If I Ruled The (Hockey) World
We all have delusions of grandeur from time to time, and have had ever since we were little. Hoisting the Cup, hitting the walk-off home run in Game 7 of the World Series, winning the U.S. Open, or a Nobel Prize, or the Lottery . . . We've all been there, done that, got the T-shirt. So, since we are past Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and now firmly into that season where children make impossible lists of goodies for Santa Claus to bring, why not create my own hockey-based wish list? After all, I've been good all year. . . O.K., most of the year. Alright, every now and again . . .satisfied? But if Gary Bettman can earn millions and millions of dollars treating the NHL as his oyster, surely I can gain a few measly concessions, right?
Here, then, in honor of the season, are my twelve wishes for the National Hockey League (no real partridges were harmed in the development of this list, though one of the French hens was whining. Name of Crosby, I believe . . .)
1. Bigger Ice - I'm not advocating the Full Monty Big Ice from Europe, but something in between the NHL standard and the European product. Let's face it, the current NHL rink dimensions were not designed for guys the size we are seeing on the ice on a regular basis, and certainly not guys that size who can move as fast as they do. Despite all the rule changes, guys like Ken Hitchcock have found ways to clog things up as much as ever. By the same token, the IIHF ice surface - 15 feet wider than the NHL rink, provides a bit too much room and takes some of the immediacy out of the game. Let's provide enough room to allow more real playmaking, and less "fire it off the butt of the guy in front" -- maybe eight feet in width. I also like the added 2 feet of space behind the net from the larger ice, which allows for some more interesting playmaking there as well, challenge defenses a bit more, and minimizes the "shoot the puck off of the super-elastic end boards" play. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Detroit). Don't whine about the loss of seats - I'm sure with a little ingenuity, most venues will see little, if any, drop in capacity. I wouldn't change the overall length of the ice - just lop 24 inches out of the neutral zone, and 12 inches each out of the two offensive zones.
2. Axe the Trapezoid - this one was a solution looking for a problem, and its time has come and gone . . .quickly. Let's face it - an element of drama is added to the game by watching the goalie make that fateful decision to go play the puck. It will be all the more interesting if there is some more space behind the net, as it then becomes a gamble for both sides. "Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you?" Could be really good stuff.
3. More Net & More Crease Please - It's simply not fair that guys can now drop to their knees, block the entire width of the net on the ice - at least visually - and still have their shoulders at the crossbar height. Add a foot to the width and 8 - 10 inches in height, and create some corners to shoot at. At the same time, extend the crease from it's current size, and enforce the blue ice rules. Basketball adapted to bigger players by widening the lane and raising the basket. While goalies enjoy larger pads, they also have had to put up with the likes of Tomas Holmstrom, sticking their butts in the goalies' faces. When we have to hide the puck from the goalies in order to get goals, it's time to make the net bigger. With the other changes I'm asking for, we get back to a skill game.
4. Less Padding - No, this is not part of an anti-goalie campaign. I'm talking about all skaters, primarily. The armor these guys are wearing today creates a feeling of invulnerability, and allows them to take more liberties in terms of questionable hits. (See Restoring Respect, below). At the speed of today's game, the consequences can be devastating. With advances in materials today, we can adequately protect the players, enable them to keep their speed, but make it hurt enough to dish out that cheap shot so that they think twice before doing it. As for the goalies, maybe a couple of inches off the width of the leg pads, but the butterfly is here to stay, so the devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don't. Limit any further expansion of the padding or its functionality in terms of surface area or other innovations that would assist in grabbing or retaining the puck.
5. Protect the Head - I understand that the old school guys adopted helmets only grudgingly, and even some current players have adopted face shields with great reluctance. Injuries happen, but there is no excuse for not preventing injuries that can be avoided. Let's put the materials guys to work on helmets with full face protection that preserve vision, provide better protection against concussion, without impacting player performance. Of course it can be done. The kids coming to the game from the college ranks are used to playing in full cages - for them anything would be an improvement. The investments made in top players today is staggering, and to jeopardize those investments - not to mention the health of the players - when it could easily be avoided is just non-sensical.
6. Forget the Fighting - Let's all admit that we see the 10,000 pound elephant in the corner - fighting is dying a slow but inevitable death, and it's time to put it out of its misery. In a salary cap world, fewer and fewer teams are finding room for the enforcer role. It's being phased out in the lower ranks, so fewer kids are coming to the league with the view that fighting is a significant part of the game. In case you haven't noticed, it's being replaced by the "scrum" that now almost inevitably arises after every hit, passage within a meter of the goalie, or a variety of other perceived transgressions. The officials are letting the guys get away with a lot more in these melees, and only rarely are any majors dealt out. Conduct that sure looks and smells like a fight is now characterized as roughing. Frankly, it's a little boorish when it happens after every contact or follow up attempt on goal. But, if this has become the new self-policing mechanism, so be it.
