The preparation for the 2014 fantasy football season is starting to kick into high gear, as leagues will hold their drafts over the next four weeks. At the same time, fantasy baseball managers are preparing for the final month run into the playoffs. Fantasy football and fantasy baseball are the reigning king and queen of fantasy sports. I am an avid player of both fantasy football, baseball, and basketball. However, fantasy hockey was my introduction to fantasy sports and still remains as my favorite.
For hockey fans, there is no question: you should be playing fantasy hockey. Not only does it make every game more interesting, it expands your knowledge of players beyond the ones on the team you root for. Someone who is only familiar with the Tampa Bay Lightning can quickly become an expert on all 30 NHL teams in one fantasy season. Seemingly boring match-ups can become the game of the week depending on the composition of your roster. That meaningless Arizona Coyotes vs Dallas Stars game in February takes on a higher importance when you need one more power play point from Keith Yandle to lock up a win. Playing fantasy hockey will bring you closer to fellow hockey fans and give you a common interest when watching the games.
Fantasy hockey is also a great way to introduce the game to casual or new hockey fans. It allows them to learn about the teams and players, as well as feel like they have some stock in the on-ice action. The NHL has embraced fantasy hockey in some aspects; the “fantasy draft” format that they pioneered with the NHL All-Star game caters to fantasy sports fans. Still, we have not seen the NHL promote fantasy hockey as much as the NFL or MLB has with their fantasy iterations.
NHL.com does have a dedicated section to fantasy hockey and even encourages people to start a team on Yahoo. There are quick segments on the NHL network and fantasy advice from the NHL on Twitter.
By comparison, NFL.com has its own set of leagues and entire shows devoted to fantasy football. Fantasy football is king and a major money maker for the NFL, so that is to be expected, whereas fantasy hockey still remains popular with only hardcore hockey fans.
The biggest thing preventing casual or new fans of hockey getting involved in the fantasy version is the seemingly overwhelming learning curve involved. Outside of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Patrick Kane, there aren’t as many household names in hockey as there are in other sports. When looking at the draft list, there are a lot of long names that are difficult to pronounce. We all have to start somewhere. I may be a more experienced player now, but there was a time when I drafted Marek Malik late in my draft, only to be kindly informed by one of my friends that he had retired.
That is where the NHL can offer some assistance. Their fantasy section right now caters to those who have some knowledge of fantasy hockey: player rankings, projects, stats, strategy. What they could use is a quick start guide for beginners that explains the basics to new fans. It is more likely that the casual fan is going to go to NHL.com first for advice than anywhere else. That information should be front and center for them.
We cannot expect fantasy hockey to become the cultural phenomenon that football has become, but with a little help from hockey fans and the NHL, casual fans could become interested. If you give a casual fan a stake in the game, they will be motivated to stick with watching hockey and more likely to become a regular fan of the sport. The NHL can continue to try to win over casual fans with yearly outdoor spectacles, or they can turn to something that will get casual fans hooked on the sport of hockey.