NHL Must Change Playoffs To Survive in Canada

Rarely does Vancouver see HOCKEY excitement in June anymore … but there it was … at the 2019 NHL draft: fans turned up in person or tuned in on television by the thousands to watch young athletes get their chance to become major stars … and multi-millionaires.

It was great for Vancouver, as hosts, too: estimates are the draft contributed between $8 million to $10 million to the local economy.

And remember, the NHL is as much a business as a sports body … maybe more.

So with that in mind … let’s keep it real: the NUMBERS … for the NHL in Canada … are a disaster these days during the Playoffs.

The Hockey News reported that, after all the Canadian teams were eliminated, the TV ratings over the first five days of the Playoffs in April averaged only 513,000 viewers!

That was DOWN 61% from the previous year.

Holy Hockey, Puckman!

For hockey playoffs! Viewed in Canada! That’s dismal!

You can read the whole, alarming details by writer Ken Campbell yourself: https://thehockeynews.com/news/article/playoff-tv-ratings-down-a-shocking-61-percent-in-canada.

Others are also sounding the alarm.

“With no Canadian teams left and light on star power, a cooking show in Canada is drawing bigger numbers than this year’s NHL playoffs,” reported Macleans Magazine in May.


“After nearly three decades of American teams winning the Cup, things are so dire that 62 per cent of Canadian hockey fans said they’d support any Canadian team to win Lord Stanley’s Cup, once theirs was eliminated, according to a recent Angus Reid Institute poll” wrote Aaron Hutchins.

And I put it to you that, with Canada’s changing demographics, with so much more competition for viewers’ attention … and without MAJOR changes to the NHL Playoffs system … hockey will continue its downward spiral in Canada.

“For comparison, the NHL’s demographics are 92% white and 64% of their fans are over 35. These stats are not encouraging for a league that is struggling to diversify and reach viewership ratings in Canada, of all places,” noted Montreal Blogger Teddy Elliot in May.

He was right on: https://www.mtlblog.com/news/canada/basketball-is-officially-overtaking-hockey-as-canadas-favourite-sport.

And the NHL brass and owners are to blame.

The NHL is becoming an American league, with mostly American teams, American owners, an American Commissioner … all of which seem to me to cater to American TV viewers to attract American bucks.

And Canada is less and less relevant.

As a BUSINESS, we’re now seeing HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS in lost advertising/sponsorship/local business/tourism revenues and opportunities in Canada …. impacting not only our national pride, our historical attachment to the sport, hockey as an integral part of our culture, and also an important component in Canadian jobs, especially in arenas, restaurants, bars, tourism, broadcasting.

But there’s actually a fairly easy solution.

In fact, I was ahead of my time: I noticed the declining interest in Canada and recommended Playoffs-saving changes THREE years ago… http://harveyoberfeld.ca/blog/nhl-needs-a-playoff-system-that-includes-canada/.

The NHL’s teams are already divided into several league/division categories. Yet, with skillful scheduling, fans all over North America get to see a very wide variety of teams from outside their own local conference or division.

And some of those games draw the highest interest and ratings … both in fan attendance and TV ratings.

To save the NHL in Canada … long-term … the League MUST adopt a new playoff system to ensure that, in the FINALS, the TOP American NHL team each season will face the TOP Canadian NHL team!

That’s what hockey fans throughout North America really want to see!

Yet, with so many more American teams in the NHL these days, Canada has been pushed further and further out of contention.

As I wrote in 2016, the problem would … and has … continued to get even worse and I’ll say it again: the NHL Playoffs system MUST be changed.

What greater proof do we need of that than the recent EXCITING nation-wide support and TV RATINGS of the Toronto Raptors.

An amazing 15.9 MILLION Canadians reportedly watched some or all of the Toronto/Oakland NBA series … including 7.7 MILLION Canadians who watched the final game and 10 MILLION Canadians who were tuned in for the last 10 minutes of the game

And it’s a lot easier and cheaper for parents and aspiring young sports fans to take up and get involved in basketball as a winter sport than hockey.