7. Consistently Enforce the Rules as Written - The NHL suffers from some of the most inconsistent officiating in professional sports. There has always been a degree of the "silent revolution" among the officiating fraternity, who have shown a habit of regressing to the mean when a new rules regimen is initiated. When the crackdown on interference came down after the 2004-05 labor strife, penalties were handed out early and often. That slowly eroded over the next few years, to the point where it was hard to tell there had been a rule change. No matter how the rules are written, the officials find a way to apply their own particular spin to them. I don't think it's intentional in the sense you might think it is - I think these are deep seeded beliefs about how the gam should be played, and all things are viewed through those spectacles. The trouble is that this leads to some pretty horrific inconsistencies in application. Of course, there are also the rules that are simply ignored. Take Checking from Behind, for example. The last time you saw that called was probably about the same time you saw double dribble called in the NBA. I'm not talking about difficult interpretation stuff, such as "a distinct kicking motion", but the basic, black letter rules of the game. We have enough rules. Enforce them as written, for all three periods of the game, equally against all teams. No fuss, no muss, no arguments, just solid hockey with predictable rules enforcement. What a concept . . .
8. Rational Alignment & Scheduling - Despite the Commissioner's repeated insistence that hockey in Arizona and South Florida is working . . . it isn't. Every team goes through ups and downs, but the staggering losses and fundamental lack of interest in hockey in these venues is fundamentally irrefutable. The fact that Mr. Bettman may have found some owners who need (and can withstand) staggering losses to offset gains in other businesses does not mean that the process is successful. Try the Las Vegas experiment, and give Quebec City another shot. After all, the NHL has gone back to Winnipeg, and tried Atlanta twice. Move Florida to Seattle and move Arizona to Portland. Now configure four eight team divisions/conferences, not dissimilar from what is in place now. Play a home and home against everybody in the league - which is 62 games - and an extra game against everybody in the two divisions/conferences within the geographical area, which is another 15 games. 77 total. Get a little more rest, avoid a few back-to-backs. Give the top two in each division/conference an automatic in, and then take the next eight in point totals, regardless of division/conference. Simple, repeatable, and designed to put the best teams in the playoffs.
9. Block the Blocking - shot blocking is all the rage, but I'm sorry, it does nothing for me. Seeing a guy go down on the ice, take a puck moving at 100 mph in the leg, then limp off the ice is not my idea of enthralling hockey. This is in no way a discredit to the players who do it, who have all of the courage in the world, nor is it a criticism of the coaches who preach it. If the system allows it, and other teams are doing it, you have to do it too. But the toll it takes in injuries is significant, and it really does nothing for a suspenseful game to see a bunch of bodies on the ice having pucks drilled into them. Make it penalty to leave your feet to block a shot. Period.
10. Change the Sticks - The game improvement device for the skaters has been the development of sticks made from graphites and composite materials, which are light, flexible, and enable significant velocities on shots. Here's the problem - it comes at a significant loss of accuracy for most players, and these sticks break - a lot. In one recent game, the ice began to look like a Sargasso Sea for hockey stick prototypes. If not a return to wood, then move to something that provides similar playability. If we enlarge the net, let's also make the shooters show they can thread the larger eye we put in the needle.
11. Three Points - I will beat this drum until the day I die - the NHL must adopt the 3-2-1 point allocation system that is used in international tournaments all the time. The notion that some games can have greater value than others, premised upon conduct entirely within the control of the participants, is antithetical to every notion of fairness, consistency and credibility. A standard hockey game is 60 minutes long - and that is the maximum length of time that a regular season game can be conducted at 5-on-5. A team that manages to score more goals than the opponent within that time frame has done an objectively better job in that contest than a team that is forced to go to OT or a shootout. By the same token, a team that takes the opponent to OT has done a better job than a club that is vanquished in sixty minutes. Every regular season game needs to have the same empirical value, otherwise you make a mockery of the entire regular season. I have heard no rational arguments against it that bear up to any quantitative analysis.
12. Obviously - If I am to rule the Hockey World, then the existing emperor must go. Sorry Gary, it's been fun, and here are some lovely parting gifts, but your reign as Jeopardy champion is over. You've lined the owner's pockets with lots of money, and expanded the game. However, those have come at a horrific cost in terms of unnecessary labor strife and related complexity that has hurt the national image of the game, which is only now being recovered. Time to find a new steward. You know where to reach me.
So, there it is. My Manifesto de Hockey. My Christmas List for Hockey Santa. Is it designed to provoke and promote discussion? Absolutely. Do I really want some or all of this to happen? Absolutely. It's my list, and I never got that Red Ryder BB Gun I asked for. Stay tuned. Ho. Ho Ho.