So, does anyone remember the NHL? It used to be aired in primetime, and on major networks. And those were regular games, not just the Stanley Cup Finals.
It was a popular league with household names like Gretzky and Lemieux. It was a physical game; people clutched and grabbed, hit hard, and fought like caged animals.
Yeah, those were the good old days. You can still find the NHL, if you look really hard. It's on satellite TV, maybe a CBC or NHL Radio simulcast. That is, if you're willing to pay through the teeth for it. There's also that Versus Network. They carry hockey, too.
Just so long as there's no cagefights or rodeo events to be aired on that particular Wednesday or whatever slop night they pick.
League popularity has fallen to uncharted depths in the past few years. Ratings are down, revenue is floundering, and teams are ready to move (or worse). The league is in a sorry state. But there are ways to right the ship:
Replace Gary Bettman
It's time for a new commissioner, plain and simple. If you want to save the NHL, even hockey as a whole, you need a hockey guy. Gary Bettman is a law graduate who spent his formative years ascending the ladder in the NBA. That's not going to help hockey.
And even if you take that away, what has he really done? On two occasions under his watch, the players walked out. The league lost TV deals with FOX as well as ESPN. What Bettman eventually did negotiate was a pair of deals: one with a network no one ever heard of, and one with NBC, which doesn't even pay upfront money.
And then there's expansion. There are cities out there just dying for NHL hockey—places like Kansas City and Portland here in the States, and cities like Saskatoon, Hamilton, Winnipeg, and Halifax up north.
But instead of hitting these hockey hotbeds, we set up shop in places like Atlanta (where a team already failed), Nashville, Miami, even Columbus. As you would expect, these teams are losing money, and sapping talent. These are all the moves that Gary Bettman made. Wonderful, thanks for your time, now move on.
You hear a lot of talk these days about the financial trouble teams are in. The New York Islanders, Phoenix Coyotes, Florida Panthers, Atlanta Thrashers, and Nashville Predators are just some examples. And in almost every case, the league is thinking relocation.
I'd like to pose a question here: If you're broke, and trying to get your resources in order, what do you do with your brand new Cadillac? Do you get rid of it, or do you just give it to another member of your household and hope they have better luck with it? Seems pretty easy, right?
I would get rid of the car, and I assume most of you would also. But the league thinks it's better served passing the car off.
Let's get real here. There are too many teams in the NHL right now anyway. The talent pool is diminished, the profits are minimal, the public interest doesn't justify the product.
Cut six teams, bringing the league total down to 24, with 12 per conference. This will stabilize the league as a whole, cut spending, increase the league talent level, and give a little wiggle room for expansion to the right places a few years down the road.
Bring Back Some "Old-Time" Hockey
Can you find me anyone under the age of 20 who knows what a Gordie Howe hat trick actually is?
It's a goal, assist, and a fight in one game, if you were wondering. That used to be an imaginary statistic and a badge of honor worn by the greats of the game.
To be a complete player in the '70s and '80s, you had to be able to play both ends of the ice, and defend yourself when needed. The fans ate that up!
If you go to any type of collectibles show or convention, you are way more likely to find highlight videos of great fights for sale than you are to find Alexandre Ovechkin breakaway reels. I'm not saying that we should revert back to 1965, but maybe lessen the fight instigator penalties a little bit. Let the goalies go wherever they want with the puck, but let them pay the price if they are outside of their crease with it.
Instead of making the net larger or changing the shape of the posts, let's make the goalie pads a little smaller. All you have to do is take a look at Bernie Parent's gear, then look at someone like Martin Brodeur, and you will understand exactly what I am talking about. Of course scoring is down! There's nowhere to stuff the puck.
There are a thousand other things that can be done to improve the state of affairs. But it's going to take some bold steps to make it happen. It's simply a matter of people at the highest levels acknowledging that they dropped the ball, and working to repair the damage. Then maybe we can restore the game to its place among America's most popular sports.