The NHL brass, owners, sponsors in Canada had better wake up and change their Playoffs system to ensure a Canadian/US matchup … right through the Finals.

Before hockey becomes just another Canadian export.

Harv Oberfeld

(Reminder: You can get First Alerts of all new postings on this BC-based Blog by following @harveyoberfeld on Twitter. No spam … just First Alerts of new postings of interest Canada-wide.)

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12 Responses to NHL Must Change Playoffs To Survive in Canada

  1. G. Barry Stewart says:

    At last: a thread where we don’t have to mention governments, oil, or racism!

    My meanderings:

    The numbers for this year’s Cup final may also have been hampered by the shift in interest to the Raptors’ final, though they weren’t playing on the same nights.

    Numbers would have been even worse, though, if it had been something like a Florida-Arizona final. Can you imagine?

    I suspect that many Toronto and Vancouver fans who did watch the Cup final were motivated by their dislike of Boston, especially Brad Marchand. (I was in that camp.)

    I like the Canada vs USA idea — but the numbers are skewed against it. U.S. team owners would be against losing a chance at the gravy train. As well, Canadian teams would be done their playdowns well before the Americans. (Or are you saying “skip the playoffs and just get the two countries’ teams with the best season record.”? That surely wouldn’t fly… unless the regular season were made longer for all.)

    PVRs have certainly changed my viewing of sports and most shows. If the majority of viewers are like me, advertising is rarely viewed. It’s a waste of sponsors’ money. Like the newspaper industry, television (and sports teams) will have to find new ways to stay alive.

    (Response: I agree some US team matchups are just too boring to watch…. and judging by all the empty seats and/or lousy TV ratings, many agree with me. When I first began wintering in the south, I would watch ANY hockey game … just to “feel” a link to home: not any more. Too many of them … played in almost empty arenas … with lousy play by play announcers and/or biased/fawning “colour” commentators just turned me off … so I turned them off. Now I have evolved: I watch ANY US team playing ANY Canadian team … ALWAYS rooting for the Canadian team … and, occasionally, I’ll still watch US teams compete, but just the best few. h.o)

  2. Gene The Bean says:

    I hear what you are saying but cant ever see that happening. Like so many other things – making money is the ONLY think some folks care about. It is the only think the NHL cares about – just need to look at how they handled the concussion issue to see that.

    If there was an equal representation of teams I’d like it but with 3/4 of the teams in the Excited States of Trumpistan I don’t see it happening. Like the sentiment though……

    I find all sports are going through a tough spell. Being involved in minor sports for half my life I am seeing a dramatic drop in participation, especially in contact sports. Every single park in East Van in my day had a football team. Now I’d bet there are only a couple.

    I don’t think parents will make the time like ours did and I also think parents now do not see value to athletics. Athletics was doomed when they made PE an option as opposed to mandatory in the 80’s. Hence the high rates of obesity and general poor health in people now-a-days.

    When I was involved in interviewing and hiring I always wanted to hear about people’s athletic interests. Sports and outside activities make you a much more well rounded person and teach you thinks like working together for common goals and teamwork. Unfortunately kids these days are so mollycoddled that they’ll fold in the first tough situation they are put in. Don’t get me wrong, I have big hopes and dreams for the next generation but they are a little soft and squishy.

    The demographics you quote are probably right on. White and old is a dying demographic and one that has outlived its usefulness anyways. Even in my small part of the world there are some folks starting up Aussie Rules Football and Cricket – I think that’s great.

    Hockey will always be Canada’s game but we wont dominate as other countries put far more emphasis on health and fitness than we do. The number of Swedes and Finn’s in the NHL astounds me for such small countries.

    I actually don’t pay much attention to TV ratings. Once the bar is empty and they are playing music instead of showing ‘the game’ – then we know the apocalypse is coming.

