Sunday, August 31, 2008


Keep Planting Seeds

One the consistent features going throughout the summer is Greg Wyshynski's 5 Ways I'd Change the NHL at Puck Daddy (link goes to Greg's list). It's been a big hit throughout the world of hockey blogging. Some, like Greg's list, gave some offbeat ideas. Others have called for a change to the past. (ASIDE: Seriously, the division names? How do division names teach history; especially when the Lester Patrick, Jack Adams, James Norris, and Conn Smythe trophies are handed out regularly? But I guess a "tradition" since 1974 and ended in 1994 is more important?) And some have been particularly controversial - resulting in a passionate response by a team owner, no less. It's been a consistently interesting to see what the various people in and out of the hockey world think the NHL needs to do. Whether or not NHL will (or should) do them is another matter.

However, I don't so much want to offer any changes to the NHL as much as I want to state the obvious. Above all what the league and each franchise must do is to never stop looking to expand the scope of the game. And what better way to illustrate that than a famous passage from the Gospel of Matthew: the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9)

Cautionary Note: I understand that some/many of you would rather I not mention anything resembling religion. Don't worry, I'm not planning to make it a feature of the blog nor am I asking you to believe in any particular religion nor am I planning to transform In Lou We Trust into the Lou-theran (Note within a Note: If you want to start a Christian Devils blog, feel free to take that name!) . I'm just using this passage from the Bible to make a point. All I ask is that you bear with me:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: "A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear."
As I read this, there are two major points in here. The first point is that the seed isn't growing everywhere. Some seeds grow but they don't last as they did not develop roots. Some seeds grow but their growth was cut off by outside factors (thorns). Some don't even grow at all - the birds eat them up before they get a chance. But the seed that has landed, developed roots, and did not have anything else to stunt its growth grew to form crops.

This can be applied to hockey's fanbase (or the fanbase of a lot of other things - other leagues, genres of music/art/books/movies, etc.). Before you write "See! That must mean we must relocate/contract team X!" I'm specifically referring to the fanbase itself. Besides, the worst draw last season was the Islanders at an average of 15,643 people over all 82 games. No one's calling for them to be moved or killed off. Anyway, I'm specifically talking about the root of the fanbase itself - the fan. Basically, when it comes to our hockey fandom, we all start as seeds. The growth process begins when we have our first point of contact with hockey - like seeing a game for the first time (on TV or live), or the first time we hear about hockey (word of mouth, ads, news articles, the Internet, etc.).

However, not everything goes to plan. Maybe we don't like hockey. Maybe we're into other things and can't/won't like hockey as much. Maybe the team has a short existence and goes away. That's similar to the bird eating the seed - not even letting the chance to grow. Then there are the fans that don't develop the roots. The bandwagon fans. The fans that only like hockey for a little bit, but then later realize they don't like it as much as they once did. The ones who are only in it for the fighting. The fans whose team gets contracted/relocated such that the franchise doesn't develop that root - those fans no longer being fans afterward. As time goes on, they won't remain. The fans that would grow to be die-hard, hockey-forever fans but get stunted by outside factors would be like the seeds among the thorns. The analogue would be a team that has been abjectly bad and mismanaged to the point where the fan just says "forget this noise" and leaves. Or the team that literally can't run anymore as is and has to move or fold to stay in business undercuts their fanbase. Or the fan finds his or her self having to make serious choices about their life and, unfortunately, hockey can't be a big part of their lives anymore. Or the other fans - the ones who are already grown - aren't accepting of newer fans and expect them to assimilate into their view of what hockey/the team should be or essentially alienate them.

The seed that fully grows would be your full-on, die-hard hockey fan - those who go out and buy season tickets/packs of tickets, those who are always finding ways to follow their team, those spend lots of their time talking, discussing, arguing, writing and thinking about the team, and so on and so forth. All of these kinds of fans are different (hence, the different yielding of crops, the implication of different plants, etc.), but the common point is that they are serious in their fandom. However, as much as we all like to talk about how the league has to cater to the die-hards; it would behoove us all to remember that we were all casual and new fans to the game of hockey at one point. No one is born a hockey fan. We are all seeds at one point - and it takes time for seeds to grow. No one goes from a baby right to an adult in the blink of an eye (though I'm sure some parents may feel that way sometime); plants don't immediately grow from buds to full-on germination; and we do not become significant fans right away.

And that leads me to the second major point. Just because nothing seems to be growing or the fanbase is not growing as fast as we'd like it to be or the fanbase is not as large as we'd like to be doesn't mean we stop planting seeds. The farmer doesn't get discouraged when the birds eat his seeds. He doesn't weep over shallow soil. He doesn't get give up because there are thorns in the way of the plants. And he doesn't just expect the seeds to grow over time. He accepts that these things could happen. He accepts that time is necessary and he keeps planting seeds.

This is the major point that every team in every league in the world of hockey should understand. This notion that hockey can't grow everywhere is stupid - even stupider when you consider that we think hockey is a great game. My fellow Devils fans, do we not consider our favorite team to be worth following? Why should we keep this knowledge, these feelings to ourselves? And if we want the Devils to change and actually market themselves more aggressively, why should we expect changes overnight?

To the teams in the South, to the teams that are struggling in attendance like the Devils and the Islanders, to the teams who are already drawing sell-out crowds, to the teams that have big, marketable super-stars, to the leagues outside of the NHL who have to deal with their players going abroad, to the leagues who have to deal with the reality that hockey isn't the country's top sport, and to the leagues in places many wouldn't expect, I say this. Don't ever stop trying to expand the game. With patience and a continued effort, the game will grow. The league will grow. And the team and its fanbase will also grow. The whole point of marketing a team, I think, is essentially to keep planting the seeds. To keep getting the team/league/sport out there and see who will become a fan out of it all. Considering this, the thought process of only throwing seeds at already grown crops or to not throw many seeds out there or to deride all growing plants only serves to be net negative in the long run.

Will everyone be a hockey fan? No. Will everyone in New Jersey be a Devils fan? No. But should that stop the NHL from increasing their exposure or for the Devils to promote themselves? No.

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Thanks for linking my blog. I am a huge Devils fan.
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