In a league desperately seeking rivalries, new fans and a way to appease traditionalists who are afraid their baby is growing up too fast, long-term player contracts aren’t such a bad concept.
The key to a rivalry is familiarity among its competitors. And with players signing long-term deals, not only do the fans become more familiar with each other, but the players do, as well – although, as we painfully discovered, playing the same team every week gets very boring, very quickly. So why are long-term contracts better?
If Alex Ovechkin and Mike Richards were involved with each other in a big hit or a tussle along the boards this season, the blueprint would be set for a new rivalry. Both are on young, promising teams and both will be representing their cities for more than a decade, so they are bound to compete in high-pressure games or a grueling playoff series.
Not all players will be handed decade-long deals, of course, but if your captain has a score to settle with the other team’s best player, you had better believe there’s a heightened sense of urgency in the dressing room and in the media.
If, say, Detroit and Colorado inked Henrik Zetterberg and Paul Stastny to long terms, an old rivalry could be rehashed with one big goal. Or if Phoenix and Los Angeles kept Peter Mueller and Anze Kopitar around for most of their NHL careers, new rivalries could be born on budding teams in weak markets.
How about if Henrik Lundqvist re-upped with the Rangers for 12 years? A generation of the battle of New York would be defined by two netminders.
The key to attracting new fans is to get them attached to someone, or something. Any new Washington Capitals fans will align themselves with the dynamic Alex Ovechkin, giving them a reason to tune in or go out and buy a jersey.
This is also a huge plus for the owners. New fans mean new revenues and having a young star sign to play basically his entire career in one of the NHL’s weaker markets means he’ll be attached to that city longer than any NFL, NBA or MLB player. The league would be wise to get Ovie’s excited smile out there as much as possible.
Again, if Rick Nash, Eric Staal and Vincent Lecavalier stayed in Columbus, Carolina and Tampa Bay – all non-traditional hockey markets – for the long term, it would be hard for a curious sports fan not to at least give them a chance. No matter where you are, new fans are more likely to ally themselves with a sport if they know who plays for what team.
And for those traditionalists, well, it used to be commonplace for a player to spend most, if not all, their careers in one city, so, in a way, the game is going back to its roots by committing to players at a young age.
Ken Campbell mentioned in his analysis of the Alex Ovechkin deal, the league will likely seek to limit the length of terms allowed on contracts.
But if they are serious about creating rivalries and marketing the game to new fans, I would argue the league should promote this sort of move.
While these types of deals have yet to be proven as a viable option for most teams and shouldn’t be made in the name of creating a rivalry, if a GM believes he has a young stud who’ll be good for years, it might be a good idea to lock a franchise player into a fixed wage in a league with an ever-escalating salary cap.
Because, boy, does that Rick DiPietro deal – which received so much flak at the time – look really good right now.
This is a golden opportunity for the NHL to distinguish itself from the other major pro sports leagues by having the players who drive fan interest come out looking like they’re more interested in staying with one team than looking for the most money.
Rory Boylen is THN.com's web content specialist. His blog appears Thursdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.