    (Response: The Americans haven’t stolen our game: the Canadian billionaire owners SOLD it off. I get it: the NHL is a business, BUT in expanding to the US market (24 teams are now American, only 7 Canadian) they should have re-designed the Playoffs to retain the Canada/US rivalry and market value. Judging by all the empty seats in so many US cities, the NHL could end up long term LOSING …. on both sides of the border. h.o)

  3. Art Smith says:

    Hi Harvey, although I myself am not a big hockey fan any more, I used to be and I always thought a strictly Canadian division would be a winner. We currently have 7 teams which could be expanded to 8 with Quebec city, 4 teams in the east and 4 in the west. The scheduling and what not might be a bit of a challenge because people still want to see the original 6 teams but that could be worked out. The finals could be arranged similar to the World Series with at least 1 Canadian team included as they do with the American and National leagues in baseball.
    I don’t imagine it will ever happen in our lifetime, but it would be fun to see.

    (Response: I like seeing Canadian teams playing US teams and would not want just Canadian rivalries … and there are enough games all season for a pretty good international mix. But really, who cares up north … or for that matter, in most US cities/states when, eg., San Jose plays Tampa. Intermixing the teams during the regular season brings MAJOR teams to MINOR cities ,which is good …but when it comes down to the Finals, the NHL is dreaming if it thinks Canadians …. especially millennials and beyond …. will keep watching if they continue to water down the league with more and more US teams and make it less and less likely that Canadian teams will be in any Finals. h.o)

  4. Rainclouds says:

    Interesting theory,

    Using your NBA example the US viewership for the finals was an all time low.

    The Canada VS US sports rivalry viewer bonanza seems to be only north of the border. (Not to mention this is the first time a non American NBA team was in the finals, and only ONE NBA team in this country so yes we all rallied around the Raps, who were almost entirely American.)

    With respect to Hockey. 7 Canuck teams so fractured allegiance. Once their team is out, TV goes off

    The best change they could make? the playoffs to be done by early May while the weather is still iffy. Otherwise the lawn needs mowing, cottage opened, boat in the water. Unlike most of the US we suffer a long miserable winter.

    Can/US division? I would hate to go back to the days when St Louis was cannon fodder for the powerhouses and got wiped out in 4 games.(Not the best team but by dint of the screwy playoff setup got to the final anyway)

    This years NHL playoff was actually really exciting and close. BTW St Louis had more canucks than the other teams so Canada did win! I was also glad to see a city that has supported their team for 50 yrs finally get their reward.

    The best teams should always be there at the end . Fans aren’t idiots and likely wouldn’t support a nationalistic playoff scenario putting country ahead of team with more skill and ability. Viewership would tank.

    (Response: Agree that earlier playoffs would be better …but the problem is there are no so many teams it takes a lot more games just to get to the playoffs and then whittle them down … and time makes money in broadcasting, advertising for the league/owners. As for the NBA ratings, basketball has been historically an American game (despite its invention in Canada) … so understandably Toronto/Oakland would not draw viewers the way Chicago or New York or L.A or Atlanta would. But hockey is Canadian … and even American hockey fans know that ..and although an Ottawa/Winnipeg finals would not appeal to them … I’d bet a Canada/US finals… especially involving a MAJOR US team (Boston, Chicago, New York) would … on BOTH sides of the border. h.o)

  5. SB says:

    The NHL only caters to dollars as soon as they got Rogers money Canada could go to hell, they play politics with cities like Calgary pushing for public funded arenas where’s the wall street whiz Bettman showing up to manage a private solution?
    And until it costs him enough he won’t bother to worry about Canada or it’s fans , wants big USA markets to win so he can get better tv deals in USA where hockey in most markets gets less press than college level athletics of any sort .
    Until Bettmans gone we will never see a cup won in Canada .

    (Response: I don’t blame Bettman: I blame the OWNERS who have directed or have gone along with policies/expansions that have put many teams in cities where hockey is not as natural a fit as almost anywhere in Canada, so empty seats and a distinct lack of public interest prevail. And as the NHL struggles to make hockey work where it won’t … they’re clearly losing out on lucrative potential in Canada … and the lousy ratings during the Playoffs in Canada should show them a radical restructuring is needed NOW …before it is too late. Once they have lost the younger sports fans north of the border, it will be VERY hard … maybe impossible … to get them back. h.o)

  6. DBW says:

    Harvey, you are confusing international hockey with NHL hockey.

