It was recently put to me that the NHL's poor-to-begin-with popularity is currently on the decline in the States (again). This article will address my ideas on "repairing" the game.
First and foremost, the NHL absolutely needs to standardize what it dishes out for discipline. After an elbow to the head, for example, the offending players who have been called on the carpet at the NHL HQ have been handed several different punishments, from fines to multigame suspensions. This has to change.
Ideally, certain types of offences would be met with standard, strict and uniform punishments. If a certain infraction merited a five-game suspension for one player, then all players who commit the same offense are given the exact same punishment.
In keeping with this, all punishments should be graduated or "stepped" for those who are repeatedly found guilty of doing the same thing over and over again.
For instance Chris Pronger, while being one of the NHL's top 10 defensemen, is notorious for dishing out the high elbow. So, suspend him for two games the first time he is given a match penalty, then five games the second time, then 10 games, and so on until you hit the magical 25 games suspended. From there, introduce fines of increasing intensity.
The second thing the league needs to do is stop ignoring Canada! In their quest for the "holy grail" (a better market share in this case, not the Stanley Cup), the ones in charge, led by Gary Bettman, seem to think that putting a team in a city that has to offer $10 tickets and free beer to attract the casual fan makes sense. All this while deserving cities like Hamilton are left salivating and other burgs such as Winnipeg and Quebec City are now knowing the feeling of losing something they didn't realize how much they loved.
You can increase competitiveness by inserting the Lightning into Hamilton, and returning the Coyotes to Winnipeg. Buffalo would definitely benefit from this, and so would Detroit, Philadelphia, and Minnesota simply from added competition.
Next, some on-ice rules need to be changed or eliminated altogether. This instigator rule for fighting is one of the worst rules that has ever been implemented. The players must be allowed to police themselves and each other as they used to in the past.
Stick work by players has actually increased since this silly rule came about. I do not want to sound like Canada's Donald S. Cherry here, but the reduction of the hacks and the slashes and hooks and all that would be realized if Goony Goonison was allowed to go after the other team's tough guy, Thuggy McTuggison, after Thuggy slashed Goony's all-star centre, with the proviso that both would serve equal time in the sin-bin afterwards.
Of course, this scenario is one that could be expected only if the refs missed the slashing call in the first place.
At least one other rule change implemented a couple seasons ago I dearly would love to see rescinded is the stupid trapezoid "no-goalie-area."
The idea for this in the first place was to work on increasing scoring, yet I have seen a lot of potential scoring opportunities never materialize because the goalie is no longer allowed to find himself out of position. I have witnessed so many games where goals have been scored on a turnover because the goalie was in the corner, misplaying the puck.
Probably the most important tweak I could possibly think of would be exposure. Instead of chasing the almighty buck and putting games on a network that at least half of the American population doesn't even have access to, take a short-term hit to get games on national TV, such as NBC, CBS, major sports networks such as ESPN—no 1, 2, or 3, but the "Big Dawg."
Work with media outlets to stop burying hockey in the sports sections. The best way to sell something is to advertise. The best advertising is putting your product in peoples' faces as much as you can. The more the games are on Saturday afternoon sports, the more people will finally relent and watch. It's the simple law of inertia, and one of the first things they teach in advertising class.
I'll leave you all with food for thought. Go to Anytown Canada any time of the year and you will find kids playing street hockey. Once the game is played, even on a residential roadway, one becomes hooked by it. Make the game more accessible to the kids, sell to the kids, and the parents—the ones you can sell that Ford truck to in your ads—will follow.
If what I have said here rings a bell with you, join us all for my show Fire On Ice at http://www.wildtalkradio.com, where we will talk about all this and a lot more, this Wednesday night @ 10 p.m. EST!