Like almost every sports league, the NHL suffers from an offseason problem: what can the league do to keep fans engaged between the playoffs and the next season opener? On top of that, coming out of two pandemic-hit seasons, the NHL needs to find a way to recoup some of the losses due to the lack of fans and the associated revenue streams. These losses are estimated to be in the billions of dollars, which means the clubs have had to take on debt that will need to be paid off.
The long and the short of it is this: the NHL needs to find a profitable way to engage fans through the offseason. Enter the hypothetical summer league.
How does the NBA Summer League work?
Since the mid-1980s, the NBA has run some form of a summer league, with differences in styles and structures. This year, the league is hosted in three cities with the main portion held over 10 days in Las Vegas. Each team plays five total games; the first four are a round-robin, with each game worth eight points, four for the winner, and one point for the winner of each quarter. The top two teams face off for the championship, while the other 28 teams get to play a final game.
This tournament is designed for teams to experiment, playing with rosters that they otherwise would not try during the regular season. Highlighting emerging talent is the goal—the tournament features recently drafted players and prospects but also includes unsigned players who are looking to earn a contract for the following year.
The objective of the tournament is not to win, although there is a championship trophy and MVP award, but rather to actually take theorized roster combinations and turn them into reality. Teams also work with their assistant coaches and others in the organization to give them a chance to run the team for a quarter or a game. Further, teams the chances to try entirely new coaches. The Los Angeles Clippers made history by having Natalie Nakase as one of the team’s assistant coaches for their 2014 Summer League team.
How would a summer league work for hockey?
Similar to the NBA, the NHL would host this like a hub over the course of a couple of weeks through the summer. It would be a great opportunity to showcase the game of hockey in a smaller market or a market that would be a destination for fans. While Vegas hosts the NBA’s league, a city like Los Angeles could do the same for hockey. A large destination city with multiple arenas, this would be an opportunity to help expand the game in California, which has been a key objective of the AHL. This would also be a ton of fun for both players and fans alike, able to take in the beach in the morning and a game in the afternoon.
This would be a dream to market and to see. Fans of each team would get to see their best prospects from around the world playing against the best from other teams. Imagine how the NHL could market battles like Hughes vs Hughes’ or the battle between Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield—the top two picks from the 2020 NHL Draft. Pair this with a huge fan zone around the arena(s) that are hosting the games along with multiple other games, like a charity alumni game or a rookie skills challenge and you have the makings of an incredible offseason event.
For fans at home, the NBA offers an all-access pass to catch all of the games live on TV. The NHL could do the same through NHL TV or one of their broadcast partners like ESPN or Rogers Sportsnet. This way, fans from across North America and around the world could tune in easily and be part of the show.
How the NHL can benefit from a summer league
The long and the short of it is the revenue opportunity would be huge for the NHL. As a league that generates over 70% of their revenue from in-person attendance, the NHL was hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Trying to generate some of that revenue back over time will be top of mind for the league and their teams.
The NBA has seen substantial increases in the number of fans who attend in person. From around 2500 initially, this has grown to 120,000 visitors in person over the five-day event in 2018. They also made $30 per person on the online streaming platform. This is an enormous amount of money that the NHL could be earning through this venture. On top of the money, this gives the league an opportunity to try new things with their teams and structures without having to risk dropping points in the regular season. This could include trying out a five-forward power play; a two-forward, three-defender structure at 5v5; or testing out prospects from different leagues on the same line. For Flames fans, this would include potentially trying a line of Jakob Pelletier, Connor Zary, and Matthew Coronato, or running a pairing of defensive defenceman Yan Kuznetsov with offensive defenceman Jeremie Poirier together.
This could also be a cool opportunity to try out new coaches or new coaching strategies. Teams like the Montreal Canadiens could give a coach like Alexandre Burrows a chance to see how he would do in a head coaching role without any real pressure. They could also bring in former stars who have taken on a coaching or executive role within the organization or elsewhere a chance behind the bench as part of the fanfare. Imagine how interesting a rivalry game between the New York Rangers and New York Islanders coached by Chris Drury for the Rangers and Mike Bossy for the Islanders would be.
It also gives the league a chance to showcase their more diverse side at an event like this. The NHL has taken strides to include more minorities in the game, but has often fallen short of the mark. This would present a real opportunity to try out female coaches or include more people of colour in meaningful ways at an event like this. Unlike the Chicago Blackhawks 2021 NHL Draft presentation which was blatant tokenism, this provides the league and teams a chance to include women to run an NHL bench and actively showcase their role in the game.
There is also an enormous upside for players, and in particular for the younger and more fringe players for whom this tournament would be. Younger prospects would get a chance to receive coaching from the NHL coaches that they may be working under in a few years’ time, and would have the chance to learn and be treated like a pro. And while a tournament like this would take time away from the specific skills that they may be spending time through the summer honing, the experience of an opportunity like this is invaluable for their development.
It also gives players outside of the league a chance to prove their worth at the NHL level. Players who have ended up overseas but want to work their way back to the NHL could use this opportunity to show that they can perform and earn themselves an NHL contract. Similar to how PTOs work, this would be a way that these players could show on the full NHL level that they can still make a difference for a team that signs them. Low-risk and high-reward for teams and players alike.
Hockey comes with more risks
As great as this all sounds, there are some drawbacks that will need to be addressed. The biggest one is the risk of injury to players, which was a major issue when John Tavares was hurt at the 2014 Olympics. While signed prospects will be playing for their clubs, and thus will be covered under insurance, this may be a bit complicated for unsigned players from an insurance standpoint. Part of this can be mitigated by limiting hitting and with everyone understanding that this tournament is for growth not for winning. Setting the right tone will be key to success.
On top of that, there are logistical and procedural impediments. It is tough to get players from around the world over to North America during the offseason for a tournament that takes them away from their training regiments. It may also be a tough sell to players to come out for a week of “fun for fans” but if the NHL pitches this as an opportunity to hone their on-ice skills with their new teams, this would make it much more appealing for them.
What does it all come down to?
This feels like a reasonably low-risk opportunity that benefits everyone involved. The NHL would earn back revenue and help establish itself as a year-round league. This would also benefit fans, who would not have to count down the days till hockey again in the summertime. The league further benefits from trying new things like alumni games, new styles of play and overtime, and including diverse voices to help grow the game.
Teams and players also get a chance to be involved in something cool. For teams, they can play with new combinations and see what the future could hold pairing players who play in other leagues together for the first time. Players get a chance to work with NHL coaches and with other prospects and young players to grow their game at the NHL level.
But the real winner here is the fans, who get to enjoy a week-long fan festival dedicated to hockey. Positioning it as a destination to go to over the summer would be a boost for the game in the city in which the event is held, as well as give fans a chance to see hockey in a new place and context. Fans at home can also follow along at a low cost and get a first look at their team’s future stars. With limited downside, and huge upside and revenue, the NHL should explore this opportunity further.
Bring on year-round hockey. For everyone’s sake.