NHL Coverage Then and Now

By Alex Murphy and Ethan Cadeaux

The National Hockey League has existed for more than 100 years, spanning across Canada and the United States. When the league first started, there were six teams: four in the U.S. (New York, Boston, Chicago and Detroit) and two north of the border (Toronto and Montreal).

The original six cities were all in typically colder climates, where frozen ponds were used as ice rinks and playing hockey in the winter was a regular occurrence. Now, 102 years later, there are 31 different teams playing in different climates ranging from the desert to the frozen tundra.

Through all of this -- the relocations and expansions -- the league still fights for media attention among the four major North American professional sports leagues (NBA, MLB and NFL), plus the growing Major League Soccer.

So, how is the NHL covered? It truly depends on where in the country you are. In Canada and several cities in the U.S., like Las Vegas and Nashville, hockey is king.

“Hockey Night in Canada is the equivalent of our Monday Night Football in America,” NBC Sports Washington’s Capitals beat reporter J.J. Regan said. “Hockey is far more popular in Canada and the northern states and would not be considered as regional there. For most of America, however, it is very regional.”

In the United States, with the exception of the original four NHL clubs, hockey remains regionalized in many franchise cities. The league took a long time to grow in many of the cities that were part of the original expansion in 1967, and 10 teams have been added since the 1990s. Still, the NHL continues to expand, with a 32nd team that will begin play in Seattle starting in the 2021-22 season.

Big-market and small-market teams exist in the NHL, just like in the MLB, NBA and NFL. Cities like Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia have extensive hockey coverage because the game is established there and has been popular for decades.

“People in D.C. who are in their late 50s or older did not grow up watching the Caps,” said NBC Sports Washington Capitals reporter Brian McNally, noting the team was born in 1974. “They didn’t exist. They might have become fans as young adults, but they didn’t have someone passing down their love of the team to them and had no history to draw on.”

The Philadelphia Flyers have been in the top-10 in attendance for years, including hosting the 2019 Stadium Series against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles.

However, despite the fervent passion of Philadelphia hockey fans, the team still fights for its place in sports media, including the No. 1 news organization in town, Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Inquirer’s Flyers beat writer, Sam Carchidi, has seen the landscape of Flyers coverage change drastically during the past decade or so.

“I must tweet 100 times during a game and our company wants a social media presence. I put all my stories up on Twitter, on Facebook, pictures on Instagram,” Carchidi said.

Social media has forced reporters to break news stories earlier than ever.

“Sometimes, there’s a conflict because you might have a scoop and you want to wait because you want to get it in the paper before anyone else,” Carchidi said. “If you wait too long, somebody can get it and put it on Twitter, so there’s a conflict there. When do you put it up?”

Even with the Flyers being a heavily supported team in a major sports media market, coverage of the team, especially on the road, has declined in recent years, with additional coverage to the Phillies (since the Bryce Harper signing), Sixers and Eagles.

However, Carchidi has not let the trend affect how he covers the team. It’s been the same general process for him. With newspapers now pushing their online presence, he said the trend allows him to stockpile segments of interviews for future articles. There is finite space in a physical newspaper but infinite space online.

In major media markets on the West Coast, hockey can get lost in the competition for space and attention. This is true for the Los Angeles Kings, Stanley Cup winners in 2011-12 and 2013-14s, who have had to struggle for attention, particularly since LeBron James arrived with the Lakers last year.

“It’s a Dodgers town, and it’s a Lakers town,” L.A. Times Kings beat writer Curtis Zupke said. “Those are the two teams that drive most of the media coverage. … In the big picture of that whole market, the Kings are pretty far down there. “

Added McNally: “The Kings have won two Cups recently, but will never matter to a high percentage of L.A. sports fans the way the Lakers and Dodgers do. They can carve a bigger niche for themselves, though. A lot of NHL teams can.”

The Kings’ fan base might be less than the Dodgers and the Lakers, but the readership is loyal and demanding.

