The dog days of the NHL offseason roll on and as we move into August the collective fan base waits eagerly for any indication that the season is around the corner. For many teams, coming up in about a month will be the prospects reporting first and engaging in showcase tournaments. The most well-known of these is the Traverse City tournament hosted by the Red Wings which has been around for over 20 years and hosts seven other teams. Closer to home, the Nashville Predators host a prospect tournament of their own bringing in three other teams.

These tournaments give the younger players an opportunity to get ice time and extra coaching from the NHL staff as well as compete against the best prospects from other teams. There is a similar system in place in the NBA that is more formalized, the Summer League. The NBA Summer League has become one of the prime offseason events that draws significant coverage from TV and online media. So what if the NHL took a lesson from the NBA and formalized all the individual prospect tournaments into a league-sponsored summer league? Let’s take a look at a few reasons why it makes sense and a couple challenges it would face.

Why It Works – Television Coverage:

Once the NHL draft and the start of free agency have passed, for all intents and purposes, hockey goes off the air in the U.S. During this time, the NBA takes a front and center presence on ESPN broadcasting Summer League games. During the 2019 Summer League, the NBA broadcast 83 games over 11 days. The games on ESPN averaged 600K viewers1 including top pick Zion Williamson’s debut which garnered 1.61 million viewers2. While that is hardly the millions of viewers that tune into the Stanley Cup final, it is reasonable to believe that an NHL summer league could regularly draw 250K viewers on NBCSN. A quarter of a million viewers per game on a bigger network over a two-week stretch would be a significant improvement for the NHL given the only hockey during July and August are news and features on the NHL Network.

Challenge – World Junior Summer Showcase:

While the NHL and its teams are essentially off camera from mid-July to September, many of the top prospects are hard at work preparing to play for their respective countries. As preparation for the World Juniors that take place at the end of the calendar year, the IIHF holds a Summer Showcase tournament in July and August. Unfortunately, ticket sales numbers to compare with the NBA Summer League were unavailable. The introduction of an NHL sponsored summer tournament would create a challenging moment for these prospects to decide if they are going to play for team or country. Plus, those tournaments are important worldwide so drawing top talent away to play in a tournament grounded in the U.S. and Canada may not help the growth of the game outside of North America.

Why It Works – Location and Star Presence:

One of the smartest moves the NBA made is holding the Summer League in Las Vegas. The location has a few advantages. First, its relatively centralized and every airline flies there so it’s not difficult for fans to get there. Second, it’s a destination city with plenty of accommodations so fans can combine attending games with other vacation activities. Third, Vegas has name value with star players who want to be there and been seen there. Watch almost any Summer League game and there are some of the biggest names in the league sitting on the sidelines cheering on their young players.

Accessibility of the star players is a big attraction to fans just like with MLB spring training. While the NHL choosing Vegas as a host city may be a bit overly derivative of the NBA, there are plenty of vacation destinations across the NHL landscape (Nashville, Chicago and Denver would all be examples). Giving NHL fans a summer destination event that would also attract star players to be visible could certainly help keep the NHL front of mind.

Challenge – Logistics and Cost:

Bringing a league’s worth of teams to a single location to hold a tournament is a massive undertaking. Between coordinating with the host city and venue(s), identifying accommodations and developing schedules with all the partner organizations the logistics are significant. While this is primarily a problem for the league office, they may be hesitant to add another sizable event on top of the Stanley Cup Finals and NHL Draft weekend. Additionally each team will bear the cost of transporting, housing and feeding their prospects during the tournament. While the return on investment could potentially be justified, there is unquestionably a large amount of expense involved in creating an offseason tournament.

Why It Works – Fan Attendance:

As the above TV coverage, player attendance and overall spectacle of the NBA Summer League has grown, so has the fan attendance. The 2018 Summer League set new attendance records with over 139,000 fans seeing the games live3 including selling out games each of the last two years. For games that mean nothing that shows a consistent level of interest in seeing prospect games. If the NHL can create the right combination of spectacle and accessibility, fans will make an NHL summer league part of their vacation plans.

Phillip Tomasino at Predators Development Camp
Photo by Michael Gallagher

So what’s the answer? Well for any NHL fan, who wouldn’t have wanted to see their top prospects wearing their team’s sweater in a tournament setting right after the draft? If you’re a Preds fan, wouldn’t you want to see top pick Phillip Tomasino (pictured above) in gold running the top line of a team of prospects? The NHL basically goes dark in July and there is a big opportunity to create additional interest and engagement while marketing the next wave of star players.

That being said it’s an uphill battle to collectively bargain, plan and execute such a tournament that will have significant costs unlikely to be recouped early on. However, for a league trying to reach the level of its counterparts, all of whom have year-round news cycles, generating additional interest in the offseason will support the growth of the sport and is worth the risk.

1. Paulsen. July 17, 2019. Ratings: NBA Offseason, MLB, PGA Tour. Retrieved from https://www.sportsmediawatch.com/2019/07/nba-summer-league-ratings-espn-mlb-pga-tour/.

2. Paulsen. July 10, 2019. Ratings: Copa America, Summer League, WWC third-place, UFC. Retrieved from https://www.sportsmediawatch.com/2019/07/ratings-copa-america-nba-summer-league-wwc-ufc/.

3. National Basketball Association. (2019, July 5). By the Numbers: MGM Resorts NBA Summer League 2019.  [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.nba.com/article/2019/07/05/mgm-resports-summer-league-numbers.