The NHL suffers from a weird, self-inflicted paradox.
Of the four (or five if you want to include Major League Soccer) premier sports leagues in North America, it has arguably the most exciting game. It’s fast-paced, physical, and flows quickly. None of the other sports can claim to be all three of those things at once. The NHL also boasts a level of parity across the entire league that none of the other major sports can even begin to approach. There are no preordained champions in hockey.
The other side of the paradox is that no other professional sport has athletes that are as wooden and boring on camera as the NHL. Jonathan Toews may be a 3-time Stanley Cup Champion, but he’d likely suck the life out of the room at any party. Not to mention the fact that getting a meaningful answer out of a post-game interview is an exercise in futility. Stock hockey answers about “working harder” or “getting our looks” or “making them play our game” are thrown around so frequently, they’ve become ripe for parody:
Players also often fall flat when they star in TV ads. Sports fans in the Twin Cities were treated to the human charisma bomb that is Ryan Suter in this commercial:
To be fair, pushing air conditioners is hardly the easiest way to show off one’s natural charm, and yet, Suter showed about as much emotion as the air conditioner. So imagine the surprise of Minnesota fans when Suter went off script and called Kesler a ‘prick’ to play against.
That side of Suter is a lot more interesting for fans. It’s honest and it’s funny and it completely fits with the image of Suter as a no-nonsense kind-of-guy. It’s this more off-the-cuff version of Suter that actually strikes a chord.
Fans want to know who players really are, both off and on the ice, and proof of that is in the numbers. Videos of players chirping each other regularly get millions of views. The NHL’s limited Mic’d Up experiment was wildly successful. The Vegas Golden Knights stormed out of the gates both in the standings and in their social media presence. P.K. Subban — who has never been lacking in charisma department — has over a million Twitter followers. And sure, that might pale in comparison to stars like LeBron (over 40 million), Steph Curry (11.8 million), or even Aaron Rodgers (4.25 million) but it shows that the appetite is there.
The flip side of the attention, of course, is that not all of it is positive. Subban certainly has his detractors, many of whom wrongfully penalize him for his persona and ignore his play. Fortunately for Subban (and the fans), he seems more than capable of blocking out the noise and being himself. Stars like him and Alex Ovechkin — players that are among the very best at their position and inclined to show their personalities — are the models of what should be emulated, not shunned.
Efforts like Mic’d Up and GoPro: On the Ice show that the NHL is making an effort to give fans more ways to see what their favorite players are actually like. It should keep pursuing opportunities like them. The All-Star game has gotten better in recent years, in part because the 3-on-3 format puts more focus on each individual player and gives them more room on the ice to show off in a low-pressure environment. Savvy social media operators like whoever is running the Vegas Knights’ Twitter are helping shift the culture too.
The NHL also needs to avoid missteps like how they treated John Scott and the 2016 All-Star game. The appearance of punishing players for standing out, even if it wasn’t their idea, has to be avoided. (While they’re doing that, maybe also pull aside Don Cherry — who is a fount of personality himself — and advise him to spend a little more time on research and less time criticizing anyone he doesn’t like.) Let players be themselves, without fear of repercussions from the NHL’s culture barons like Cherry.
The NHL— and hockey in general — doesn’t have to be beholden to uniformity. There’s room for the charismatic flair of players like Subban as well as the more stoic, bluntly honest Suter. Both are an improvement over the stock hockey player that offends no one but also resembles a cardboard cutout.