The NHL Streak We Almost Missed
It’s hard to believe that the NHL season is already more than half over. Well maybe it’s not that hard to believe since the 2013 season is only 48 games. What might be harder to believe is that the Chicago Blackhawks went the entire first half of the season without a regulation loss.
Now I’ll admit I said the NHL should have just canceled this season due to the lockout and I’ve never been more relieved to be wrong. As a die-hard Blackhawks fan, watching the streak unfold was exciting. But the streak was more than just 24 straight games to start a season with a point. The streak might have saved the NHL.
Trying to recover from a strike is never easy. It hurt the NHL back in 2004 and we still don’t know what ramifications it had in the 2013 season. However, the Blackhawks’ record-setting streak got the country talking about hockey much more than we probably would have. ESPN started featuring Blackhawk highlights early in SportsCenter, bringing on analyst Barry Melrose on more than he’s probably ever been on the show before. The NHL streak was a talking point other than the lockout ending.
Yes, it was tough to see the streak end against the Colorado Avalanche, but what a start to the season. If you look at the numbers the Blackhawks posted during the streak they are remarkable. They only lost three games and all three losses were in a shootout – they never even lost during the five-minute overtime period.
The Blackhawks earned 45 out of a possible 48 points and averaged 3.25 goals a game while giving up just an average of 1.92 goals per game. They stayed hot despite being on the road for a good majority of the first part of the season. The Hawks were on the road for 10 of their first 12 games and had to open the season against Los Angeles, the reigning Stanley Cup champs.
Although the streak ended, the accolades have not. On Tuesday Sports Illustrated put the Blackhawks on the cover of the magazine. That’s a big deal normally, but a huge deal if you think about this fact: Barstool Sports reports that in the past 11 years Sports Illustrated has put hockey on the cover just 15 times. Three of those times were a special story and the other 12 covered Stanley Cup champions. So for the first time in years Sports Illustrated put regular season hockey on the cover – remarkable!
It’s not like Sports Illustrated is lacking sports stories either. The Heat’s winning streak is still going strong, spring training is under way and the NCAA Tournament is about to get underway. For hockey fans and the NHL, this victory might be bigger than any one of the Blackhawks’ during their streak.
The story, which I highly recommend reading, talks about how the Blackhawks are the franchise that is bringing hockey back. The team is composed of young superstars, popular veterans and physical goons. They are fun to watch no matter where you live and always excite. Behind Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane the Hawks are poised to be popular and atop the NHL standings for years to come.
But if you’re outside Chicago what’s happening in the Windy City is still affecting you. The media’s attention of the NHL is positive and the lockout seems to be an after thought. Besides ESPN or Sports Illustrated, more people are talking about the NHL. It’s on blogs, web sites and news networks that normally don’t talk about sports at length. Hockey needed to pick itself up and distance itself from the lockout and it looks like they are doing just that.
That helps the entire league, not just Chicago. Attendance across the NHL was up the first week of the season over last year as fans were excited to have hockey back. Opening weekend scored a 2.0 overnight rating on NBC Sports, the highest rating for a non-Winter Classic game in a decade. There were 13 sellouts opening weekend and the fans have continued to come to the games now that we are a couple months in. All in all this might be a best-case scenario for the NHL following the lockout.
Following the 2004-05 lockout all the arenas had “Thank You Fans” on the ice along the blue line. That was great then but after the 2012-13 lockout the NHL needed to do more, and the teams responded.
In Buffalo, fans were able to meet coaches and players before a game against Pittsburgh. The Canadians gave every fan a free beer in the team’s first game back from the lockout – you’ll have a lot of happy fans with free beer. The Blackhawks are raffling off signed jerseys, pucks and sticks at noon before every game.
Many teams are having special autograph sessions and open practices to give fans more access. Clubs are also making sure season ticket holders are appreciated with free concessions and discounts on merchandise. While most of the deals were only for the first couple of home games, it was a great gesture by the clubs.
The Avalanche sold their home opener as buy-one-get-one-free and waived all fees for the entire season during the first 48 hours that single-game tickets were on sale. Several other teams also waived their fees or have deep discounts on tickets this year.
Did the lockout hurt the NHL? Definitely. But through the first half, the NHL is doing everything it can to repair its image. The streak and media coverage has helped and it will be interesting to see how the second half of this shortened season plays out. A couple months ago I said the NHL should just scrap the season – I think everyone is glad I was wrong.
Mike Zoller is a contributor for Porchdrinking.com. He works full-time in the Northwestern University Athletic Department. Follow him on Twitter @mikezoller.