LAST MONTH marked the silver anniversary of hockey's shining moment, the 1980 Olympic semifinal game in which a bunch of fresh-faced American collegians beat the Soviets. But few National Hockey League players--or fans--saw cause to celebrate. February 2005 may go down as the blackest month in NHL history. Commissioner Gary Bettman officially nixed the 2004-2005 campaign, following a five-month lockout. No other North American professional sports league had ever forfeited an entire season due to a labor dispute. But for the first time since 1919, no team will hoist Lord Stanley's Cup.
It gets worse. There's been talk of dissident players forming a new league. As the New York Times has reported, about 400 (out of over 700) NHL players are now plying their trade in Europe. Some may not come back. Meanwhile, Bettman coyly hints that the 2005-2006 season could go forward with replacement players ("scabs") if negotiations remain at an impasse. Hard to say what the fans find less appealing--billionaire owners baying for a salary cap or millionaire players crying poverty.
But the laundry list of NHL maladies goes well beyond the lockout. Even prior to its junked season, pro hockey was in trouble. Scoring had hit record lows. Teams were hemorrhaging cash left and right. Ratings for the 2004 Stanley Cup finals were abysmal. And the most memorable moment of the '03-'04 season came when one player (Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi) nearly killed another (Colorado's Steve Moore) on skates.
So even if the players and owners reconcile and '05-'06 goes off without a hitch, the NHL needs a good shakeup. Here are three ways the league could reform:
(1) Introduce new--and enforce old--rules on clutching and grabbing. Fans don't shell out $70 bucks (and more) a ticket to watch third-rate players hook, hold, and obstruct the league's superstars. Yet no one who's followed NHL hockey over the past 15 years can deny that the clutch-and-grab style of defense has become the modus operandi of no-talent hacks and shoddy expansion teams.
When ex-Penguins great Mario Lemieux cited "the clutching and grabbing" as a big reason for his initial retirement in 1997, he caught flack for being a "crybaby." But Lemieux's broader point was correct. The open-ice finesse game, pioneered by the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, has suffered enormously. And fast-paced, creative hockey is what fans pay to see. If the NHL hopes to stop losing supporters, especially American supporters, it must let its brightest lights shine.
(2) Scrap the two-line-pass rule. This should be a no-brainer. In NHL hockey, a player may not complete a pass to his teammate if the puck travels untouched over two lines (the passing player's own blue line and the red line). The two-line-pass rule negates the option of home-run passes. But it also stifles dynamic breakout plays and exciting counterattacks.
Two-line passes are fair game in Olympic and U.S. college hockey--with salutary results. The play moves faster, there is more end-to-end action, and scores are much higher. (True, Olympic hockey benefits from a larger ice surface, as well.)
Discarding the two-line-pass rule would also help teams beat "the trap." The neutral-zone trap, first popularized by the 1995 Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils, is a strategy by which teams jam their opponents in the neutral zone and force them to play dump-and-chase hockey rather than carry the puck up ice. "Trapping" defenses have been the NHL's bane ever since the Devils trapped their way to a title. Before the lockout, at least 70 percent of teams were deploying a version of the trap (hence the low scoring). The trap kills wide-open rushes. It chokes high-powered offenses. And over the past decade, it's made NHL hockey boring as hell to watch.
The trap won't die overnight. But scrapping the two-line-pass rule would make trapping a less feasible defensive tactic.
(3) Contract three or four teams. Fat chance, right? Well, maybe. But look: The NHL can't support 30 teams. The money just isn't there, nor is the talent. Franchises in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Nashville, Raleigh, Atlanta, Miami, Phoenix, Anaheim, and elsewhere are struggling. (Once the novelty wore off, most Sunbelt cities showed little interest in pro hockey.) And a decade of rapid expansion has diluted the talent pool. "We are not considering contraction," Bettman said in October. But before long, the NHL should bow to economic reality and disband a few teams.
Last month, San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami floated an even more radical (if slightly tongue-in-cheek) idea: "Hold a thrilling 12-team single-round elimination playoff featuring every on-the-brink franchise. But not for playoff extinction. For real extinction. The six winning teams get league subsidies that must be poured back into payroll. The six that get knocked out get truly knocked out--they cease to exist. Now that'd get ownership motivated to win!"
The Kawakami plan may be quixotic (and not wholly serious). But something must be done if pro hockey is to survive financially and maintain its world-class standard of play. Folding three or four teams would be a good start, albeit a highly controversial one.
Duncan Currie is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.