Think about the typical regular season game promo on TV for a NBA game. The way it looks and sounds. Surely, you picture and hear the stars. The same stars that makes waves in the media daily, that start beefs, whose comments and exploits on and off the court make news.
The star power that has driven the NBA to global popularity is severely lacking in the NHL, in the eyes of many. Quick – name the most well-known five players in the NHL. Did you get past Sidney Crosby, if you even got that one?
The NHL, similar to (some would say) MLB, hasn’t exactly been bending over backwards to let their stars, and their personalities, shine. And while there is certainly merit in putting the team above the individual, about being modest and humble to a fault, it may also be the very thing limiting the sport’s growth. There are few with a better view of the space than Dave Krikst, Head of Social Media Content for TSN, as well as serving as Managing Editor of BarDown.com and longtime producer for the Cabbie Richards show, who can’t help but express frustration at the potential upon which the NHL is sitting with its individual players, but has yet to fully embrace.
“The teams themselves, the social media managers…are great. They’re terrific. They’ve got some of the most creative social media managers and content producers in any league,” said Krikst of the talented social media teams behind the clubs (I would agree). “Where it’s missing is the players. I don’t think it’s encouraged, and I think that’s a shame. There’s some type of attitude that being an individual in hockey is frowned upon. That’s just wrong, because there are so many great personalities in hockey. Like P.K. Subban. And I think the league should do nothing but embrace those guys, And the best league for that is the NBA.”
Many often say the NBA is a star-driven league, and it has been riding those stars to rising popularity from the days of Magic and Bird to MJ, Kobe, LeBron, and and everyone in between. These player radiated with their distinct personalities, fans knew them as individuals, not just as players. Whether it was the vivacious Magic Johnson, the uber-competitive Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant, or the outspoken ambassador and consummate basketball savant and teammate that is LeBron James. Meanwhile, only the most avid NHL fans have the slightest idea about the personalities in the NHL. Because we’re allowed such fleeting glimpses, if any at all.
It’s not that the players are, well, boring. They’re a product of the system; the same system in which NBC NHL host Mike Milbury rebuked P.K. Subban for dancing and showing a little personality during pregame warm-ups. The fans, however, loved it of course.
“There are so many great personalities in hockey, the problem is I don’t think the management, I don’t think the league [will foster that] culture and atmosphere to embrace individual. Even if the players themselves have incredible personalities and are smart, interesting people, said Krikst, the passion clear in his tone.
“A lot of the time you’ll find that the individuals themselves are given a hard time. And the fans may embrace them, because they want that; they want the BizNasty [noted ex-NHLer and social media personality Paul Bissonnette], they want the P.K. Subban. I think the problem is the league, and the hockey culture itself, which doesn’t embrace it. Whereas [in] basketball, it’s almost encouraged.”
It’s easy to identify problems, much harder to devise and execute solutions when a culture has been ingrained for so long. MLB, as alluded to earlier, is dealing with a similar culture clash, as young players and Latino players want to have fun on the field, eschewing the tired unwritten rules of yesteryear. But it’s easy to see how much fans respond and engage when a player showcases something outside of the norm, beyond the subdued, cliche-filled culture that pervades hockey and baseball.
It’s an exercise in futility, however, a wreckless resistance, to deny the new day. A new era in which there is no barrier between athletes and fans, when glimpses of personality on the ice or court or field can be amplified and appreciated on social media, when the old-hat can SEE how much the fans love it. Valuing conformance over individual personalities may have respectable roots, but it’s not what is best for the fans and the business of the sport. Because fans don’t fall in love with sports as much as they fall in loves with the teams, the players, the individuals. Those are the connections that create fans that care more.
[Listen to my conversation with Dave Krikst here]