Just to be clear, there is little good that can come from an extended lockout for the NHL for those involved in the business of hockey. It comes at a time when the NHL and “brand hockey” has perhaps never been stronger in the eyes of a global public who have re-engaged or discovered the sport for the first time. While the clutter of the early fall may keep the lockout out of the minds of many casual sports fans in the United States for a few weeks, the dark clouds and loss of equity that can follow for both sides, especially with the NBA now back stronger than ever, the NFL going strong again and even college sports gaining equity, can be devastating for all involved in the game going forward.
So if the lockout continues and games are lost, is there any entity that could benefit in any way? Perhaps it could be in the minors. Unlike the two most recent lockouts, the NBA and the NFL, minor league hockey is a wide scale fallback for some looking for a hockey fix. While the NBA did have the D-League, the minor tiered minor league hockey system across North America is still pretty vast, with outposts from small markets in the south to emerging cities and even major cities like Chicago. It has many of the characteristics of minor league baseball as affordable fun and the affiliated leagues do hold the future stars of the game in their midst, all of which will be playing regardless of the NHL lockout. Their games can provide filler for regional networks, and their marketing partners could expand a bit wider if the NHL stays silent. Their are also a slew of very low minor league groups, some of which in places like Brooklyn for example, that could also get a little word of mouth bump for people needing a hockey fix.
Now in many ways minor league hockey and baseball couldn’t be father apart. Minor league baseball is an outdoor fun shared family experience. Minor league hockey is obviously indoors and is sometimes played in arenas which do not have the amenities or the charm of their minor league baseball compatriots. The game is still bred a bit more on violence in the minors, sometimes more akin to professional wrestling than the ebb and flow of a summer evening spent outside watching the local ball club. The budgets for many minor league hockey teams for promotion may also be much less than the best minor league baseball teams, creating a less than complete fan experience in some cases. Still even with the drawbacks, minor league hockey may be able to take advantage of a lack of NHL play to build its brand and its fan base. Many affiliated clubs are not that far from the parent teams…Hartford, Albany and Bridgeport to the New York area, Providence to Boston, Hershey and Scranton to Philly etc., so the travel time for a weekend game in the winter is not that far out of the question. The rising execs in the minors for hockey are much like those in other sports…young people trying to be innovative and creative to move up the professional ladder, and the ability to stretch awareness using social media to a wanton fan base exists now more than ever.
Of course the best solution is for the NHL and the NHLPA to settle, the league to continue its growth and the halo effect from that growth trickles down to the minors as well. A rising tide floats all ships. However if the worst happens and the NHL does stay idle, the minor league clubs could benefit be added promotion, added eyeballs, added brand integration and maybe some additional fans, all looking for some fun entertainment on the ice while their primary source of hockey remains at the bargaining table. It is a tricky slope not to bite the hands that feed you for the minor league teams, but an opportunity of necessity, not of choice, could exist for some exposure in the short term.