As the calendar flips from July to August, we enter the deepest portion of the NHL offseason; one in which the insiders turn off their cell phones and retire to the cabin, players are off the grid, and the majority of the big free agents have signed to new teams or extensions. Now that the Montreal Canadiens have signed P.K. Subban to a big extension, the offseason’s biggest drama is over and now hockey fans really start counting down the days until camps open and the NHL preseason begins. I usually pass this “hockey dead zone” by watching old YouTube clips, or classics like Slapshot and Goon to get my hockey fix.
With all of the Lebron James drama in Cleveland, I have paid closer attention to the NBA this summer. What I have discovered is basketball never truly goes away for NBA fans. The playoffs and championship run into June and then there is the draft, free agency, and summer league to keep fans entertained. There is never really an “off the grid” moment for NBA fans.
The NBA is fortunate that the game of basketball translates well to the summer time. The games still take place indoors, but they do not have the challenge of getting viewers to watch ice hockey when it is 95 degrees outside. Ask the Arizona Coyotes how tough of a sell that is.
Back in the 90s, hockey fans did have a league to turn to during the summer months. As soon as the NHL season ended, Roller Hockey International started up. The format of the game was a little different (four quarters instead of three periods) and defense was non-existent (scores of 15-12 were common), it served as a valid entertainment source for hockey fans during the offseason. The RHI never gained support from the NHL (despite sharing arenas with several NHL teams), as the NHL was busy trying to revamp its own product early into the Gary Bettman era. The NHL was not financially able to lend support to the cash-strapped RHI at the time.
Even now, a full league like the RHI would be financially unviable and something that would still be too risky for the NHL to invest in. Instead, the NHL should look to the NBA for some inspiration and develop a summer league tournament. A one or two week tournament held after prospect camps are done would be entertaining to hardcore hockey fans, as well as beneficial to the teams and players taking part in the games.
To prevent fatigue the periods could be shortened and to increase scoring, make all play 4 on 4. The tournament could also be used to test out new rules for future NHL rule changes.
It could be another way for the NHL to bring the game to a non-traditional market. The NBA holds it’s summer league in Las Vegas, one of the locations that has been rumored to be an interest for an NHL expansion team. Hosts like Seattle, Quebec, and Kansas City could also use it as a test bed for hosting their own NHL team some time in the future.
The NBA has gotten it right with their summer league; while it is debatable whether the performances are clear indicator of a player’s true potential, it provides fans with basketball to watch and keeps the NBA in the headlines even in the offseason. The NHL’s August dead zone, while a welcome rest for players, reporters, and team management, does not help expand or promote the NHL product. While a NHL summer league would mostly appeal to hardcore hockey fans, casual fans might stumble upon a game and get a look at some of the NHL’s future prospects.