In a perfect world, the NHL would be the people's choice

Updated: July 31, 2007, 11:57 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

In a perfect world, fans across the sporting world would be lining up at the NHL's door. They would be saying, let us in, give us tickets, tell us where to watch you on television, where to buy your jerseys and pennants.

This multitude of fans would say, as they clutched their rubber pucks to their hearts, we're tired of star athletes who mutilate dogs or keep guns or beat up their girlfriends or who are shot at or who shoot at others.

In a perfect world, the NHL would become the people's choice, not just because of the game itself, but also because of the atmosphere surrounding the game and its environs, environs that have, for the most part, remained immune to the kinds of cripplingly bad press we've seen other leagues and sports endure this summer.

Jordan Staal
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJordan, left, and Eric Staal's recent party mishap was a blip on the sporting world's radar screen last week.

The NFL's dog days took on a whole new meaning with the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal, baseball's holiest record was being hunted down by an athlete many consider the most unholy, the Tour de Doper carried on as per usual in France, the NBA acknowledged one of its referees had gambling problems and likely shaved points in games he officiated, even golfers were being accused of juicing (honestly, what do golfers need to bulk up? Their arches?).

Meanwhile, the NHL seemed positively saccharin in its place as the league America forgot.

Even when NHL players get in trouble, like brothers Eric and Jordan Staal at Eric's stag last week, there is something almost hokey about the whole thing. A bunch of boys from Thunder Bay, Ontario, travel to a nice resort in Minnesota; there is drinking and loud noise and, in the end, some of the boys end up spending the night in the clink. No injuries. No damages. Just a few bruised egos.

On a well-known American sports blog, writers made sport of the brothers' low-level shenanigans compared to what players in other leagues routinely get into. Some remarked the Staals still looked like choirboys, even in their mug shots.

Even the NHL's biggest scandal of the past three years, the charging of Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet with operating a gambling ring out of the Coyotes' locker room, pales in comparison to the allegations leveled at NBA referee Tim Donaghy in recent days.

Tocchet pleaded guilty to misdemeanor offenses and is unlikely to go to jail. Most significantly for the NHL, both the police investigation and an independent investigation by the league has turned up no evidence Tocchet or anyone else connected to the ring bet on NHL games. Small potatoes compared to the point-shaving allegations surrounding Donaghy, and Tocchet still is persona non grata as far as the league is concerned.

In terms of the scourge of steroids that continues to hack away at the credibility of Major League Baseball, the NFL, the Tour de France and now professional golf, one NHL player, aging defenseman Sean Hill, has tested positive since the league introduced its drug testing policy at the end of the lockout.

Which brings us to this question: Does this dynamic merely exist or is there some way for the NHL to capitalize on this dynamic? Is there a way for the NHL to take advantage of the misfortunes of its brethren in the sporting world?

Maybe. But it's a lot trickier than simply renting an airplane and dragging banners behind it that read, "Hey, our guys love dogs," or "Hockey: We put the 'clean' back in sport" or "No flies on us."

Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, noted that the NHL is only one major scandal from being no different than those other guys.

Fair enough. There's also the reality that despite the myriad problems NFL players routinely face from drug possession to domestic abuse to firearms charges, the league itself is Teflon. Neither sponsors nor fans have turned away in disgust and aren't likely to any time soon. Ditto for baseball fans.

Baseball might not know what to do about the surly Barry Bonds and his pursuit of Henry Aaron's home-run record and Jason Giambi and the rest of the juicers who have marred this generation of the sport. But fans still turn out in droves.

Until fans begin to turn away from a sport because of such behavior (and where fans go, sponsors surely follow), "it's hard to imagine that any other competitive league can take advantage of this," Swangard said.

Still, there might be something there for the NHL to hang its lily-white Stetson on.

No other professional league has attacked new media with the fervor showed by the NHL. Internet, wireless, you name it, and the NHL is in it big time. That technologically savvy demographic, in many ways a new generation of sports consumers, might find the NHL's relatively blemish-free visage attractive, Swangard said.

While many fans might now view baseball or football or basketball as less "sport" and more entertainment, "at the same time, the notion of credibility and integrity is something that does resonate with people," Swangard said.

And that might play into the NHL's hands when people, especially those who might encounter the game through new technology, ask themselves, "Where do I want to put my loyalty?"

There is another, perhaps less rosy, way of looking at the situation. Another sports expert suggested the NHL is on such precarious ground as it relates to its profile in most of the United States that its clean slate as compared to the rest of the sporting club is all that separates it from irrelevance.

"The NHL is currently in the weakest position in terms of brand equity of the four premier sports leagues," said sports law professor Marc Edelman, who lectures at both Manhattanville College and Seton Hall University and has extensive ties to pro sports in America. "The NHL is on such thin ice, no pun intended, that given it is still not fully recovered from its lockout, a scandal like those [the other sports have experienced] might be a death sentence in terms of television coverage."

This third post-lockout season, which will begin in late September is "crucial," Edelman predicted, in terms of winning fans back across the NHL landscape.

Historically, it is the third season after a labor stoppage that determines the direction a sports league and its franchises are going to take. "It's the year in which the league is going to turn the corner, if at all," Edelman said. "If things do not turn positive this year, it is possible hockey will never be able to retain its brand equity in America."

In a perfect world, this summer of sporting cheats and dogbeaters would ensure that never would be an issue.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.