NHL faces communications challenges in the wake of a cancelled season

NEW YORK: In the wake of the cancellation of the NHL season last Wednesday, teams took to their websites to express regret as the league pondered its future.

NEW YORK: In the wake of the cancellation of the NHL season last Wednesday, teams took to their websites to express regret as the league pondered its future.

Both sides of the lockout, the league and the NHL Players Association, held press conferences yesterday to express sadness at the turn of events.

The NHL has asserted it lost $1.8 billion over the past ten years and locked out the players in September when they wouldn't agree to its terms. Wednesday was the final day to save the season, which would have been more than half-over by this time.

This was the first time in North American professional sports history that an entire season was lost to a labor dispute. The Stanley Cup, the NHL's championship trophy, has been awarded every year since 1920.

Last year's Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, posted a personalized letter from its president on the website, saying, "We want you to know how valuable you are to the Lightning organization and to the team's success."

Media outlets covering the sport had already shrunk their coverage this year. The Hockey News (THN) started running bi-weekly issues, instead of weekly, on February 8.

The general feeling at the magazine on the day the season got cancelled was "disgust more than anything," according to THN writer Adam Proteau. Overall, Proteau said that the sport needs new leadership from players and owners. THN will continue to cover the sport, despite the cancellation.

"We will write on whatever hockey is out there," Proteau said. "When the NHL returns, it needs to lose that sense of entitlement and work overtime to get themselves back in the position of a top-four sport, because they can't call themselves that after this."

Proteau said he hoped that the NHL would re-launch with a new marketing plan and put forth a "sea change" in the way it interacts with fans and media. In the past, Proteau said the NHL often dismissed ideas THN would have for cover images and player stories.

It's still too early to tell how this will affect the NHL's relationship with the media and the fans, according to Mike Soltys, ESPN VP of communications.

"They struggled for attention prior to the lockout, so it becomes a much greater challenge now," Soltys said.

Soltys said that the NHL has generally been good about giving access to athletes, and that it would become more important than ever for the league and its top stars to cooperate with the media.

Mark Beal, managing partner at Alan Taylor Communications, said that the constituents needed to keep communications efforts going.

"PR is going to play a critical role in winning back those fans," Beal said. "Each of the constituents should be strategically and creatively asking, 'What should we do now?'"

"You can't just cut off communications for ten months. You have to continually deliver accurate info and, at least, maintain a relationship," Beal said.

He added that Major League Baseball faced a 20% decrease in attendance after its strike in 1994, and the NHL would most likely be facing a similar situation, if not worse.

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