I love hockey. I have all my life, as a player, coach, and fan. However, the NHL started losing its luster for me in the early 1990's, and the strike-canceled year basically did me in. The pro game is a shadow of its former self, partly the result of gradual changes that were never nipped in the bud and that have snowballed (e.g., the emergence and subsequent ubiquity of the designated goon who can punch like a WBC contender, but can't skate above the level of a typical high-school second-liner) and partly (okay, largely) the result of years of suffering under the command of the worst commissioner in the history of North American pro sports.
I'm referring of course to Gary Bettman, the man who purportedly tried to open a hockey puck the first time he saw one, and, yes, the man who is actually a bigger buffoon than Bud Selig. Bettman has no hockey background and was hired out of the NBA - the last league I would ever want to emulate. That's like hiring a new CEO for your corporation and choosing someone from Enron. Bettman has created artificial profits that are starting to burst like the balloon they are purely by playing a shell game of shuffling franchises into shiny new cities who are willing to buy tons of luxury boxes for the first few years until the novelty wears off and they remember that people in Atlanta or Phoenix don't actually know anything about hockey or care the slightest about seeing people from Oshawa or Duluth or Helsinki chase each other around on a substance they only recognize from floating in their gin-and-tonics. After all, there's golf to be played and NASCAR to be watched.
So, before the NHL goes belly-up for good, here's my not-so-modest plan to save the league and restore it to its former glory (or perhaps even make it better than its ever been!).
- The NHL will contract from 30 teams to 24. The Southeast and Pacific divisions will be eliminated and only the four new divisions will be used: East, North, Central, and West. The Conferences will be renamed for two pioneers in NHL history to be determined (Clarence Campbell and the Prince of Wales will not be considered).
- So-called “Sunbelt” teams will be eliminated or moved (with preference for moving a franchise given to teams who have won Stanley-Cup championships).
- The following franchises will be eliminated: Florida, Atlanta, Nashville, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Dallas (although the records and history of the Dallas Stars will revert to the Minnesota franchise which will be renamed “North Stars.”
- The following franchises will be moved: Tampa Bay to Quebec (to be renamed “Nordiques”); Phoenix to Winnipeg (to be renamed “Jets”); Anaheim to Milwaukee (name TBD in normal fashion, but following plural-name rules - see below); Carolina to Hamilton, Ontario - name TBD in same fashion.
- Team names must be plural. The Minnesota Wild will be renamed “North Stars,” and the Colorado Avalanche will be renamed a TBD name. The Vancouver Canucks will not be required, but are strongly encouraged to change their name, and the NHL will bear the burden of any reasonable costs involved in a name-change for the Canucks.
- The season will revert to 78 games. Teams will play six games against the other five teams in their own division, four games against the non-division teams in their own conference, and two against non-conference teams. All series will be split equally by home and away venues.
- The top three teams in each division will make the playoffs. The first-place team in each division will receive a bye in the first round of the playoffs. The second-place team will have home-ice advantage against the third-place team in the first round in a best-of-five series in a 2-2-1 format played over a maximum of a seven-day period. The first-place team will have home-ice advantage against the winner of the preliminary round in the division championship in a best-of-five series in a 2-2-1 format.
- The winner of the division championships will play in a best-of-seven series in a 2-3-2 format for the conference championships. Home ice will be determined by head-to-head record between the two teams (with goal differential being the first tie-breaker, followed by away goals, followed by record against common opponents), not by regular-season standings.
- The winner of the conference championships will play in the Stanley Cup Championship (not “finals”) in a best-of-seven series in a 2-3-2 format. Home ice will be determined in the same manner as for conference championship series.
- Rosters will contract to 20 active contract players and teams may dress 15 skaters and 2 goaltenders per game. The ‘injury list’ will be replaced with MLB-style disabled lists of 15 and 60 days, with the same rules and restrictions as the MLB. Players on either disabled list will not count against the 20-man roster. Teams may carry three ‘healthy-scratch’ and/or ‘day-to-day’ non-dressing players for any given game.
- The purpose of this rule is to reduce the number of players who do not meet the general talent level of the NHL and who are kept on NHL rosters purely for the sake of physical intimidation (so called “enforcers” or “goons.”). Although fighting rules as written will not change, the intention is to reduce the level of fighting, especially premeditated fighting between designated “enforcers.” With the limitation in roster spots, the incentive will be to keep only players who can play regular shifts and not expend roster spots on players whose main skill is fighting and who do not meet the skating and general playing skill standards of the NHL.
- All NHL ice surfaces will be expanded to Olympic proportions of 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. The two-line pass will remain legal.
- On-ice officiating teams will revert to three members, but the position of “linesman” will be eliminated. Instead, teams will consist of two assistant referees and one head referee. Assistant referees will have the traditional assignments of linesmen in terms of on-ice positioning and duties, but will have increased authority to call penalties. In the case of a discrepancy among officials, the head referee will have final authority.
- All on-ice officials will be mandated to enforce the NHL rule book as written and in as literal a fashion as is reasonable in regard to infractions. Every on-ice officiating team will have one of their games audited at random every week by thorough video review of a team of NHL rules officials. Officiating teams that are deemed to be ineffective in regard to enforcing rules will be warned on a first offense, placed on probation on a second offense, and demoted on a third offense. There will be a single appeal process. Members of the NHL officiating committee (not video reviewers) and of the NHL Players’ Association will comprise the appeal board. The appeal board’s decision is final and there is no second appeal. Officials who have been demoted (to the AHL) are eligible for re-promotion after a probationary period of one month has passed, pending availability. Re-promotion is not guaranteed. Officials demoted a second time are not eligible for re-promotion to the NHL until a period of one year has passed. Officials demoted for a third time will be dismissed and classified as ineligible for officiating in the NHL or any affiliated league (e.g., the AHL).
New Divisional Alignments:
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Columbus Blue Jackets
Detroit Red Wings
Hamilton (Name TBD)
Milwaukee (Name TBD)
St. Louis Blues
Toronto Maple Leafs
Colorado (Name TBD)
Minnesota North Stars
Vancouver Canucks (or new name)