NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus drew hockey fans’ wrath Tuesday when he suggested the NHL consider banning players from growing playoff beards to make them and the game more marketable. Lazarus picked the wrong target, but his message – more must be done to see the sport – is absolutely correct.
Okay, we’re all pretty much agreed NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus was wrong to lobby the NHL to ban players from growing playoff beards. They’re here to stay for more than one reason. It’s clear the grand majority of NHL fans love them. In a more environment-conscious society, it’s admirable to see guys like Brent Burns construct entire alternative fulLy functional ecosystems using only his face, sunlight and the passage of time. In a world where we need comedy now more than ever, there’s Jonathan Toews’ “beard”. They’re not going anywhere.
For all the likelihood of it happening, Lazarus may as well have been asking for protective cups to be banned while he was trying to go Full Lamoriello on the grooming habits of NHL Players’ Association members. But when you consider the TV executive’s underlying message – that the league, the game and its players must take greater efforts to maximize their marketability – isn’t to be mocked at all. Lazarus is doing the NHL a service by trying to shake the tree and wake people up to a problem, because hockey at its highest level too often strives for a homogeneity that threatens its place in the pro sports pecking order.
The playoff beard tradition isn’t all that much of a tradition, as Lazarus noted; it began with the 1980s-era New York Islanders Stanley Cup-winning teams, but didn’t fully catch on for many years after that. Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers never looked like they were auditioning to be Rip Van Winkle when they were winning championships. But again, if everyone has come to adore the notion of a razor-free Cup tournament, so be it.
However, if you’re drawing a line in the sand at hockey beards and making it clear you’re not even willing to consider a change to this relatively new tradition, ask yourself this: what parts of the NHL are you willing to consider a change for? Slightly bigger nets? Is that another absolute no-no you won’t abide? And what about advertisements on player jerseys? Is that a personal point of no return for you? What about a serious attempt at modernizing officiating with a massive increase in the use of video replay? Is that when you throw up your hands and walk away from watching the game?
You see the point here, right? I’m not suggesting all of the aforementioned potential changes be implemented. But if the number of hills you’re prepared to die on makes the Himalayas look like Saskatchewan, maybe the issue is you and your inflexibility and not people like Lazarus who have the ultimate goal of getting more people watching the sport.
If Safe is Death as a hockey strategy, the same goes in regard to business. There’s a reason products in virtually every industry known to man are constantly attempting to evolve. If you don’t change with the times, you don’t get many more times to change. And in many regards, the NHL hasn’t changed enough to compete in the modern entertainment industry. Players and media continue a Kabuki Theatre of passive-aggressive thrust-and-parry that usually results in the journalism equivalent of Muzak. Virtually every night, there is a Cirque du Snoré of endless hackneyed surface analysis, an unspoken contest to see which players can use the most syllables to say the least. Is that an area where players are willing to change? Knowing that they might be making more hockey fans (and putting more money in their pockets), can they show a little more emotion and care a little less about winding up on the opposition’s dressing room message board as the author of a quote that indicates they’re an actual human being and not a magic 8-ball of cliches?
This is the subtext of Lazarus’ discussion about playoff beards. There is sameness all around us. Hockey arenas are for the most part as cookie-cutter as our cities and their strip-mall, big-box-store suburbs have become. The NHL’s salary cap seeks to make teams as similar as possible. Players are instructed and encouraged to remain stone-faced and businesslike after scoring goals. Anyone who displays the slightest hint of personality is relentlessly condemned as a selfish egotist and self-promoter until they surrender and start reciting the same tired turns-of-phrase everyone else does.
Why would a young kid who could be playing a video-game that’s an all-out assault on the senses, or who could be taking advantage of the numerous new sports and recreation alternatives in existence, choose hockey as the place in which to invest their eyeballs, emotions and disposable income when the joy is so systemically flushed out of it? The answer: they wouldn’t. If hockey is determined to stay static as a product, growth in the game will be static. This is why it’s so crucial to reach out to new cultures, to do better at reaching women as consumers and fans, to explore new options both on the technological front and the content end.
If the game is to grow, change is inevitable and not nearly as negative as many would have you believe. So yes, Lazarus picked the wrong target when he focused on playoff beards. But his intent is admirable, and if we can stop piledriving his one particular notion into the ground, we’d see he’s got a point.