In hindsight, just about everything went right. While there were plenty of dire predictions about how fans would react after a full NHL season was cancelled in 2004-05, they eventually came back in record numbers, pushing the league to record revenues year after year, leading up to last season.
Repeating that type of bounce back may be much more difficult this time around just because of how much went right that may not be repeatable now.
1. The “new” NHL
New rules and new, more wide-open style of play. Those were two huge selling factors in 2005, especially when the NHL was coming out of the “Dead Puck Era,” during which goals had dropped to historically low levels (slightly more than five per game) as clutching and grabbing was the norm. Then, came Brendan Shanahan’s rules summit and a commitment to a crackdown, and the 2005-06 season became the year of “The New NHL.”
Goals went way up (mainly due to all the power plays), the speed of the game increased and the product was, on many nights, better than it’d been in years. That’s quite a selling feature.
2. The rise of the Canadian dollar
In October of 2003, the Canadian dollar was worth just 74 cents (U.S.). Three years later, just as the “new” NHL’s second season was getting under way, it was about to crack 90 cents.
A year after that, it hit $1.05.
That dramatic rise played a key role in helping revenues explode (ultimately providing 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the increase over the life of the last CBA), but it also turned Canadian NHL teams into some of the largest revenue generators in the league.
One year, in fact, all six franchises paid into revenue sharing.
Even the smaller Canadian teams were able to spend and compete, and that paid off with increased interest, which led to even higher revenues.
3. The big-market U.S. success
Revenues weren’t just up in Canada, however. And as the salary cap kept climbing, the popular teams on both sides of the border were able to keep pace – something that eventually began to show on the ice. Revivals in large but dormant or sagging U.S. markets such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston and Los Angeles, helped fuel the league’s long-awaited TV ratings increases and popularity gains.
4. The Crosby-Ovechkin factor
That the NHL was injected with some new star power in two key markets didn’t hurt either.
Back-to-back entry drafts brought Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby into the league at the same time, and the rivalry between the two young stars generated buzz in every building they played.
5. The Winter Classic
A piece of marketing genius: Take a regular NHL game, pick two popular, high-profile teams and pit them against each other in outdoor football or baseball stadiums in an annual event.
The Winter Classic was a sponsor’s dream, and once it took off, it drew in advertising dollars unlike any other event on the NHL calendar.
The players loved it, the fans loved it, and the NHL’s bottom line did, too.