The National Hockey League’s All-Star Weekend has come and gone, generally creating a positive buzz for professional hockey in North America.
The All-Star Fantasy Draft, where captains Eric Staal and Nicklas Lidstrom selected their superstar teams schoolyard style, was a huge success, averaging 600,000 viewers in the United States.
Unfortunately, the lingering product from the gala event in Raleigh N.C. is the Guardian Project, the NHL’s misguided attempt at drawing in today’s youth.
The Guardian Project is a marketing campaign where legendary comic book creator Stan Lee designs super heroes based off the names of all 30 NHL franchises.
Sounds good in theory, but in practice the idea plays out like a super villain’s hare-brained scheme. Stan Lee + comic books + hockey teams + ???? = world domination.
In other words, it’s not very well thought out.
The NHL Guardians are problematic from their very conception. First, Stan Lee simply doesn’t have as much cultural cache as he once did. After all, he hasn’t had a monthly title since Ravage 2009 in the early 1990s. You know, when the Guardian Project’s target demographic was still years away from being born.
Second, the characters themselves are lame. Witness Chris Sims of ComicsAlliance epic takedown: The Ten Most Insane Characters From Stan Lee's 'NHL Guardians'.
Many of the characters seem to be based on a brief skimming of each franchise’s Wikipedia page. Important details like the military heritage of the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t touched on at all.
Most importantly, the NHL’s marketing department is once again playing away from the game’s strengths.
Hockey is one of North America’s oldest sports, with the NHL’s Original Six predating any National Basketball Association franchise, only a handful of National Football League teams and most Major League Baseball clubs.
It’s a disgrace that the Montreal Canadiens, a franchise that is over 100 years old and a cornerstone of Quebecois society, is being represented by the likes of this:
But campaigns like Project Guardians relies on trendy thinking that makes the NHL seem newer than the Arena Football League or other shaky niche sports.
Seriously – the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League predate the Tampa Bay Lightning by five years. The Charlotte Rage were created and folded before the Carolina Hurricanes moved from Hartford, Conn. The list goes on and on.
Commissioner Gary Bettman and the rest of the powers that be at the NHL have to learn that if they really want to make inroads in the Sun Belt, they need to educate and inform their new fanbase about the rich history and tradition of the game, not disregard it.
Otherwise, the NHL comes off as just the latest in a long line of failed sporting enterprises.
That’s why innovations like the All-Star Fantasy Draft and the Winter Classic have been so successful: because they are reminiscent of the history and tradition of hockey.
It’s also why the NHL’s Guardians Project was a dreadful misfire: it glosses over one of the most appealing aspects of hockey.
Obviously, I love sports. This website and my choice of career stand as a testament to this. I’m not very particular either. Baseball, hockey, basketball, football, soccer, lacrosse, the Olympics, it’s all good. Heck, even artistic cycling has made its way on to this blog.
But there’s an ugly stepchild in the sports family that I’ve also got some love for: sports entertainment, better known as professional wrestling.
Yes, it’s obviously fake. But so are most movies and television shows. Professional wrestling is also really corny and clichéd, but that doesn’t diminish the athleticism and skill of its performers.
In fact, there are at least three things about professional wrestling that anyone can appreciate.
You may not know who Ric Flair is, but I promise you that you’ve heard his trademark celebration. It’s a staple of every arena and stadium across North America.
For the uninitiated – Ric Flair has won the world heavyweight championship in various promotions 21 times and is a legend of the business. A lot of the standard ideas in wrestling stem from his career.
One of his signature moves is a knife-edged chop across his opponent’s chest, usually followed by him yelling “WOOO”. The crowd then responds with a chorus of “WOOOs”. It’s now to the point that when any pro wrestler chops someone the crowd will honour Flair with the call.
It’s seeped into popular culture as well. Whenever a goal is scored by the Carolina Hurricanes on home ice Ric Flair appears on the arena’s screens and implores the crowd to WOOO with him. I even saw chef Ted Reader give a Ric Flair Wooo when he broke the record for the world’s largest hamburger.
It’s everywhere and it’s all thanks to wrestling.
2) Entrance Music
I know, I know, athletes in many sports have entrance music. Boxers, mixed martial artists, even hitters coming to bat in baseball have their own entrance music. But it’s an innovation that started in professional wrestling with Gorgeous George, a born-promoter who both Muhammad Ali and James Brown credit as the inspiration for their over-the-top antics and showmanship.
Wrestling still has the most dramatic and often timely entrances, with music being used to cut off the promos of other promos. It’s a trick that never gets old.
There are few moments as exciting as hearing the opening chords of a song that you identify with a particular athlete. Try imagining Mariano Rivera without Metallica’s Enter Sandman or Trevor Hoffman strolling to the mound without the ominous bells at the start of AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells. You just can’t, because entrance music is awesome.
3) The Heel Turn
In wrestling jargon a face is a good guy, while a villain is called a heel. Of course, as sports entertainment is pretty much just a male soap opera, it stands to figure that heels and faces are forever changing sides and turning heroic or evil on a regular basis.
But when a heel turn is done right, like in the clip above, it’s exciting and always gets the crowd amped up. If this could be done in real life, it’d be the best thing ever.
There’s a sense of gut-wrenching heartbreak when the crowd realizes that their hero, the person they’ve been cheering for, is a fraud that has actually been nefariously plotting for their own ends. Melodramatic? Absolutely. But sometimes it really works.
It would be a really refreshing change of pace if the real-life heels that populate professional sports actually embraced their roles as the bad guys, instead of setting public relations flack to spin the story and make it seem like they're just misunderstood. It'd be nice to see someone embrace the fact that they're a jerk.
Consider a world where Alex Rodriguez would sport perma-stubble and rip up the signs of opposing fans. Imagine Chris Pronger cutting promos before games where he calls all the fans of the Edmonton Oilers pencil-necked geeks and then leaving the ice as bad heavy metal blared. Or what about Ron Artest threatening to climb into the stands and whoop anyone drinking a Coke? The possibilities are endless.
It would only make it all the sweeter when the likeable teams and athletes won out, and would undoubtedly draw more ratings.