The NHL Is Old AF

A new report on aging audiences for televised sports provides more proof that the National Hockey League has a problem.

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Jun 8 2017, 4:19pm

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

A man of nearly 50 years of age stands on a street corner. He appears confused. He reaches into his pocket—perhaps to retrieve a smartphone that could direct him to his destination? No, he instead pulls out a flip phone that lacks web access. He unzips a fluorescent fanny pack and puts the phone away, seemingly defeated by his situation.

A young woman, having observed this scene from her hoverboard, approaches the man. "You look lost," she says, her fingers deftly controlling a fidget spinner. "Can I help you get where you are going?"

"Could you tell me where to find the nearest pay phone?"

The woman takes out her iPhone to search for "pay phone" and realizes he's talking about an ancient glass booth that anyone could use for 25 cents. "We don't have those around here anymore," she says sheepishly.

The man's face blanches. "Oh no," he mutters, "time has finally passed me by."

That's when the young woman realizes what stands before her: it's the NHL.

"I'm afraid I can't help you," she says before gliding away. "That fanny pack is lit, though."

Ken Linesman, Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky watch a game

"Hello fellow kids!" Photo by Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL is the combed-over, spray-tanned, middle-aged man at the club busting out the moonwalk to impress the kids. He's crammed himself into skinny jeans, but no matter how hard he tries, he can't escape the forward march of time.

The NHL is for olds, plain and simple, and if nothing changes it's going to stay that way until it folds due to the average fan no longer being able stay awake for all three periods of a 7 PM game.

Sports Business Daily published a report this week looking at the television audiences for 25 major sports, and it turns out the NHL has some of the world's most rapidly aging fans. The median age for an NHL fan in 2016 was 49. In 2000, it was 33, which means the average NHL fan aged 16 years over those 16 years, which means there aren't any new fans coming through the turnstiles. (Only wrestling fans had their median age go up by more—by 26 years, to age 54—but that's a scripted show involving fake violence. If Law & Order wasn't a sport, then neither is wrestling.)

To put it another way, the average NHL fan has morphed from Kate McKinnon to Paul Giamatti.

This doesn't happen by accident.

Combine the league's lack of a forward-thinking attitude with its inability or refusal to market players over teams, add in the fact that owners have locked out players twice over the 16 years that study took place, and here we are. The NHL's insular nature is killing it from the inside.

The SBJ report notes that almost all sports are seeing their TV audiences age thanks to trends among young people like "cord-cutting" and "being interested in other things," but there's a reason the NHL is having more trouble. If you want insight into how the league views youth, individualism, and fun in general, look no further than P.K. Subban.

PK Subban

Subban is a fun player to watch. Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Nashville Predators' victory in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, Subban was asked about his heated postgame conversation with Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. There they were, the two biggest stars on the sport's biggest stage, exchanging words following a win that pulled the Predators to within 2-1 in the series, and now Subban was being interviewed live on television.

When asked what happened, Subban said that Crosby told him he had bad breath. That's impossible, Subban reasoned, because he uses Listerine to keep his breath fresh. It was almost perfect, as it involved playful humor and Subban made himself the object of the joke.

Fans laughed, presumably, because it was funny. And here was an opportunity for the NHL and everyone covering the series to have fun with a story that involved two of the league's marquee players and it didn't involve concussions or anything controversial. It was such a big deal that Subban was seen carrying Listerine bottles into Bridgestone Arena for Game 4 two days later.

At the very least, it was harmless side story; at the very most, it was the type of story that could break down the walls the NHL puts up around its sport. If you were only vaguely aware of the NBA and heard that Kevin Durant and LeBron James were involved in a bad-breath controversy, you'd check that out, right?

Who could be upset about this story? Well, TSN analyst Ray Ferraro tweeted that the story seemed "lazy" and "easy to write and report about," as if the ease with which a story could be told somehow inherently made it bad. He said there was "so much more going on" after that game, as if there could ever be too many stories for the media horde to cover. He was not alone.

The other stories that Ferraro felt were more important probably had to do with the Penguins' ragged defense, the resurgent Pekka Rinne in net for the Predators, the problems caused by the absence of Nick Bonino, and how having the last line change helped the Predators gain an advantage over the Penguins that was lacking in Games 1 and 2.

And these are important stories, but some people seem to forget that the tried-and-true characteristics "old-school" fans enjoy—toughness, grit, team-oriented players pursuing a single goal—can exist in harmony with players like Subban who thrive in the spotlight and are tremendous ambassadors for the sport, becoming major draws for new fans.

Ferraro, as you might have guessed, is north of 50 years old, and while his lack of interest in a bad breath story may represent many of the sport's older fans, that's not the main problem here. It's the NHL's refusal to change the game to make it more fan-friendly that does more damage than anything else.

The league's competition committee—a group of current players, ex-players, league executives, and coaches—decided this week that only two things need to change to make the sport better: no more timeouts after icings, and some other thing that changes the location of face-offs on power plays or whatever.

Just imagine the old man with the fanny pack selling the young woman on hockey.

"Well, if you don't see why a flip phone is great, what if I told you about this low-scoring sport that shuns fun but, to make it better on the ice, we tweaked a rule that moves the location of face-offs into the neutral zone to better foster a—hey, where are you going?"

"The NBA has super teams and personalities, so I'm going over there."

(The average age of an NBA television viewer in 2016, for what it's worth, was a relatively youthful 42.)

The NHL is behind the times in other ways that harm the league. Take concussions. Commissioner Gary Bettman still does his best shrug emoji impression on that matter, and it was just Wednesday when Calgary Flames president Brian Burke said, "If you don't want to get a concussion, take up swimming."

Burke is as progressive a sports executive as you'll find when it comes to certain issues, like pushing for hockey to be more LGBTQ-inclusive, but when it comes to the NHL's archaic mentality about toughness, he's predictably prehistoric.

Building marketing campaigns around young faces. Making the game more fun both on the ice and off it. Embracing modernity on the topic of brain injuries. These aren't difficult or complicated changes if a league is willing to embrace them, but the NHL and most of its fans wish more than anything that it was still 1985. Literally: fans recently voted the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers the best team in league history in what felt more like a desperate plea for the past to become present than any acknowledgement of greatness.

If the NHL isn't careful, its fan base will soon be old people stuffing flip phones into fanny packs and extolling the virtues of how great hockey was in the 1980s. Everybody born since is going to be watching something else.