“The Kings fans within Los Angeles, it’s a small base, but it’s very intense,” Zupke said. “In the bigger picture, there’s not a lot of people reading you. But in terms of hockey fans, there’s a lot of people that are reading you and they’re really looking at what you are doing.”

Even in markets with a solid hockey fan base, such as Washington, many fans care a lot more about their specific team rather than the NHL as a whole. Unlike the Redskins and Wizards, Caps fans focus on their team.

“The interest from the fans comes from the team rather than the sport,” Regan said. “Caps fans care far more about the team than they do about the sport in general, and that makes it a very regional beat.”

Getting the younger fans involved is one vital thing hockey must do in order for the NHL to grow popularity wise.

“The NHL needs to focus on appealing to a younger fan base. The sport of hockey is not ingrained in the culture the same as the other major sports are,” Regan said. “An effort needs to be made to appeal to kids and to get them playing. Interest in the sport will grow from there.”

In many ways, hockey suffers from the same syndrome of Major League Baseball: the old-school, traditionalist style over coverage is slow to change.

“We are going to start to see more personalities in the sport,” Regan said. “Hockey is somewhat handcuffed by the old-school mentality that players should not stand out. In this age of social media, that is changing and the coverage will change from general team focused to more player focused.”

Regan is among many that believe the NHL attracts more fans if its players’ personalities emerged more.

“I think the NHL would do well to let its players’ personalities shine through. [Capitals captain Alex] Ovechkin is a natural at this,” McNally said. “If guys want to celebrate by doing a bird dance like [Capitals center] Evgeny Kuznetsov does, I think the league would do well to let that stuff happen. Let players be themselves on social media, too.”

McNally gave a good example.

“In Carolina right now, the Hurricanes have become a phenomenon because of their postgame on-ice celebrations after games,” he said. “It was an organic thing early in the season, but the players embraced it, and their fans love it.”

This season, the Hurricanes faced criticism from the hockey traditionalists, like Canadian ice hockey commentator Don Cherry, who called the Carolina Hurricanes a “bunch of jerks” in response to their postgame celebrations. Carolina then ran with it and now, the “Bunch of Jerks” is the new marketing campaign and Twitter bio for the team.

“It went viral on social media. It was fun. It broke through into traditional sports media. Fans loved it,” McNally said.

It’s no secret that gaining casual hockey fans is difficult for any sport.

“Gaining casual hockey fans is tough,” McNally said. “The culture of the sport still prizes humbleness. Don’t stand out. Flashy star players like Ovechkin exist, but aren’t the norm. It resembles baseball culture in that way.”

While there are areas where hockey thrives, there are also areas where roadblocks remain, including Arizona and in South Florida. The Florida Panthers have ranked among the lowest in attendance in the NHL during the past few seasons, a combination of poor performance on the ice and a lack of passion for hockey.

“People don’t grow up in South Florida as hockey fans nearly as much as they do fans of the NFL, NBA and MLB,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel sports editor Kathy Laughlin said.

While hockey thrives in Tampa, where the Lightning are among the leaders in attendance this past season, the same isn’t true in South Florida.

“Part of me mourns not being able to do more with the Panthers because it’s covering our community,” Laughlin said. “It does bother me not to be there getting into the nitty-gritty of that beat, but on the other hand, I just can’t put people towards that and ignore other things that we know our readers really, really want to read.”

The Sun-Sentinel doesn’t send reporters on the road, using game stories from the Associated Press. Laughlin cites the paper’s lack of resources as the reason.

“For many, many, many years, we were strong on our Panthers coverage,” Laughlin said. “Unfortunately, over the past few years our resources have dwindled. Our staff is reduced, and it gives us tough decisions on what our priorities should be.”

With online journalism growing, Laughlin said, “The Panthers have been the pro franchise with the least amount of interest online. There’s lots of reasons for that. Hockey’s relatively new down here. It’s not like in the north where people might have high school hockey teams. Ice hockey is considered a club-level sport in Florida.

