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 “Bettman Hockey”.
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, not defense.
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 enforced.
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 possible.
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 provide.
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.