” shifts of all-time and was benched the rest of the game by then coach John Tortorella.

That shift made it clear that Dubois needed to go and go quickly. It also meant both Columbus and Winnipeg had enough and decided to trade one problem for another. A couple of days after “the shift,” the Jets traded Laine and Roslovic for Dubois and a third round draft pick.

Another similarity, Harden wanted to go to a contender and Brooklyn was on his list. Laine wanted a chance to be the guy, the franchise face, Roslovic was born and raised in Columbus, and Dubois’s father is a coach within Winnipeg’s organization. I would say the players got what they wanted in the trade.

“Sure, Alex Texier is just as good as Mark Schefiele, Patty” – Dubois to Laine after the trade, probably. Photo: Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

Now I’m not saying that any of Dubois, Laine, or Roslovic have the same star power as Harden or that the NHL is suddenly going to have multiple stars change teams every season, but you can see a bit of movement in the power struggle between players and organizations in the NHL.

You can also see the immediate effect on players around the game, with two other trade requests in the days following the Dubois/Laine deal. First, former third overall draft pick Sam Bennett requested a trade out of Calgary. That rumor was confirmed by agent Darren Ferris through Elliotte Friedman.

“There was a rumor going around (Saturday) morning that Bennett might want a change of scenery, and I did call his agent, Darren Ferris, who said, ‘Yes, that’s true, he would like it to be considered,'” said Friedman.

Eventually Bennett got his wish in April, getting moved to the Florida panthers (along with a sixth round pick) for a prospect and a second round draft pick.

Bennett and his fantasic beard want out of Calgary. Photo: Al Charest/Postmedia

Just after that, Ferris also confirmed that Victor Mete, a former prized Montreal prospect who played first line minutes with Shea Weber a couple of seasons ago, wanted out of Montreal. Pierre LeBrun asked Bergevin about the rumors to which Bergevin responded via text:

“Not true and not trading him.”

After Bergevin denied that Mete had requested a trade, LeBrun followed up with Ferris who confirmed the request:

This has to have created an incredibly awkward situation for the team and Bergevin, who denied the request only to have the agent confirm it.

And guess what?

Mete eventually found a new team too, when the Ottawa Senators claimed him off of the waiver wire from Montreal.

So while NHL players may not be able to control and hold hostage entire organizations like LeBron James or James Harden, they may be able to get to a point where they are more comfortable in creating tension and unease within the organization.

NHL players emboldening could create more moves and more excitement. Think of how many big moves you hear about from the NBA on an annual basis compared to the NHL. Now, this movement and power shift is something NHL GMs and owners will undoubtedly push back against at first, as seen with Bergevin’s denial.

However they may change their tune when they realize acquiring a new player can move merchandise almost as well as releasing gimmicky new third/retro/etc. jerseys every season.

Just think, after the usual list of all-stars and phenoms, one of the top-selling jerseys in the NHL before this season was Henrik Lundqvist’s Capitals’ jersey. Yes, he was one of the top selling jerseys in the league for a team he had just signed for, yet never ended up playing for due to a heart ailment that required surgery.

Plus the NHL needs all the help it can get in creating interest and sales when such large losses are happening during the pandemic. For a sport that is incredibly expensive to play and is already behind in popularity to football, baseball, and basketball in the home of their biggest markets in the United States – anything that generates more interest has to be a good thing for the league and sport.

[See more about the NHL’s spot in the pecking order and some ideas and rule changes that could make it more popular at this link]

So with all of that said – Dubois, Roslovic, and Laine may have unwittingly started a movement. That movement could benefit players, fans, and owners alike.  We already saw the beginning of it with Bennett and Mete being moved earlier this year. We’ve seen in more recently with the request and subsequent trade of Duncan Keith.

The hard cap and the expansion draft will put even more pressure on teams, which will be another step in the right direction, but only time will tell if the ripples of the Dubois, Laine, Bennett, and Keith trade turn to sweeping waves.

Although Mete may not be a star like Dubois or Laine, his request shows players might be more willing to push back more than ever. Something that could be beneficial for everyone in the long run.

And hey, if the NHL does become more like the NBA with lots of high-end players moving every offseason (and in-season), wouldn’t that just be more beneficial for the popularity of the NHL?

Player movement draws the attention of the press and creates many opportunities in marketing – regardless of whether it’s good or bad for the teams and cities involved.

After all, isn’t the old saying “there’s no such thing as bad press?”

Steve Auld

Steve Auld

My name is Steve and I am from the very noble Auld clan of Niagara, where we respect our elders and follow the golden rules: elbows up, and keep your stick on the ice. When not tearing up beer league or ball hockey, I enjoy the occasional downtime I have with my fiancée and son. Love me some music too, all kinds. If you feel I did a good job or you want to argue, feel free to leave a comment!
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