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Ovechkin survey demonstrates the NHL still has a long way to go in the United States

In the offseason, it can seem like an eternity for something of worthwhile hockey discussion in the months leading to the opening of training camp.  Normally this is the case, but this offseason has provided a little bit more drama as free agency has slowed leading to more drawn out speculation as to which players are moving where.  It still is not settled, and the same can be said for this summer’s most high profile unrestricted free agent in Russian-sniper Ilya Kovalchuk.  The discussion has had Kovalchuk been courted by long term offers by the New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings but most notably the New Jersey Devils.  In fact, that is the ‘big’ talk of the NHL right now after the Devils’ 17-year, $102 million contract offer was denied by the league as they felt it circumvented the collective bargaining agreement.  I could spend a while explaining why the front-loaded contracts (like what Kovalchuk was offered) that have already been given to Detroit’s Johan Franzen, Chicago’s Marian Hossa, and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo turn the league’s salary cap into a joke but that really isn’t the premise of this article.  I would like to talk about another Russian-born scoring sensation, Alexander Ovechkin.  The NHL’s #2 most marketed player apart from Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin has already been the focus of features on the NHL Network and his picture has graced the cover of NHL-based video games.  He has dazzled fans all across the knees as he has pulled off unbelievable goal after unbelievable goal.  Like many major sports stars, from “A-Rod” to “T.O.” to “LeBron” to “Kobe” this star was given his own standard nickname in “Ovie.”  Singlehandedly, “Ovie” has resurrected what was one of the most pathetic franchises in the NHL and the last few seasons Verizon Center has been filled with red-jersey clad fans, most of whom sport #8 Ovechkin.  So needless to say he’s a pretty big deal and rightfully so.  Yet how big of a deal is he to those that don’t follow the NHL very closely?

This is the question that perplexed me, an avid NHL fan who now resides in South Central Wisconsin after growing up in hockey-mad Minnesota.  The NHL has spent millions of dollars marketing Ovechkin, and has committed itself to trying to give him and the Capitals as many nationally-televised games as possible, especially the head-to-head matchups with the Pittsburgh Penguins led by golden boy Sidney Crosby.  There is little doubt that the NHL changed its scheduling practice so that all of the league’s teams could cash in on the fan draws that were Ovechkin and Crosby.  So what has been the benefit of all of this effort by the league to promote the two as the latest version of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux; players with distinctly different styles but both of whom are immensely talented.  Both are players that also seem to be able to galvinize hockey fans where they tend to like one superstar player but not the other.  So has this effort to promote Alexander Ovechkin been worth it?  I decided to put it to a test.  I decided to survey as many people as I could on a very simple multiple choice question.  So here is the question I used in my survey.

Alexander Ovechkin is…

A.)  the President of Russia.

B.)  a Russian hockey player.

C.)  a character from a Russian children’s story.

D.)  the first person sent into space.

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I surveyed 129 people individually through the course of a day at my job in February during the middle of the NHL season.  I am a school teacher and before anyone is outraged at this use of instructional time I think it does serve an educational purpose to see how knowledgeable both the students and staff are at my school about something you could say is part popular culture and part current events.  The school that I teach at does have a few girls that play high school hockey as part of a consortium of a few other nearby districts, but the nearest major hockey program besides high school teams are the men’s and women’s teams at the University of Wisconsin: Madison.  The nearest professional hockey team is two hours away in Milwaukee and the nearest NHL teams are a virtual tie in distance (at about 3 hours away) between the Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks.  So needless to say it is not a hockey-rich area of Wisconsin and for the most part is very similar to most of the United States.  If the NHL wishes to continue to grow it is these people in non-traditional hockey markets that are important to attract.  I surveyed 98 students and 31 members of the staff.  As I said I asked the questions one person at a time in an isolated location to deter possible cheating as much as I could.  I also never informed those that were surveyed of the correct answer until I was completely finished with the survey.  I will separate the results between the students and staff so you can see how the two groups responded.

Student results (98 surveyed)

A.) 21 respondents (21.4%)

B.) 44 respondents (44.8%)

C.) 6 respondents (6.1%)

D.) 27 respondents (27.5%)

Overall, the students were correct 45% of the time and wrong around 54% of the time.  Public schools in the United States are often critisized about the performance of students on standardized tests.  It is unlikely that this specific question would ever be used on a standardized test but it is hardly a question that is beyond the realm of general knowledge.  So how did the staff members fare?

Staff results (31 surveyed)

A.) 7 respondents (21.2%)

B.) 13 respondents (45.5%)

C.) 3 respondents (9%)

D.) 8 respondents (24.2%)

Remarkably (or perhaps painfully depending on how you look at it), the results were almost identical as the students with 45.5% of staff members selecting the correct answer and 54.5% selecting the incorrect answer.  So in this case it shows that age and even education level does not make a statistically significant difference to the results to the answers of this question.

There are some factors that could’ve effected the outcome of this survey.  One, at my school it is a well-known fact that I am an avid hockey fan.  Considering it was myself who gave the survey that may have had an effect on the results.  If I were to have given this survey to a group of people who had no idea I was a hockey fan it would be intriguing to see if the results would be different.  Many of the respondents, even amongst those who selected the correct answer said, “I have no idea” and perhaps I should’ve recorded that as a possible selection.  Since I did not record a precise number I do not wish to guess as to how many people really had no idea at all.  Another obvious variable is the area of the country where you are performing the survey.  If you were in Minnesota I’d like to hypothesize more people would select the correct answer.  Suppose I gave this survey in the Washington D.C. area I would also guess that the results could be markedly different, but that is part of what makes surveys interesting.  Yet that could easily be added in an updated survey if those of you out there have nothing to do and like analyzing results.  So if you feel up to it, please repeat this survey and see what you come up with and I’d encourage you to share your results here.

So what does this survey possibly mean?  It indicates that despite all of the NHL’s efforts to promote him, that most Americans both young and adults do not know who Alexander Ovechkin is.  What are the reasons for this general lack of knowledge of arguably the league’s most exciting player can really only be speculated at.  A lack of a TV deal that has games regularly played on the popular cable network ESPN is part of this, or cultural ignorance over the fact he a Russian player and they may struggle to recognize his name from other famous Russian people.  Either way it indicates the league is getting just nominal bang for the buck by promoting Ovechkin.  I have little doubt the league’s marketing department had hoped the 2010 Olympics would’ve perhaps provided a jump in league viewership and interest but it only recieved modest gains after what was a fantastic tournament.  The league’s marketeers must continue to be creative in their approach to promoting the league’s stars but they obviously have a lot of work to do before “Ovie” is just as synonymous as ‘Gretzky’ was in popular culture.