WHEN THE NHL LAST ROBBED its fans of a year’s run for Lord Stanley’s Cup, it returned a changed league. The red line was removed to open up the game. The shootout (read: gimmick) appeared to save the world from ties and was accompanied by a point system (what, 8 points for a win, 3 for a shootout loss, six for trying?) that essentially made the regular season a moot point (unless you’re a Columbus Blue Jacket, in which case your season begins and ends on the same October evening). The tag-up offside returned. The goal lines were moved two feet closer to the end boards, and the blue lines were moved to maintain a 60-foot offensive zone in a 200-foot rink. Beer was still $15 a warm pint. Don Cherry maintained his hatred of Europeans and grammar.
The rule changes were meant to fix what had troubled the league, where heavy trapping had lowered scoring and employed Jacques Martin. But within a few seasons, the scoring went back to a fraction of the high-flying 80s and 90s, new traps appeared, and Jacques Martin was boring fans and media alike in Montreal. Defense and boredom had returned to prominence. The Maple Leafs deteriorated from the competitive teams of the Pat Quinn-era, to a floundering mess unable to make the playoffs. And the open ice, combined with ever more physically fit (and perhaps enhanced?) players, led to an epidemic of concussions and injury across the NHL, and threatened the career of the league’s marquee player, Sidney Crosby. Canadian teams, though now including Winnipeg 2.0, found themselves left wanting. Slap Shot began to look more like a documentary, or prophecy, as staged fights and the Trevor Gillies of the league were given roles, and playing time, above those with skill and respect for the game.
And now, seven years later, the NHL has locked-out its players again. Tomorrow was supposed to be opening night, but alas the ACC and Bell Centre and Madison Square Garden will remain quiet, their ice dormant, their fans frustrated. They, we, will miss hockey terribly.
But what are we missing?
Look, we all know hockey is coming back—eventually. Otherwise, Canada would just surrender to the US, and drink itself to death on Labatt 50s while watching the Summit Series over and over. But what of the game that will return? NHL hockey is a deeply flawed and self-destructive game that is at best a shell of the great sport it once was.
Humbly, I submit on behalf of The Barnstormer Editorial Board, ten initiatives that the NHL should enact upon its return to bolster and embolden the game we love, now and for its future:
1. Reduce the Size of the Equipment and Ban Composite Sticks
The players’ equipment is beyond ridiculous. It’s like a sci-fi film with hockey at its centre come to life. Storm troopers on ice. And it’s dangerous. Players equipment makes them fearless, and the padding is causing injuries as much as the reckless manner in which many play the game. The NHL, and its equipment partners need to work together to make softer, more forgiving gear that both protects and serves the game. Injured players are counter to a leagues mandate of providing the best possible product on the ice. And its size, particularly for goaltenders, makes for more blocked shots and saves, which lowers scoring chances, which may make John Tortorella happy, but not the paying fan
Composite sticks not only make stick handling more difficult, but they also break too frequently. Furthermore, they have not added to the game’s scoring totals, and most importantly, they ask parents to purchase sticks once priced at $20 to $250. Composite sticks serve no purpose, and fail to serve the game.
2. Facilitate the End of Don Cherry’s Coach’s Corner
Cherry should not be given a pulpit to voice his anachronistic view of the sport and society. Where else but on the CBC, the NHL’s longest standing partner and in many ways the flagship of its broadcasts, could a racist, out-of-touch, curmudgeon be given a prominent forum once a week to spew his outdated vitriol? Look, I like Don Cherry. Actually, not really, but I respect what he has done for hockey, his support for Canada and minor hockey, and the manner in which he fought his way through a hockey life of challenges. But, his time has come, and the CBC and the NHL are enabling a voice that’s both uninformed and counter to the game’s growth. The CBC’s TV deal with the NHL is up after this season—should there be a season. The NHL should ensure that any TV deal, whether with CBC or TSN or Sportsnet, has a clause which either limits or eliminates Cherry’s presence.
3. Fix the Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs suck, and even as an ardent Habs fan I believe that to be a bad thing. They need to be the NHL’s marquee franchise. The league needs to work with new owners Bell and Rogers to make sure that happens. The results will be felt throughout the league, and the infinite reach of Leafs’ Nation.
For all of its faults, the CFL has always understood that its Toronto franchise is paramount to its overall success. That’s why it has facilitated trades of top players to the Argos (Kerry Joseph, Ricky Ray), encouraged quality and celebrity ownership (Wayne Gretzky and John Candy), and bent the rules (Rocket Ismail). The NHL doesn’t need to bend the rules to fit the Leafs, but they need to take a closer look at how the team has continued to fail on the ice. A Stanley Cup run in Toronto would invigorate the league like nothing else.
An option within the context of this initiative would be to finally put a second team in the GTA. A Hamilton, Markham, or Kitchener-Waterloo franchise would create one of the largest rivalries in pro-sports, and push the Leafs to work harder for the loyalty of their market.