“There’s just so much to do in South Florida that the fan base can be incredibly fickle. The only fan base that’s at all loyal is the Miami Dolphins because that’s been here the longest.”

A similar situation to the Panthers exists in Dallas -- home of Stars. The Cowboys are No. 1 in that city, except unlike the Panthers, the Stars have a dedicated, large fan base. The team has been competitive in recent years, spending money and building rosters with big-name players, like Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

At the Dallas Morning News, coverage of the Stars still falls below the Cowboys and Mavericks, although the Stars have loyal readers. Matthew DeFranks, the Stars beat writer, is relatively new to the region, having come to the Morning News from the Sun-Sentinel, where he covered the Panthers for years. This new environment has been more welcoming when it comes to hockey, he said, especially after the Stars were awarded the 2020 Winter Classic.

“It’s kind of a cool market because there’s actually people that care about hockey in Dallas,” DeFranks said. “It’s part of the reason why I went there to begin with.”

Based on where the Stars rank in the Dallas sports hierarchy, DeFranks has a good idea of how the team should be covered, due in large part to covering the Panthers in a saturated South Florida market.

“You had a small pocket of die-hard that really knew their hockey coverage, so you need to provide coverage for them, but also, you need to look at the casual South Florida sports fan and the general audience,” DeFranks said. “That’s kind of what I want to do in Dallas because I feel like it’s similar that way.”

All four teams above were in a market where the four major professional leagues in the U.S. were represented. That’s not the case in every sports region of the country. Take Columbus, Ohio, where the main sports draws are college football, NHL, MLS and Triple-A baseball. The Columbus Blue Jackets fight with Ohio State football over media control in the area.

However, coverage for the Blue Jackets is prominent in the city, especially by The Athletic and Columbus Dispatch, where there could be four-to-six people on any given day covering the team. The Dispatch has a two-person beat team for normal coverage, led by Brian Hedger.

“The Blue Jackets are king as far as pro sports go, but then you got that school (Ohio State) down the road that basically operates as a professional enterprise anyways,” Hedger said. “Because of that, there seems to be a competition between the two.”

It’s not often that a university has the main stranglehold in a major metropolitan area, but that’s the case in Columbus. There’s even been tension between the two sides, especially after the Blue Jackets came into the league in 2000. Ohio State wasn’t a fan when the NHL expanded to Columbus; and now, almost 20 years later, the two sides remain distant.

“What [The Dispatch] had told me was, ‘As long as we’re a publication and as long as the Blue Jackets are in Columbus, we’re going to have a Blue Jackets beat writer,’” Hedger said. “Next to Ohio State, they are No. 2 on the importance for the Dispatch sports coverage. … We try to have at least two stories every day.”

That also means there’s more competition among the Blue Jackets beat writers to break news faster than their competitors.

“With so many writers on this beat, it’s an interesting dynamic because you got a finite number of stories of players and everything and now you got a bunch of writers on them just like a big market, but here you are in this tiny market,” Hedger said. “I kind of feel like the competition.”

In the NHL, there are several cities where hockey is king. One of those places is Las Vegas, home of the Golden Knights, the newest expansion team in the league. During the 2017-18 season, the Knights became the second North American expansion team to reach the championship round of their respective sport in their first season.

No one thought the Knights would finish with a winning record, let alone a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals. The team captured the imagination of the entire country and was the culmination of all that Las Vegas went through after the tragedy of the mass shooting on Oct. 1, 2017.

An immediate bond was formed between the city; similar to what happened with the Boston Red Sox and the city of Boston in 2013 after the Boston Marathon bombings.

In Las Vegas, the Golden Knights are a hot ticket thanks to their success during their first season. Coverage for the team drives the Review-Journal sports section. David Schoen is the main Golden Knights beat reporter for the Review-Journal.

