NHL Marketing Overload: The curious case of Crosby versus Ovechkin

So...anyone tired of Sidney Crosby & Alex Ovechkin yet?

Because I am. What started out as an NHL manufactured rivalry has slowly morphed into a sort-of-kind-of an actual one. Maybe. To hear either of those two guys tell it, there isn't one at all. And while initially that had a ring of truth to it, that ring of truth has become more rote than anything else. I guess that's what happens when you have to answer the exact same question over and over and over again.

I'm not going to discuss last night's game because, frankly, I didn't watch it. I didn't have to. The subject matter was splashed everywhere the NHL is generally covered. You can almost watch those matchups through osmosis at this point.

See an ad, and you've seen the game. Does it matter who wins? Seriously? We're talking about CROSBY and OVECHKIN! That's all that really matters! Who cares about the actual game involved?

The NHL has successfully polarized hockey fans into two camps. Which, I suppose, can be considered to be some kind of rivalry. Either you love Ovechkin and you hate Crosby, or you love Crosby and hate Ovechkin. Take your pick. It doesn't matter what team you're a fan of, so long as you hate one and love the other. Or so the thinking goes....

There are a few of us out there who like both, and even fewer who dislike both. But we shouldn't talk about that. I mean, what's the point? Everyone's got to pick a side or else you're missing out. Or something.

This is the NHL's marketing at its finest. Or at its worst. I guess it just depends on your world view.

NHL marketing has always been questionable. Part of the reason is because players and teams have resisted marketing individuals for so long, and it's very hard to market an entire team. No one can make a corporation/business loveable. It's much easier to market a player or two and leave it at that. MLB has Derek Jeter, the NFL has Peyton Manning, the NBA LeBron James, and soccer has David Beckham.

Who does the NHL have? Wayne Gretzky! No...wait...he's retired. ...Right?

The one thing that all NHL fans can agree on is that the NHL has no clue when it comes to marketing. The teams don't do it very well on their own, and the league obviously doesn't know what it's doing. And when I say "marketing", I use that as an all-encompassing term: its image, teams, players, TV, radio, merchandise, tickets, etc.

Gretzky became recognizable in the US not because of advertising deals or even from winning championships. He became recognizable because he transcended the game with his skill. It was his accomplishments on the ice as a player that gained him recognition, and nothing else. And the same goes for Mario Lemieux.

This contrived rivalry between Crosby and Ovechkin may turn into the real thing one day, but never forget that it started out as an artificial construct - something that the NHL threw together in order to get people's attention. It started before the awards were handed out, and before the trophies were engraved with their names. Neither of them had accomplished much as players when the NHL jumped on the idea and ran it into the ground.

However, this whole experience does make me question what a rivalry really is. In my mind, a rivalry is created by two teams - by the players themselves. But the NHL is trying to convince fans that a rivalry is between fan bases instead of the teams on the ice. Which doesn't really make much sense to me.

The last true rivalry that I've witnessed in the NHL was between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche. It started with the infamous Claude Lemieux hit on Kris Draper during an ugly Western Conference Finals in 1996, and went on for a good 5-10 years. It's since cooled off to the point that I don't really consider them rivals anymore, although most broadcasters would have you think it still is.

I can't think of two current NHL teams that genuinely hate each other as those two did. Oh, you have the long-standing/traditional rivalries like the Boston Bruins and Montréal Canadiens, Montréal and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Philadelphia Flyers and just about everybody else, to name a few, but those are more out of habit than out of true spite. Sure, they can get heated, but it's more fun to hate them than actually hating them.

Despite that, every one of those rivalries were kicked off by something that had happened on the ice. It might have happened decades ago, but it still happened. It became ugly between players long before it became ugly between fans.

But a rivalry between fan bases? Without the players kicking it off first? That seems a bit backwards to me.

And that's what the NHL has done. Again. They've gone about this all backwards, as according to their standard operating procedure. Instead working with a true rivalry, they've magically created one of their own. Insisting for all they're worth that it's a real and true rivalry, of course.

So I don't know about you, but I'm going to sit this one out. Enjoy the ability and the passion of those two great hockey players as they compete against each other. As for me, I'm going to wait for a genuine rivalry to show up again.

It shouldn't be too long, right?

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