    Whether World Juniors, Canada Cups or the Olympics, we can cheer our Canadian boys (even the hated Brad Marchand) as we take on the Russians, Swedes, and Americans. Get mad at the NHL for taking away the Olympics.

    But a team representing a Canadian city playing a team representing an American city is not the same thing. For 20 years, the Canucks were led by the Sedins. For the next 20 years they could be led by Pettersson, another Swede, and the Russian they just drafted. Hoping for a Canadian city based on some nationalistic reasoning seems silly when those cities are represented by an ever increasing number of foreign born players.

    Look at this past weekend’s draft which was dominated by American born players.

    Canada may need to do something about developing more players and retaining its fan base but giving a Canadian team a participation medal and a free pass to the Stanley Cup final is not the way to do it.

    (Response: There’s no confusion at all. In sports ..ANY sport … competition between countries ALWAYS stirs up greater international fan interest than when just two teams from one area play each other. The NHL is an INTERNATIONAL league, and its playoffs should be too … after the best team in Canada and the best team in the US are determined each year. That would bring much more interest, viewers ..and revenues … from real hockey fans in both countries. Any finals between two US cities or two Canadian cities is just not good enough anymore draw top TV ratings on the other side of the border …and really, that’s what it’s all about. h.o0

  7. Richard Skelly says:

    Of the 16 teams making the first round of this year’s NHL playoffs, eventual Stanley Cup winning St. Louis Blues had the most Canadian players. (Thirteen Canadians and a fourteenth who was born in Winnipeg but raised in Europe.)

    Once the three Canadian-based teams were eliminated in that first round, I turned to my wife and said: “Now we are all Blues.”

    I say keep the playoffs as they are. The matchups are easy to understand. Upsets are not uncommon. The fact I may go to my grave without seeing the Vancouver Canucks ever hoist a Stanley Cup is just the luck of the puck.

    (Response: When Canadian teams are outnumbered by American teams 24 to 7 … the odds are not exactly fair. And trying to feel better by counting the number of Canadians on the US teams clearly isn’t bringing in the Canadian TV ratings for the Finals. The NHL had better address the decline before Saturday’s become Basketball Night in Canada. h.o.)

  8. e.a.f. says:

    What was once a game is now big business/corporations, who like to be subsidized by local governments for their place of business. If we don’t have “professional” hockey as we currently have it, I would not be unhappy. It doesn’t affect my life, unless of course they want my taxes to build another monsterous arena.]
    Hockey is a business where millionaires work for billionaires and working people pay hundreds of dollars to go watch the ‘game’. All the money could be put to better use. Yes, it money goes into the economy, but really, people spending hundreds of dollars on tickets and booze, they might want to pay off their bills or save for a house.

    As to move equitable sectors, don’t hold your breath. they are structured in the current manner because it benefits the Americans and those who are making all the money. Not much will change if it doesn’t benefit the Americans.

    (Response: Funny how the NHL owners seem to make decisions based solely on bucks and their own bottom lines … until they want tax breaks, subsidies, even free or discounted land to build their arenas: then, they play the “community” card. And far too often they get HUGE public subsidies, freebies. Too bad in return they don’t share their profits with the “community” too. h.o)

