Sunday, August 24, 2008

5 Ways I Wouldn't Change the NHL

NHL superblogger Greg Wyskynski (the man behind the excellent, if slightly creepily-named Puck Daddy blog at Yahoo!) never seems to have trouble drumming up conversation, but his "5 Ways I'd Change the NHL" series this August has proved a near-perfect antidote for the summer doldrums. The hockeyblogosphere has lit up to near-seasonlike levels as everyone's brother plays Bettman for a day.

Far be it from me to follow a trend (I'm a blogger, for chrissake... that's not trendy at all. Right?). Here's my little tribute to contrarianism: 5 ways that I think the NHL could kick itself in the nuts by trying a little TOO hard:

1) Overemphasizing fantasy and gambling

One reason that the NHL has remained relatively scandal-free over the past decade is that it generally doesn't share in the Vegas-driven gambling culture. While other leagues scramble to counteract a surge in on- and off-field corruption, the NHL has yet to encounter a serious challenge to the integrity of its product (Sean Avery notwithstanding). And perhaps more importantly, hockeyphiles are almost universally focused on the Stanley Cup as their lone objective -- not just keeping the score close enough to beat the spread.

Fantasy hockey is a great way to increase the engagement of otherwise-casual fans, and should probably marketed more aggressively in order to catch up with other sports. But the NHL is better off because of the distance it keeps from organized gambling; the temptation to "hook" fans (and players) into an addictive and destructive habit shouldn't be taken lightly.

2) Abandoning markets

This one strikes a soft spot for me, because I'm what the NHL execs would consider an "untraditional" fan. I am from a place where 6 inches of snow closes the schools, I am frequently out-skated by toddlers in Sidney Crosby jerseys, and the three closest franchises to my home are considered "problems" by most pundits. But in spite of all that, I have spent more time and money and emotion on the NHL than on all other sports combined. In my small rural community I know at least 2 other diehard households who buy season tickets for a team more than 90 minutes away. I would happily stab Claude Lemieux in the eye if it gave the Bruins a top-10 draft pick.

So be careful what you wish for when the "C" word is brought into the discussion. Contracting teams might be a theoretical quick-fix for an overexpanded league, but it is a scorched-earth option that leaves very few relationships intact. The costs are far higher than the rewards.

3) Pushing too hard for uniformity

If variety is the spice of life, the NHL is a veritable jambalaya. The league has become genuinely international, franchises are scattered from southern Florida to British Columbia, and the players vary from Vogue editors to Mike Ricci. Yet as is always the case in big business, the prevailing winds push toward faceless uniformity. It affects everything from the "arena experience" (which is largely driven by the NBA template in most markets), to rink dimensions, to uniform rules. All of this is to the detriment of a league that thrives on its sense of originality and eccentricity.

So let's loosen up a little and allow teams a little creativity with their in-game experience. Why mandate rink sizes when you can allow each team to choose its own floorplan? Let Detroit have extra-wide ice for its puck-moving defensemen, let the Bruins shrink their ice to favor a defensive game (and bring back memories of the old Garden), let the Pens add a few feet to the neutral zone for their young speedsters. Baseball doesn't seem to suffer from its diversity in playing fields.

Furthermore, let's lose the helmets during shootouts. Let's encourage theatrics which allow the fans to relate to the players. And for god's sake, let's ditch the canned hip-hop and bring back the good old days of the in-house organist. NHL, we just want you to be yourself.

4) Changing more rules

To some degree, rule changes were necessary in the wake of the 1990s. The awful controversies over the Crease Rule... goalies racing down the puck in the corners and shooting it back to the neutral zone... teams icing the puck 4 or 5 times in a row. It gives me a headache to even remember some of those games. But after a certain amount of tinkering has been done, you have to stop and let the product sell itself. The game has twice the "flow" it did 10 years ago, and Keith Tkachuk is no longer the model of a 50-goal scorer. Casual fans, especially those who are just returning to the game after being alienated a few years ago, need to be able to recognize and identify with what's happening on the ice. Diehards need some time to bond with new rituals like the shootout and 4-on-4 overtime. Aside from very small tweaks, such as the size of goalie pads, it's time to leave the game alone for a while.

5) Insisting that something's terribly wrong

Nothing ruins a relationship like insecurity. Instead of admiring the beautiful, you obssess over microscopic flaws. Instead of enjoying yourself, you wonder what you're missing.

The NHL is not perfect, and never will be. In the year 2050 there will still be diving, obstruction, butterfly goalies, and Chris Chelios (specifically, his preserved brain inside a Terminator body). But at its heart the game of hockey is still a beautiful thing to behold, and it always will be.

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cristobal said...


caught your comments on Yahoo. I'm a bit different in my ideas, but agree with some of yours. Lets find some simple rules for this simple game and stick with them.

I'm a bit more revolutionary i guess. Check mine out. Leave a comment.

I agree that eliminating teams is good. But disagree, i think whittling down the league to 20 -25 teams would be better.


cristobal said...

Oh yeah, here's my blog address.

Tom said...

I agree with reducing the league to 20-25 teams if done in a system like what you describe on your blog -- essentially a "demotion" for the worst-run teams until they get their act together. Perhaps take the 10 worst teams and have them play for a wildcard playoff spot or something, I dunno.

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with a 3-0 game? Looks like one team got spanked. Or is the only good game one where it's competitive start to finish?

Actually, following with what Tom said, maybe we should contract the Maple Leaves since they only managed 6 shots in an entire game...

Tom said...

For what people pay to watch the Maple Leafs, 6 shots is brutal. That's like a football team getting 6 yards.