Last Friday night, PK Subban of the Predators was warming up for Game 2 against the St. Louis Blues by dancing. Not only can I not tell any hockey player how to warm up or not to warm up because that is far out of my purview, but far be it of me to tell PK Subban how to do anything related to hockey or even life. But on NBC's pregame coverage of the game, Mike Milbury, the utmost and highest authority on all hockey matters (at least he believes this), called Subban a "clown" for warming up like this.
Now while I struggle to take anything seriously that Milbury says about hockey because he once attacked a fan in the stands with his own shoe, all hockey fans in the US have taken this comment seriously because it reflects on a major problem with the NHL, it's only rightsholder in the US and the problem of hockey's popularity in the US all in one fell swoop. And if the NHL wants to break through to the casual sports fan and create more hockey fans in general in this country, comments like that one from Mike Milbury about one of the games biggest stars isn't just an impediment against that growth; it's an active deterrent.
NHL coverage in the US is in a fairly precarious place at the moment. As ESPN has gotten out of covering hockey almost entirely, there are very few places to turn to for coverage of the game outside of the NHL's only US rightsholder, NBC. And when hockey fans only hope for salvation and love of the game they so cherish comes from a network that employs talent that calls PK Subban a "clown" for dancing during warmups, what are hockey fans supposed to think about how networks view the sport they love? Sure, hot take artists are all the rage in sports television right now and maybe NBC thinks comments like this, which can be construed as thinly veiled racism, will stir the pot when everyone else is talking about LeBron, the Warriors or the Cowboys. But when hockey is such a non-factor to the casual sports fan, comments like this don't move the needle, and instead just serve to anger the small but incredibly dedicated fanbase of US hockey fans.
And the real shame of it all is that NHL Network has been improving dramatically over the past few years. The network is hiring analysts like Kevin Weekes, Mike Johnson, Ryan Whitney, John MacLean and a host of others who cover the sport in ways the US audience generally hasn't seen before. But, NHL Network's audience is still a fraction of what NBCSN draws in for its coverage, which in of itself is a fraction of the sports marketplace in general. While the casual sports fan who occasionally tunes into the Stanley Cup Playoffs isn't going to necessarily cringe at the comments Milbury has made, where are they going to go if they want more meaningful coverage of the sport and learn about these players and teams for themselves? NHL Network isn't readily available, the hot take shows on ESPN and FS1 certainly don't cover hockey (though we should be thankful for that), and it takes effort to follow this sport in a way that it doesn't for any other major sport, even soccer.
NBC Sports is the steward of hockey right now in the NHL. Since no other sports network gives barely a mention to league issues, storylines and players, NBC is the only place American fans can legally tune into on television en masse to watch games and hear commentary on the league and its issues. And when its major imprint on hockey coverage is Mike Milbury making another dumb comment, what else are hockey fans to say but, "why?" They legitimately can't go almost anywhere else to find coverage of the game, and these comments instead end up defining the only coverage of the NHL anywhere in the US to the point that the die-hards are tuning out, which isn't good for the league or the sport.
Even though the NHL has a very obvious and not subtle role in deciding who the talent is on the NHL's front facing coverage on both sides of the border, expecting them to do something here is unlikely. Therefore it is incumbent on NBC to change its ways in order to not only grow the game for the sake of growing the game, but for its own bottom line. Bringing over more names from NHL Network as analysts is a start, along with hiring an insider that can break news on their own so hockey fans can go to them instead of local sources or up to Canada for that information.
NBC's deal with the NHL lasts until 2021, and if they want to fully reap the rewards of it, and perhaps keep the league beyond then as a foundation of their cable sports network, changing their ways is a must. Become a destination for US hockey fans to find news, analysis and commentary, not just a place where they have to watch the games. Bringing on an in-house insider, minimize the voices like Mike Milbury and bringing in analysts from NHL Network is one way to start building back the trust between themselves and US hockey fans, and are steps that need to be taken.
Coverage of the NHL and hockey in the US is in a precarious place at the moment. With almost no outside network coverage, NBC is basically the only destination for fans to go to to find the coverage they crave. And when they are given nonsense by Mike Milbury, it's a slap in the face by the only network in the country that has decided the NHL is worthwhile.
For a company that produces the NFL and the Premier League so well, it still boggles the mind at how NBC can't cover hockey in the same way. And much like football and soccer fans deserve the coverage they get, hockey fans do too.
If the NHL wants to grow the game in this country at a time where it seems to be stagnating or fading from view, the league needs to pressure NBC to make changes to their coverage. Hockey fans can only go so many places to find the coverage they want and crave, so why can't they get it from the league's only stakeholder in the US?