4. Make Staged Fighting a Game Misconduct
Staged fighting is a joke. It puts players with no place in the game on the ice, and legitimizes the satire of Slap Shot. Fighting, unfortunately, cannot be taken out of the game in one motion. The first step is to heavily penalize staged fights, and remove those players from the game. I’d rather see a Martin St. Louis on the ice as opposed to a Brian McGrattan. But until staged fighting is removed from the game, valuable roster spots will be given to thuggery over speed, size over skill. The staged fight has become a caricature, and an embarrassment. Not unlike the Phoenix Coyotes, which brings us to…
5. Move Phoenix to Quebec City and the Islanders to Brooklyn
Hockey isn’t working in either of these markets, and won’t. Phoenix needs to go to Quebec City, and reinvigorate the Battle of Quebec with the Montreal. The province is building a new rink. The region loves hockey, though has seen a drop in the skill level and NHL-worthy talent coming out of the QMJHL. It would create another regional TV opportunity for RDS, which would create a new revenue stream for the league. And just as the suggestion that the GTA needs a second team in order to pressure the Leafs to compete for their market, so too does Quebec in order to force the Canadiens to work harder for theirs.
Brooklyn is arguably the cultural centre of North America. What is cool there is cool everywhere else. Why do think hipsters dig black rimmed glasses, Arcade Fire, and Pabst? An NHL team in the borough will introduce the sport to a larger audience, and more importantly a younger American audience. Barclays Center is a brand new, state-of-the-art venue built for the newly relocated Brooklyn Nets that can equip hockey. The Islanders were once the pride of the league, and has a fan base that is desperate to return to its embrace in the world’s biggest media market. The NHL’s failure there is more hurtful to the success of the league than any absence of teams in Quebec, or Winnipeg, or the GTA.
6. Institute a Rule That the Offensive Team Always Has Advantage in Face-offs
This seems easy. Instead of giving the face-off advantage to the home team, give it to the team in the offensive end. Face-off wins in the offensive zone create chances. It’ll keep the puck moving (because the defensive team won’t want the face-off) and subsequently increase scoring chances. The fact this doesn’t exist as a rule is beyond me. But, as we’ve learned, the NHL is resistant to change and run by an old boys club whose decisions are based on a false mythology and tradition, as opposed to any kind of progressive look to future successes.
7. Drop 25% of Ticket Prices by Board by 25%
If the NHL can ask the players to take a pay cut, then it needs to split that revenue with the fan. Leave the lower bowl tickets at their current prices—if you can afford to sit there, you should be paying big dollars. Hell, raise ‘em up a bit. But the nosebleed section needs to be returned to the everyday fan at an affordable price.
8. Institute a Full-Year Drug Testing Program
The lack of PED testing in the NHL is a joke. An educated survey of pro sports leads even the biggest skeptic or supporter to doubt the clean-cut image of the sport. Test. Test often. And be vigilant in punishments.
9. Make a Headshot a Mandatory 15 Game Suspension
A headshot is going to kill someone. And soon. You hit someone in the head, on purpose, with no regard for safety, you sit, unpaid, for 15 games. The league’s failure to protect its stars, as seen in the injury to Sidney Crosby, and Marc Savard, Paul Kariya, and Pat LaFontaine before him, paints a picture of an NHL mercilessly out of touch with the realities of its game. The NFL, the blueprint for sports league success, knows to protect its quarterbacks because they are the stars and face and marketing dream of the sport. Headshots, and the concussions they cause, need to be eliminated by way of a strong and fearless deterrent. Because when the game’s offensive stars are either afraid or unwilling to cut across the ice or be creative offensively, or are sidelined for having done so, the most exciting aspect of the game will disappear. It’s akin to an NBA without dunking, an NFL without the long bomb, or baseball without home runs. It’s sex without orgasm.
10. Invest in a Widespread NHL- and NHLPA-Funded At-Risk and Financially Challenged Youth Hockey Program
Hockey is the most expensive game to play, and as such excludes a large portion of the population. The NHL needs to begin a program to bring hockey equipment, and knowledge, to communities throughout North America who to-date can not afford it. Perhaps a portion of each ticket, or an internal tax on the player’s salaries or owners profits could be instituted. Like the initiative to reduce the price of tickets, the league needs to give back to a fan base from whom it has only taken. It needs to cultivate the next generation of fan and player. And it needs to apologize for alienating this generation.
At some point, the fan won’t come back. And at some point, the fans will change the channel, sit in other stands, buy other jerseys, cheer for other teams. At some point, parents will push their children in other directions, to soccer or baseball or swimming, because hockey has broken their hearts and emptied their wallets. At some point, there will be no kids coming up through the ranks to replace aging and injured stars because they either have lost interest in a sport that has disrespected them, or can’t afford the luxury of participating. How many dynamic young athletes is hockey losing to other sports by way of the NHL’s greed? How many casual fans won’t come back? How much longer can the NHL suck at the teat of the loyal Canadian fanbase before that fanbase finally gives up and walks away for good? The effects of such avarice will be felt generations down the line, and to ignore the legacy of a flawed, lock-out happy league, will participate in its gradual demise.