The sorry state of the NHL

January 26, 2007

I love hockey. I love the jerseys, I love the speed, I love the excitement, the stick handling, the shots, the general lunch pail demeanor of the players and the goal tending equipment. Were halfway through the second season of hockey since the lockout wiped out 2004-05 and there is no nice way to put ithockey is in terrible shape. Almost every team has attendance problems, the Los Angeles Times stopped providing regular hockey coverage of the local teams and league wide exposure in general is awful. Even worse is that the people in charge dont seem to know how to right the ship.

Case in point: the NHL Board of Governors voted not to change the current scheduling format even though nobody likes it. As is, the current schedule is structured to have teams play their division rivals eight times. There are five teams in each division and in an 82 game season, that is instantly a good chunk of the season taken over. As a result, there are fewer chances for fans of teams like the Edmonton Oilers or the Los Angeles Kings to watch Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin come to town. Heck Ovechkin and Crosby dont get to face off against each other as much as they should. Despite the fact that the schedule is a failure, they cant agree on an alternative. They couldnt even agree on the pre-lockout schedule of every team facing each other at least once.

As for the All-Star game, the league managed to kill a good thing going with the Rory Fitzpatrick movement. Quick history lesson: Fitzpatrick is a solid, yet very, very unspectacular defensemen for the Vancouver Canucks. Bloggers wanted to take advantage of the NHLs new rules and encouragement to vote repeatedly and stuff the box with a player who was not necessarily the most talented. Hence, the Vote for Rory movement. This caught a lot of traction and gave the league PR. At one point, he was second in defenseman in voting yet when all was said and done, he finished third with 550,000 votes. Daniel Engber of Slate Online magazine has a terrific piece up about the Vote for Rory controversy and I have to agree with him, I believe the NHL sabatoged the voting and thus, killed what could have been a truly interesting public relations story.

Thats not even the most bizarre. Despite all the problems the league is having with 30 teams, there are rumors that the league is looking to add two more franchises in locations like former NHL cities Winnipeg and Quebec City (now Phoenix and Colorado respectively) or new areas like Portland, Oregon or Kansas City if the Penguins dont end up moving.

Folks, expansion is what has driven the NHL to such dire straights. Since 1990 the league has jumped from 21 teams to 30. At the time, the league was full of hope, the 1994 Stanley Cup saw the Rangers winning it in an exciting seven game series over the Vancouver Canucks (loved their jerseys). Then the league degenerated into clutch and grab and attendance began to decline. For their successes like Minnesota and San Jose, there are too many failures, namely the Florida Panthers and the Anaheim formerly Mighty Ducks. The end result is an over-expanded league with watered down talent coupled with money being spent on players to skate in front of places that could not care less!

The biggest failure of the NHL though is the television coverage. After the lockout, the league managed to shoot itself by failing to reach a deal to get games televised on ESPN. Instead, the league cut a deal with the now Lance-less Outdoor Life Network. OLN, Im sorry, its now Versus and is only available in 200,000 house holds and only offered as basic cable on Comcast. Those of you who are customers of Cox, RCN, Adelphia, what ever other cable companies you use, you get to pony up extra cash. For those of you that didnt get lost in that tangent, that means that not only is print media abandoning the league but now people cannot even see Ovechkin and Crosby. It was nice that NHL is getting some games on NBC but they are too little, too few and ultimately, not going to help expand the fan base.

I have personally seen the effects of that disastrous lockout (for which I blame former NHLPA head Bob Goodenow who seemed to refuse any realistic picture about the state of the NHL) compacted with no television coverage. I have been to four Washington Capitals games since the lock out and even though the Caps have one of the best talents ever in Alexander Ovechkin, they are lucky if they crack 12,000 fans in an 18,000 seat arena. That of course is PAID attendance, actual attendance is more like 5,000yeah. This is not helped by the fact that unless you have HDTV, the games are rarely available to a large audience. The Pittsburgh Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on their team, they are getting ready to move to Kansas City (though Governor Ed Rendell doesnt plan to let them leave without a fight).

Thus, here the following steps I feel must be taken to save the NHL from certain disaster.

1. Gary Bettman needs to step down NOW! Hard to believe that he was once considered a hot shot within the NBA as one of David Sterns lieutenants before taking over the league back in 1993 (the NBA must be breathing a sigh of relief). Long story short, his reign is a failure. He cant get the league moving on anything important. It took the lock out to institute changes to the game play (i.e. removal of the red line) even though people were clamoring for them since seeing wide open hockey played back in the 2002 Winter Olympics. Of course, his biggest failure as a commissioner is how he has handled the NHL exposure.

2. Beg ESPN to take them back. OLN is a failure. You dont expand the audience by diving into a kiddie pool. The only ones watching on OLN are hard core fans who dont need to be won over. However small the ESPN ratings are, the fact is that it offers hope and potential to expand that base. This is not available with OLN, especially since they were fueled solely by Lance Armstrong.

3. Contraction. There are too many teams. I would personally contract Anaheim, Nashville, Phoenix, Florida, Atlanta and maybe Tampa Bay or Carolina. Tampa Bay has high attendance and ticket sales though that may have more to do with winning the Cup back in 2004 so those numbers may plummet. Still, by shutting four to six teams and strengthening the talent pool, it would make the teams very interesting to watch.

4. End the fighting and general chippiness of the NHL. I actually like the fighting in the NHL but the fact is that the risk offered by players like the Rangers Colton Orr injuring stars like Ovechkin for an extended period of time is too great a risk and one that would absolutely kill the league.

5. Limit the goalie pads. Look at a picture of Ron Hextall and Billy Smith, goalies of the eighties and then look at a picture of modern goalies like Martin Brodeur or the most infamous offender of pad size, Garth Snow. I think 1980s sized pads would increase scoring and not put anyone at risk of harm. If it does, then the nets should be increased in size to increase scoring chances.

Ill bet none of this will be followed through but the basic premise is still very real the NHL is in deep trouble and if they do not make the necessary changes needed to increase visibility and support, the NHL will die and a great sport will be lost, and that would be a true shame in sports.

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