I'll be honest with you, readers, I didn't think Hockey Day in America would land as well as it did, and I'm pretty pleased that your viewership figures and reactions via social media have proved me wrong.
Why was I cynical about the event? Well, because I live on the internet. It's a black hole of cynicism inside an infinite vacuum of snark. Hockey Day in America is another attempt by a network to "invent" something. NBC's Sam Flood came up with this idea, and collaborated on it with a couple of people from the league to make it a reality back in 2011. Sure, the Winter Classic has a similar origin story, but the idea behind that is simple: put two hockey teams in an outdoor setting in front of tons of people, and let it happen. It leaves all the work to the players themselves while the league cashes in.
Hockey Day in America is a more confusing prospect. Not only isn't something you have to start from scratch, but none of it really involves the games being played. Sure, they're a part of it too, but there was no real special aspect to the Kings-Blackhawks, Penguins-Sabres or Capitals-Rangers games on Sunday, other than being a part of this important block. NBC has to fill time themselves, and they have to fill time with a concept that some might meet with derision just upon hearing it: that hockey is deserving of it's own day in the United States. Lets face it, some might say, most of this country seems to reject hockey, so why bother?
Here's where NBC succeeds: Hockey Day in America is never Hockey Day in Canada. It's not a bunch of populist nostalgia porn intended to convince you that Canadians can't live without this silly game. NBC is the opposite. NBC does what the NHL often fails to do in it's own marketing events: convince you that hockey is awesome in parts of this country right now.
For example, very rarely was the Miracle on Ice team even mentioned on Sunday. NBC went to where hockey is beloved (those kids from north Jersey who held their own Winter Classic), where hockey is special (the excellent feature on Jack Jablonski), where hockey is needed (Ice Hockey in Harlem) and where hockey is even fun and a little goofy (even if I rolled my eyes, I still kind of liked that "Hockey Hair" bit). Most importantly, it where hockey is all of these things to all of these people in the present. That's why I think the outside portions of Hockey Day in America work. It's never exploitative, and it gives the viewer -- whether the casual hockey fan or the diehard -- a sense that they're part of something that is special, even tribal, and that it is happening right now, as you're watching it.
Okay, so there's my spiel about what's going right with Hockey Day, now let's throw some boldfaced ideas about how it can be improved by the time it's rolled out next year.
Hockey Day will likely need to be a week or two earlier next year, because as you all know (and was mentioned a lot by the broadcasters of the event on Sunday), the NHL will (probably) be shutting down for the Olympics in Sochi, Russia from Feb. 7-23. I know I said that the event is great because of the lack of forced Nostalgia, but... two weeks before an Olympic tournament, a chance to do this event at the place where the greatest Olympic victory ever for the United States in the Winter Games? Too good to pass up.
It's easy to make it fit the formula. Hold it at the rink, and show how the Miracle on Ice affected the area, and the many hockey players who come from upstate New York in general. You have, presumably, years and years to do this event in any number of NHL cities, but come on, I know it's not a round number anniversary (34) but it just seems like too obvious a way to lead into the pros eventual participation in the Sochi Games.
More Games, More Teams
I know NBC found it very encouraging that showing only one game got nearly the same rating that three received in the early timeslot last year. I hope, however, that NBC goes back to regional coverage in that 12:30 p.m. ET slot, just because I want to see more teams involved in this thing. Also... the Blues and Canucks played at 9 p.m. ET on Hockey Day, why not add another late game for NBC Sports Network to feature one of the California teams. In the three years we've seen the event, Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, St. Louis, New Jersey, as well as none of the teams from the Southeast nor Pacific Division has hosted a game on Hockey Day in America. Lets get everyone involved. I'll give you just a blueprint for how I'd do next year.
12:30 p.m. ET - Detroit vs. Dallas, Chicago vs. Washington, NY Rangers vs. Buffalo
3:30 p.m. ET - Minnesota vs. Pittsburgh (NBC)
6 p.m. ET - St. Louis vs. Boston (NBCSN)
9 p.m. ET - Philadelphia vs. Los Angeles (NBCSN)
Also, make the NBC and NBC Sports Network games the only show in town that day, unless there's a game between two Canadian teams. Why distract people in Boston and Dallas (who both played at the same time as Washington-NY Rangers) from the event?
Utilize the Host City Better
Wherever Hockey Day happens in 2014, let's agree to borrow something from Hockey Day in Canada and make it seem like more of a big deal in the host city. I loved the idea that NBC had analysts helping with youth clinics, why not spend the entire weekend doing that? Remember, technically, it's Hockey Weekend Across America too. Why not write some of it off as an attempt to do some charity work within the community, and continue to perpetuate the idea that hockey, as a grassroots sport, has never been better?
I really am quite pleased that Hockey Day in America has taken off. I remember when I interviewed Sam Flood in 2011 about this then-fledgling event, he wanted it to be "a love letter to hockey". I'm pretty convinced that the message has been received by hockey's hardcore fanbase, but I always think you can go a little bigger, and I'm certain everyone involved does too.