One of the main columns of discussion at the World Hockey Summit from start to finish revolves around growing the game outside of North America where it is already well consumed. The primary targets for world development include the likes of Slovakia and other big hockey countries which have seeen the sport struggle since the economic downturn. Slavomir Lener noted yesterday that talent out of Slovakia has almost halved since 2002 and that trend is representative of European hockey struggling a little since many major league sponsors walked away from the game when the going got tough.
With those targets in mind however it was surprising to hear certain statistics from Timo Lumme of the International Olympic Committee as he talked about the momentum hockey has, as a sport, coming out of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. When discussing broadcast statistics it was initially surprising to hear that Vancouver’s approximately 110 hours of hockey that was broadcast during the games was actually the second most hockey broadcast during the Olympics with Italy having broadcast over approximately 250 hours worth of the sport we love. What was surprising to hear was of average viewerships of televised games in countries like Poland, France, China, Brazil, Great Britain and South Korea over 1.5 million. China topped out at 4 million and the average of all aforementioned countries was over 2 million viewers per country watching Olympic hockey at any given time.
In more exotic countries like Brazil that comes as some what of a surprise, Poland surprises me a little but less just because it’s surrounded by countries in which hockey has established a respectable presence. China and South Korea however aren’t as shocking as you’d think. A representation of an Asian hockey association attending the summit made specific mention that there has been a huge increase in hockey development and hockey presence in the Pacific Rim since the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Pre-Nagano only 5 teams in that Pacific Rim area had national hockey teams; today, that number has grown to 14 teams. He cites that this was largely due to the spectacle of the 1998 Olympics and because it was the first time NHL players attended the games – fuel for the fire that NHL players attending international tournaments is a positive thing for the development of hockey at an international level. He also mentioned the current development of a junior program to develop the sport and increase parity between that region of the world and the current hockey powers at play. I wouldn’t be surprised if we one day say an increase in the number of players of Asian decent. It’s a great step forward for the sport and with the way China wants to field a competitive team in every sport they attempt you can’t help but think they’re going to start by trying to be the best Asian team in the world.
When you look at countries like France it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re interested in hockey. They’ve been playing hockey in France for years and although the fact the only French born player NHLer (or rather ex-NHLer now) is Cristobal Huet, the country is not new to the sport. Similarly, Great Britain had a very respectable average viewership but they’ve also been playing hockey there for some time. With the presence of leagues like the English Premier Ice Hockey League (EPIHL) in some of these non-traditional hockey markets there is a means to foster the sport and grow it globally so that one day it can rival the popularity of the worlds most popular sport, soccer.
The reason hockey has taken off so largely has been due to the media coverage it received, or more specifically, the coverage it received at the Olympics. The Olympics is the grandest stage of them all. The lack of specific league affiliation and the power of national pride and interest in such a globally respected and anticipated event combined to make the Olympics the ultimate platform for the game to be “sold” to the casual or non-fan. The fact that the storyline behind hockey was so poetic and for lack of a word “poetic” certainly helped to amplify the fact hockey is the most popular winter sport. After Vancouver’s broadcasting of the Olympics and the tens of countries and hundreds of broadcasting federations that were present to cover the games, it’s no surprise that it’s getting traction and starting to emerge as a sport that people are interested in, in non-traditional markets. The biggest challenge is obviously that of language and with the help of different media conveying the sport in a translated form that’s locale friendly the initial hurdle, has been overcome. The next challenge is getting these hockey-developing nations to understand the game. Translating the game is one issue but understanding how it works, or rather not understanding how it works can be as large a barrier to entry as translation. It’s clear that with the development of junior programs in these non traditional markets (Pacific Rim and even Russia [mentioned by Fetisov]) that steps are being taken to grow the game and have it be more than just something that’s watched on TV.
Today at the summit we heard comments from the President of the Hockey Federation of Iceland as well as the Irish Hockey Federation and while their numbers are still small, things are all relative. Their presence and interest in developing the game in their respective countries is the initial step that needs to be taken in order to develop junior players and grow the game at a grass roots level before it can be adopted as a mainstream sport in these different nations. A lot of changes from the summit are not going to come in mainstream leagues as complex as the NHL, KHL SEL or those at a similar level. The federations that are going to value the discussion at this summit the most are those that are still watching the sport emerges in their countries and those are the ones that are going to be the most actionable when they return to their different corners of the world to play hockey.