Register Tuesday | December 10 | 2019

How to Save the NHL, Part Two

The Answer is Overseas

Last week, I went over some rule changes the NHL is considering for next season. Most of them, you’ll recall, I found lacking. Never one to criticize without being constructive, I am using this week’s column to examine the one decent proposal in the league’s stack of “radical,” adrenaline-injecting changes: the shootout.

Adding shootouts is a good idea—the breakaway, after all, is the most exciting play in hockey—but the league mustn’t get off that easy. While everyone loves a shootout when their team wins, at least half of the fans (and half of the players) grumble about how it is arbitrary and not a sporting way to decide a game. We know this because shootouts are used in international hockey, and the results have been good (the ’94 and ’96 World Championships, the ’92 Olympics and the 2000 World Junior Championships) and bad (the ’94 and ’98 Olympics as well as the ’99 World Championships) for Canada. Some might say shootouts are only exciting because we hardly ever get to see them, but I disagree. Shootouts in soccer, for example, are always exciting.

In other words, shootouts alone won’t make the game more exhilarating. The two-pronged solution to the NHL’s image woes lies in the paragraph above. First, the NHL needs to make the game more like international hockey; second, the NHL brass needs to organize their league like European soccer. No, really.

International hockey is more exciting than the NHL for several reasons. Chief among them is a higher concentration of skilled players, but the list also includes a larger ice surface that gives those players more room to exhibit their skills. Other rules—such as no-touch icing, no two-line offside and touch-up offside (see #3 last week), as well as the hurry-up faceoff rule (now implemented in the NHL)—allow the game to move more quickly, with fewer whistles and less risk of serious injury on icing calls.

Though this would take a long time to implement, changing the NHL ice surface to Olympic dimensions would also reduce injuries. In this month’s issue of the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, Dr. Richard Weinberg, a Toronto neurologist, finds that the average number of collisions per game was about 50 percent higher on NHL-sized surfaces than on international surfaces. He acknowledged that “factors such as no centre red-line, no-touch icing and fast faceoff rules used in international hockey competition might have contributed to collision rate differences.” Really! He also suggests that a change in ice-surface dimensions might also reduce the number of injuries.

While building thirty new rinks might cause a bit of a ruckus, changing the rules would be easy for the NHL—yet the league insists on distinguishing itself from the international game. The problem with that isolationist attitude is that international games of any importance (the Olympics, the World Championships, the World Cup) all involve NHL players. Even the World Junior championship features players who already play in Canada’s junior system or players who will one day play in the NHL. There is no Iron Curtain anymore.

In order to make the NHL more like the international game, the powers that be need to take a page from soccer’s playbook. Allow me to explain. The NHL now has thirty teams, which, despite what Gary Bettman says, is incredibly unhealthy. It may be that each team can make some money for its owners and that there is parity in the league, but the quality of the players is diluted—and less talented players make the game less entertaining. There are about 200 more players in the NHL now than there were in 1991. This is the problem. These are 200 players who, thirteen years ago, would not have been good enough to play in this league. Maybe the skill level has improved generally, but not enough to cover this increase in the employment pool. 

Obviously, it would be foolish to ask a dozen or so teams to simply fold, so why not divide the league into two: the NHL Elite League and NHL Division One. Make the announcement at the start of the season that whoever makes the playoffs (the top eight teams in each conference) will, the following season, make up the new Elite League. The rest are relegated to Division One. With only sixteen teams in one league and twelve in the other, teams would play each other more often—say a seventy-five game schedule with five games against each team for the EL—and develop rivalries that simply can’t exist when some teams only meet every two years, as is the case now. In subsequent years, the Stanley Cup playoffs would consist of the top twelve teams in the EL, while the bottom four in the EL and the top four from the D1 would compete to see who moves up and who moves down. Both leagues would have some sort of controlled salary structure that would allow the EL teams to spend more on players. As a result, the best players would always be in the EL, while teams from D1 would create new stars, with the incentive of a larger payroll when they move up.

Okay, let’s be honest for a minute now: this plan will never fly because no matter what NHL owners say, none of them are in it for the love of the game. It’s all about the money (with the possible exception of Mario Lemieux, though he owns the Penguins because the previous owners couldn’t pay him). No owner is going to like the fact that his “investment” of a big-league hockey team has been turned, arbitrarily it would seem, into a minor-league squad. The idea of allowing the standings to dictate the league would not be good enough for these venture capitalists—who, in all other things, would have the “invisible hand” do the work. But my proposal would protect against an owner running a team for any other purpose but to win. The EL would have a better TV deal (this change would at least precipitate a new deal with an American network), and the endorsement money would be higher, but fans in D1 towns like Pittsburgh, Carolina, Buffalo, Chicago and Ottawa (Ha ha! Just kidding!) would have something to cheer for—a purpose, a long-term plan. As it is, the only way out is to buy your way out, and with the average NHL salary at just under $2 million a year, it is pretty tough to field a team that is competitive on the ice and on the balance sheet.

So the problem with the NHL is not going to be solved by restricting goalies’ movements, by painting the ice all funny or by rescinding previous measures that didn’t work. Radical change is needed, and if the people who run this league are serious about hockey as entertainment, not just as a financial investment, they really ought to consider checking out how the Europeans do things.