Many of you might have caught Brett Hull's
recent article in The Hockey News titled "10 Ways I'd Change The
Game". As a fan of hockey in general I found myself agreeing
with many of the things that Hull proposed, but I felt that yet more could
be done to save the game that we love from what is fast becoming known as
Some of the concepts and ideas are fairly
radical in today's world of hockey, others have been discussed widely
online and in print. Not all are feasible given the financial and
political impacts to the way the game is run, but then again, as a former
employer of mine used to say..."Anything's possible, given enough
time, money and resources".
So without the yoke of allegiance to either
the NHL Players Association, the NHL itself or even consideration for what
is possible in this world of big money sports, here are my "10 Ways I'd
Change The Game".
1 - Reduce the size of the NHL Roster
In today's game, each team is allowed to carry 23 healthy players on
their roster. They can dress 20 players in any given game, usually
in the 12 forwards, 6 defensemen, 2 goalies configuration. But
realistically, in this age of expansion and watered down talent, how many
of those fourth line players ever get significant ice time? The
answer of course if very few, there have even been games where a player
who was dressed didn't get to see the ice at all, as was the case with
Steve McKenna last season on one occasion.
So my solution is to go to a 17 or perhaps
18 man roster. That instantly removes the 60-90 "worst"
players in the league and immediately increases the competition for the
jobs available. Salaries are also moderately cropped, although it's
possible that demand for free agents offsets any benefit seen here.
The Players Association will no doubt be
against a reduction of jobs, but the alternative of contraction plus the
carrot of lowering the Unrestricted Free Agency age might be enough to get
the deal done.
2 - Have a multi-tiered league system
similar to football in Europe
It's certainly not a panacea, but rather than contract, why not simply
put into a place a hierarchy of leagues that allow the best teams to rise
to the top and the weaker teams to remain intact, albeit at a lower
level. I admit, the chances of this happening are almost zero, but I
did provide the caveat at the beginning of this article that not all
suggestions would be able to be implemented.
Think about it...we could have a 20-24 team
first or "premier" division with the majority of the NHL teams,
followed by a series of lower leagues that included teams from the AHL,
ECHL and maybe even beyond. Teams that finished at the top of their
respective divisions would earn the right to either an automatic promotion
to the next level for the following season, or maybe even playoff against
the worst teams from the level above.
Certainly there is still the concern about
player poaching, but what it does is allow more cities to get top quality
hockey with the teams rising or falling to the level they would naturally
be able to maintain without subsidies.
A smaller league then also allows those
rivalries to build up and the ability for team to come and go and the
lower levels with less impact on the overall economics of the game.
Just as today, teams would be allowed to loan their players to lower level
clubs, but the one for one affiliation that exists today (or close to
existing) could be done away with.
3 - Make the nets two inches taller
Okay, so I'd like to make them wider as well, but the simple fact is
that goalies are now as big as the rest of the players on the ice.
Instead of a 5'9" Vanbiesbrouck in net, as was the case in the 80s,
the Rangers now have the 6'3" Dunham. It's a similar story
around the league, and without wanting to take away any more of the
already limited ice surface available the only solution is to go up.
With the extra space at the top scorers
might actually be able to take advantage of the butterfly style of
goaltending that has become so prevalent in the league.
4 - Make the goaltender fair game behind
the goal line
Okay, so I'm a goaltender myself...why should I get any sort of
special treatment when I'm out playing the puck behind the net. Sure
there's the case of a goalie getting knocked down or interfered with on
the way back to the net, but that proves my point. I want to keep
those guys in the crease and not have them wandering all over the place as
a third defenseman. After all, we're trying to promote offense here,
Oh, and while I'm at, lets start calling
some delay of game penalties if the goalie covers the puck with no part of
his body in the crease.
5 - Encourage the physical play
You want to bring fans to the game? Well, as un-PC as it may
sound, it's the violence and thundering hits that get a lot of people
hooked. I'm not suggesting we go back to the days of bench clearing
brawls, or even to a game with more fights, but when clean hits are
getting penalized then there's a problem with the way the rules are being
Certainly you need to protect against
dangerous hits, but this is after all a contact sport and guys are going
to try to put their opponents off their game with a few extra shots during
and after the play, but that after all *is* hockey.
6 - Institute a luxury tax
This isn't rocket science for sure. The chances of getting a
hard cap installed are almost impossible, and to be honest it might not be
the right solution given that the league spans the US - Canadian
border. Instead a luxury tax system similar to, but more forceful
than the one agreed upon for Major League Baseball, is a way to keep the
teams solvent in this league and promote the sport in as many markets as
To throw some rough numbers out there I'd
exempt the first 30 million of salary and apply a rising scale beyond that
with perhaps 10% up to 100% or beyond. This money would be used to
balance out some of the inequities that clubs face in their various
market, but would require clubs who wish to earn the funds to open their
books more publicly. A commitment to spend that money on salary
would also have to be reached to ensure that it wasn't going straight into
the pockets of cheap owners.
7 - Promote the game more widely
The NHL Street program that the NHL is currently promoting is a
perfect example of how to get more people involved in the game, but it's
not enough for the long term health of the sport. With all four
major sports struggling to grow, Hockey is one of the best positioned to
grow it's fan base.
This means going to the local level and
doing everything possible to encourage participation from all groups and
communities in some form of hockey. Women's hockey in particular
appears to be an area where the NHL can make some impact, especially with
women already showing an affinity to Hockey that they perhaps don't to the
other major sports.
Teams must contribute here also.
Ultimately it is the team that is the best positioned to build their own
fan base in the community and they must do so with the long term future in
mind. Getting a kid interested in hockey at an early age by
promoting a league, buying equipment or paying for the ice time provides a
return on the investment that many other short term solutions don't
Much is done already to develop the game,
my question is: Is it enough?
8 - Getting the puck into the net
How effective is the rule about touching the puck with a high
stick? Does it actively discourage players from taking a swat at the
puck when it's in the air? Does it really prevent injuries?
At the very least, why is it in the
offensive zone that you can't touch the puck above the height of the
cross-bar, yet in the other two zones it's above should height. If
it's to protect the goalies, I've got news...their equipment is such that
they probably wouldn't feel an inadvertant swat, at least less so that an
Al MacInnis slap shot. At the very least make it the same rule
anywhere on the ice surface.
And while we're at it, why not allow a
player to direct the puck in with their hand or arm?
9 - Go to the Olympic sized rink
This topic has pretty much been talked to death amongst hockey fans
and commentators alike. Does the team really lose that much money by
making the change? No doubt most would simply distribute the cost
over their entire ticket portfolio to compensate, so what's the big deal?
Some consideration obviously has to go to
multi-use venues and the requirements of the other tenants, but where
possible the league should be encouraging larger ice surfaces.
10 - Broaden access to the team, the NHL
and the NHLPA
Okay, this one's a little selfish I admit...but teams should be
actively encouraging fan sites like this very one, and in some cases they
do. Teams benefit from more coverage, not less and the more sources
and viewpoints shared in print and on the internet, the more likely you
are that you'll keep your fans.
In this age of instant information, the
best way for a team to promote themselves, is by helping the vessels that
keep fans talking through out the off-season in good times and in bad.
Ultimately, it's winning that keeps the
fans faithful...but it doesn't hurt to have some help.
So there you have it, my ten ways to
improve the NHL. They're not all necessarily feasible, but they do
in my mind warrant discussion, just as those from Mr Hull do.