  9. Ron says:

    Haven’t commented in a while and feel I need to on this topic.
    I made the prediction back in 1993 that Canada would never hoist another cup when Bettman became head honcho and have been proven right. I hated Bettman when he was NBA commish and when he came to the NHL I knew the writing was on the wall for the demise of any Canadian team in the finals, simple math.
    Bettman is solely a money/business owner guy and definitely not in there because he loves this game, never was fair to the players even in the NBA. He had nothing to do with hockey before becoming commissioner .
    Just have a look at his history (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Bettman), everything that could be done to take teams away from Canada he backed, even if the moves were to dismal Sun Belt climes where the ice at a June hockey game would make the puck bounce more than a basketball.
    We will never see another Cup in Canada with Bettman at the helm! Bettman’s handlers wouldn’t allow it, not enough money in it, and it’s all about the money.
    I rarely watch the game anymore except the playoffs because most players only stay with a team for 3 years at most (except marquee players). No chance to get behind them when the faces change so much.
    I personally can’t stand the owner of the Canucks because of the slimy way he wrested control of them, behind the scenes, causing a court case. I would rather have had the other bidder, Beedie Group own the Canucks, less shady history.
    I do follow the players I like even when they go to other teams, but only fleetingly.
    The game has also gotten shady in the obvious bad calls which opens the door to collusion, imo. All sports seem to gravitate toward the calls making the game and most calls that make the game are dubious. I personally would vote to get rid of refs in all sports and have the cameras make the calls. All important calls go to video anyway. It would be so easy to make a puck and goal line-posts with GPS to have no iffy non-goals, but why hasn’t there. A laser-magnetic field and material in puck to prove it passed the line. Anything to get the game wrested from the always fallible refs.
    But that will never happen because then the owners can’t control the outcome, again imo.

    (Response: As I said in another comment, I don’t blame Bettman: he’s working for the owners; doing what the owners want; they’re the ones who, in my view, have turned the NHL into an American league, pursuing an American business model; trying to build/expand their American base; to attract American fans; to appeal to American TV networks and American TV viewers. With 24 American teams and only 7 in Canada (I’d bet Quebec City and Hamilton would draw better crowds than the Florida Panthers or New York Islanders or Arizona Coyotes) the deck is stacked against Canadian teams and Canadian cities … and the TV ratings in Canada, especially in the Playoffs will continue to decline unless the NHL changes the Playoffs setup to a true international Finals. h.o)

  10. Ron says:

    Another item speaks to Harvey’s call to owners crying to taxpayers to help build their arenas.
    Just look to Murray Edwards, part owner of the Calgary Flames. He is majority shareholder of Imperial Metals (https://globalnews.ca/news/4415453/mount-polley-tailing-pond-disaster/), that still hasn’t been charged with anything related to the Mount Polley mine dam breach disaster, Canada’s worst in history.
    He immediately left Canada for the UK to make it harder to extradite him because even he thought he would be charged criminally.
    And now he sits in the UK, not paying his fair share of taxes and wanting Canadians to buck up to build his team an arena. How low can you go?

  11. Gene The Bean says:

    Ron, like I mention here all the time, the 1%ers do not care about anything except money, power and influence. Edwards bought off any responsibility for Mt Polley with political donations. His demands for taxpayer money for a Calgary NHL arena was laughable.

    I hear allegedly normal people all the time rail on about how they don’t want their tax dollars to go to welfare bums and little do they realize corporate welfare is a hundred times more expensive.

    I’d rather some single mom and three kids get taxpayer assistance rather than some millionaire NHL owner.

  12. e.a.f. says:

    Gene the Bean, oh I am so there with you on welfare for corporate bums. Better the needy than the millionaires and billionaires. Canadians need to smarten up. this isn’t our national game any more its a corporate game, to make a select few think that they’re important and can “own” a team or people. Its how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

    If people enjoy hockey, go out and support the local kids teams. There are all sorts of adult and kid teams which play at local arenas. They may not have the skill of the professionals, but the have the heart and I’m sure a lot of them would love to have more people come out and cheer them on. You can spend money on pop and food at the local arena which usually goes back into the community. You’ll save a lot of money and be able to afford to take the whole family and spend time with them.

    I too am tired of sports billionaires asking for money to make a city “world class”. Voters and politicians buy into the hype and lies, but really it doesn’t make a city “world” class just because they have a bunch of world class athletes working there part time for millions.

    If you do a deep dive on some of these team owners, there is nothing “world class” about them. being rich does not make you well mannered, ethically, moral, etc. It just makes you have money. We need to look no further than the local Canuk owner, his farm labourers were not well paid and then we have the American team owner of something caught in a massage parlour by the FBI.

    Next time a team owner comes and asks for tax dollars, some of the kids ought to come to talk to the politicians also about their cut. They are our future

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