By: Mark Whitfield | Follow me on Twitter @olop86
In recent years, the other Major Leagues have started to look abroad to expand their fan bases. The NHL was, in many ways, ahead of the curve, with overseas games dating back to the 1930s. Most of the overseas series have merely dipped their toe in markets where hockey is already a mainstream sport, and so the impact has been limited.
This year will see a series of exhibition games in Switzerland and Germany and regular season games in Finland, all markets with strong domestic leagues and which have sent players to the NHL on a regular basis. Gary Bettman would do well to look at underdeveloped markets, such as the United Kingdom, and the Bruins are well placed to tap into that market to really broaden the league’s horizons.
Now, while it is fair to say that the relationship between Boston and Britain hasn’t always been the best, after 250 years, the people of Britain may just be ready to forgive what you did to our national beverage. What better way to build a relationship than through sport, what better sport than hockey, and what better team than the Boston Bruins?
In many ways, the Boston Bruins are the ideal team to capture the hearts of the British. Firstly, just being an Original Six team taps into our love of history, something that is deeply rooted in our national psyche. The depth of that history, the 6 Stanley Cups, the stars like Bobby Orr, and the trailblazers like Willie O’Ree, will draw in British sports fans who love their teams to have character and depth. I started following the Bruins because of NHL 04, but I fell in love with them after reading about the Big Bad Bruins, the rivalry with the Canadiens, and the exploits of O’Reilly, Bourque, and Esposito. Few teams in the NHL have such a rich history, and the Bruins should be looking to make the most of this to attract new fans.
The other thing that Brits love is an underdog, and as it stands, the 2022-23 Bruins arguably fit into that category. On the face of it, we have kept our strong core while adding some pieces (you may have heard of recent signings David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron); there are going to be significant gaps in the lineup for the first couple of months of the season as we wait for Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk (among others).
There is also a risk that in our desperation to resign Bergeron and Krejci, we are living in the past (also a British trait) and ignoring the risk that their best years are behind them. This could mean that by December, we have to fight tooth and nail to get into the playoffs rather than sitting pretty in a playoff spot, perfect for drawing in new fans.
The Bruins style of play is also evolving into a more fan-friendly product. While some miss the physical nature of the Big Bad Bruins, hockey fans are changing, and the skills shown by the likes of Trevor Zegras and Connor McDavid are far more attractive to a broader audience. The focus on skill and speed makes for a more exciting game that will bring in new fans in a way that two enforcers slugging it out simply won’t, particularly among European audiences brought up on a diet of soccer.
The NFL has shown how open the UK is to new sports and how important it is for teams to jump in early. The Jacksonville Jaguars committed to the project early and now have a huge British fan base, even though they were not a strong team when the London games began. The opportunities for growth for the NHL and the Bruins are huge, so if Bettman does look to unlock that potential, Cam Neely should be on that first plane to London.