Cleaning the Ice
The NHL promises changes and asks the fans for one more chance.
3:20 PM, Jul 28, 2005 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
REJOICE! The National Hockey League is back! All it took was a lost season, a lost TV contract with ESPN, a lost draft, God knows how much lost revenue, untold numbers of lost fans--but, fear not, pro hockey is ready to go for 2005-06. And who among us isn't brimming with anticipation?
Actually, I suspect most Americans probably don't give a fig about the NHL. There was a brief window in the mid 1990s when hockey look poised to join the Big Three--football, basketball, and baseball--at the head table of American sports. But the league overreached with hyperactive expansion. Teams responded to the talent shortage by adopting boring defensive postures such as the neutral-zone "trap," the worst thing to happen to hockey since the Philadelphia Flyers. (Just kidding, just kidding.) Meanwhile, referees and league execs did little to crack down on the clutch-and-grab style of play that choked high-octane offenses and kept NHL superstars off the scoresheets.
But anyway, the NHL lockout, which cost the league its 2004-05 campaign, officially ended last weekend, as players and owners ratified their collective bargaining agreement of July 13. From the look of things, the players got the worst of it. There will be a salary cap. There will be a 24 percent rollback of existing player contracts. And NHL clubs will now be able to "buy out" those contracts. On the other hand, the owners gave up a bundle, too, particularly on free agency and the league's minimum player salary, which will increase to $450,000 per year. "At the end of the day," said Wayne Gretzky, "everybody lost."
Now, as a longtime fan, I want hockey to succeed. It's a wonderful sport (and one I've played since age 8). I sincerely hope the NHL gets its act together. I want the league's popularity to spread in the Sunbelt and elsewhere. I want fans to rush back through the turnstiles and forget all about this wretched lockout. I'd also like to play beach volleyball with Scarlett Johansson.
Truth is, I think the league screwed the pooch with its work stoppage--big time. I get the strong sense--from sportswriters, personal conversations, and the email I've received from fellow hockey junkies--that large swaths of NHL fans said "To hell with 'em" sometime this past spring. Bringing back the diehards will be tricky enough, to say nothing of wooing the league's more casual followers.
As far as Jeremy Roenick is concerned, apparently, that's just fine. In late June, before the deal was done, the Flyers center delivered a micro-rant worthy of its own "Roenick to Angry Fans: Drop Dead" headline. "We're trying to get this thing back on the ice and make it better for the fans," Roenick said. "If you don't realize that, then don't come. We don't want you in the rink, we don't want you in the stadium, we don't want you to watch hockey." To which many fans might reply: "Don't worry."
On the bright side, NHL honchos recently unveiled a fresh batch of rule changes that will be implemented for the 2005-06 season. Here are some of the key ones:
1. The league dumped its ban on two-line passes. This was a no-brainer. Both the Olympics and U.S. collegiate hockey allow two-line (or "offside") passes--that is, passes that travel over a player's own blue line and the red line without being touched by an opponent. Not surprisingly, they boast more scoring and faster action than the NHL. Ditching the two-line-pass rule will permit home-run passes and exciting up-ice breakouts. It will also cripple the "trap" as an effective defensive strategy.
2. The NHL reduced the dimensions of goalie equipment by about 11 percent. I was a late-comer to this idea, but as a youth coach recently wrote to me in an email, "Look at Dryden and Tretiak and all the greats, they were naked compared to goalies today." Good point. Thanks to equipment innovations, NHL netminders' pads have ballooned in girth over the past two decades. If you don't believe me, take a gander at Martin Brodeur's pads--and then look at those of, say, Ed Giacomin. It's as if the goalie gear went on steroids. Anyway, tighter restrictions on equipment size seem pretty sensible.
3. If a game is still tied at the end of a five-minute overtime period it will be decided by a shootout, with each team taking three shots (followed, if necessary, by a "sudden death" format). How much fun will that be? A penalty shot isn't called "the most exciting play in hockey" for nothing. Imagine a series of penalty shots to determine the winner of a hard-fought game. For one thing, it'll keep more fans in the seats--and watching on TV--past the end of regulation time. It'll also provide a bevy of riveting highlights for SportsCenter, which might in turn attract new fans to the sport. Above all, it'll just be a joy to watch world-class goalies and skaters face off one on one.