“We basically have a team of people doing all kinds of multimedia around this team,” Schoen said. “The resources that we dedicate to it, it’s a huge driver of our sports section.”

The Review-Journal, before the Knights existed, dedicated coverage to high school sports, the World Series of Poker and gambling.

“Part of the thing with Vegas was they (the city) were so starved to have something to kind of call its own,” Schoen said. “This city has grown a lot in the last 20 years, and for a long time, nobody was ever from Vegas. Now, there are a lot of people that are from Vegas and live in Vegas and feel like its home.”

Shoen called what happened with the NHL in Vegas the “Airport Factor”.

“When people go through an airport, they like to wear a shirt for whatever reason that represents them,” Schoen said. “You got to tell everybody where you’re from, and Vegas finally had something of its own, a very recognizable logo. People from Vegas really latched onto that team.”

The Golden Knights first season was a wild-ride, to say the least, reflected in coverage by the Review-Journal. The second season was as intense, with the team making the playoffs before elimination in the first round by San Jose in seven games.

Regardless of the market, hockey still fights for its share of space. Its future, coverage-wise, will be determined by the future of sports media, as well as the popularity of the sport.

There still will be hockey coverage, but how will it be covered a decade from now?

“I think hockey deserves a bigger audience than it gets,” Carchidi said. “Sometimes, now on ESPN, all you see is the scores on a crawl at the bottom of the screen, which is ridiculous. They do not do a good job of reporting about the sport.”

McNally believes it’s hard to predict how hockey coverage will change over the next decade because of technology advancements. Even The Washington Post had to adapt by putting team blogs on their website after several years.

“In 2003, The Washington Post didn’t have team blogs,” McNally said. “Why would they? By 2007 every local team had its own and they were must-reads.”

The way information has evolved due to the advent of social media has completely changed how people consume information. It’s no longer the print product that people are picking up. It’s the online product that people are scrolling through.

“Hockey writers used to go to morning skates -- the old timers tell me this -- and get information and it wouldn’t be read until the next morning’s paper,” McNally said. “Well, the internet eventually changed all of that. … In 2009, Twitter was just becoming a thing to get information out quickly. Now it’s a must-have tool for any reporter hoping to build an audience.”

Aside from TV, it’s newspapers that will change the most in terms of game coverage.

“It’s a weird thing because papers still have the responsibility of to do the daily coverage,” Zupke said. “I have to cover games and practices and off days, but by doing that, it takes away from my ability to do larger picture stories. I think that’s how newspapers have to evolve. They have to think more big-picture.”

McNally emphasizes that potentially changing the levels of access for hockey reporters could do wonders for NHL coverage.

“Coverage of soccer in Europe is wildly different than in the U.S. because access is so restricted to independent reporters, who aren’t even allowed in the locker room,” he said. “What if the model here tilts more toward that and less toward open access? That is a change I could see happening. It would mean changing the way that we cover pro teams in the U.S.”

The success of hockey coverage also depends heavily on the conduct of the league and how it handles and promotes itself.

Newspapers are rapidly changing, and will continue to do so as hockey coverage changes. Coverage will most often reflect the resources the newspaper has, whether plentiful or not.

“I can’t begin to imagine where we’re going to be five or 10 years from now,” Laughlin said. “I hope there’s still a lot of great journalism out there.”

Social media will also continue to be a prominent factor in hockey coverage of the future, but it just depends on what will become the newest trend. It’s already changed the course of sports and news media.

“That has left a vacuum in which many outlets are lagging current social media trends because they do not see the value in it,” Reagan said. “Whatever the ‘next big thing is’ in terms of social media, once outlets find a way to monetize, [the NHL] will pounce on it aggressively.”

It will also depend on newer sites, such as The Athletic, which has made an impact in just a few short years.

“They’ve become quite a monster as far as just a big company and they’re putting a lot of investor money into their product,” Hedger said.

Through all of this, one thing can be said: There will continue to be hockey coverage in some form as long as the fans want it.