FanHouse's Breakfast With NHL COO John Collins
When we met for breakfast at a midtown Manhattan diner on Tuesday morning, I was armed with a list of items NHL fans would like to see addressed. Right off the bat, Collins had an affirmative answer for one leading request.
"Yes, 'On the Fly' will be available in HD this season," said Collins, as if he anticipated the question.
"On the Fly" is the NHL Network equivalent of MLB Network's "MLB Live Tonight." "On the Fly" is for hockey junkies -- an all-night barrage of highlights, commentary, interviews and live look-ins at games. However, since the network launched in 2007, the popular program has not been available in hi-def -- a felony in Hockey Nation. No more.
Collins revealed that this season NHL Network is taking over the former studios of Rogers Sportsnet in Canada, "on the CTV campus," as he called it. "On the Fly" will not see any drastic changes in editorial content, but everything else about the production will be elevated.
"We're responsive to our fans," said Collins, who will enter his fourth season with the NHL after serving as President of the NFL's Cleveland Browns. "We're well aware there are areas of our business that continually need to be upgraded. What you find is, sometimes big ideas take time."
In his brief time with the NHL, Collins and his staff have placed a premium on big ideas. The grandest, of course, is the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic -- broadcast on NBC and played the last two years in Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. Although the event is just one regular season game played on New Year's Day, it has grown in stature to rival the Stanley Cup Final as the league's signature event.
Collins -- who "grew up" (his words) in the NFL, where he worked for 15 years -- will be the first to tell you that he did not invent the idea of playing an ice hockey game outdoors. His staff's triumph has been in taking an artistic success and making it a financial one. The Fenway event generated $8 million in ticket sales and $3 million in advertising sales. For his efforts, Collins has been honored by several publications -- including the bible "Advertising Age," which named him Marketer of the Year.
While nothing reaps gushing press in the trades like a mega-event, Collins' work in the digital space has also been a difference-maker for the league. The creation of the NHL Network Online and his dramatic overhaul of NHL.com have both been resounding successes. The league's website, which merely scratched the surface of coverage up until a few years ago, now covers everything -- even the plotlines the league could do without -- with an editorial tone that usually plays straight down the middle.
To that end, I asked Collins over eggs and coffee about the benign commentary shared by the analysts on NHL Network. Wouldn't the league be better served by a little more emotion, perhaps the occasional viewpoint that not every move a coach, general manager, player or league executive makes is okay? The former NFL Senior VP was blunt. "I don't think fans go to a league-branded network expecting a talk-radio discussion," he said. "They know they're going to get their information fairly straight-up. Where I'd like to see us continue to expand is by providing more access. That's where the NHL Network and NHL.com can really be at their best."
Another common complaint from fans -- and some teams -- is the perception that the league's marketing machine only powers up for Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. This year's Winter Classic, featuring Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins and Ovechkin's Washington Capitals and sure to be proceeded by a month-long media blitz, won't do anything to change the view.
"I can assure you that we push to get as many players known as we possibly can," said Collins. "Our staff works hard to promote the players and get their stories told. There's one aspect we cannot control: third-party requests. If Reebok or "Vanity Fair" or ESPN wants Sidney or Alex, we would be crazy to stand in their way. They are two tremendous young men with great talents. We're proud to have them in our league, but believe me -- we're out there pushing a lot of our players." In fact, a preseason media tour featuring more than a dozen top NHL stars will begin later this month.
Collins and his team have accomplished a lot in his short time on the job, but the next year is unquestionably the biggest of the Chief Operating Officer's NHL career. The 2010-11 season is the final one on the current agreements with broadcast partners NBC and VERSUS and wireless partners Verizon (in the U.S.) and Bell (in Canada). This is also the final year of the league's international broadcast contracts. This is the time to see the fruit of the surging television ratings and all those millions of pageviews. Collins was in no position to tip his hand -- negotiations on all fronts will take several months -- but his optimism was apparent.
"I love the potential of our sport," said Collins. "The Stanley Cup is one of the biggest brands out there. We have an incredible fanbase and our league is filled with some of the best people around. We have an extraordinary opportunity for the NHL to take a giant leap forward, so this is a very exciting time for us."