Hockey’s history in North America is as rich and storied as baseball. The professional level has a championship trophy equalivalent to the Holy Grail—the most recognizable trophy in all of sports.
But hockey’s most notable league, the NHL, hath fallen on dark times. The game had risen from its Original Six status in the early part of the century to a peak in 1994 on the heels of the Great One.
But since ’94, the league has suffered two lockouts, one canceled season, severe loss of fan interest, major financial repercussions, no major network television contract, and a complete overhaul in format called the “New NHL”—all of which has sunk the league deeper into its North American abyss.
It’s as much of “what happened” as “how do we fix it”—for we must understand what brought hockey to this juncture. But to dwell is to tread water. To fix is to breathe new life. And this is exactly what the great game at the NHL level is in desperate need of—new life.
For the game has potential, and surprisingly still has a rather solid foundation of talent to excel upon moving forward. But the post-'04-05 lockout, “new” NHL is a failure—no matter what figures of finances the league office attempts to lavish upon the public.
And so, if the league truly wishes to rise back to the prominence it had in 1994, it will not only consider, but enact these six major changes to rescue the once great league and game. So take a seat, for this may take a bit. I’ll save the best for last.
1. Re-establish a Canadian/American League
This is the second-most important part of fixing the product.
Fans support players they can identify with, plain and simple. Making money isn’t a popularity contest, nor can you manufacture interest as the music industry has discovered. Owners bring in revenue by providing customer satisfaction and a quality product.
The hockey product is a middle class, hard-working, “grind it out” sport—and fans root for players they can envision as themselves.
Politicians speak of a global economy, but in the NHL it hasn’t translated—especially in the NHL’s more recent expansion markets. But most importantly, it doesn’t translate onto TV. Since the collapse of the USSR ('89-92) the influx of Russian and European players into the league has increased dramatically—and so has the decline in fan interest.
This is not a knock on the Russians, Czechs, Swedes, or Fins. This is to say the markets which the NHL thrives on needs more players that come from the fan bases’ very own roots. That’s the product the fan base wants. So to succeed, the NHL must provide it.
What South Floridian homeowner is going to bring his child to a game to root for players who’s last name they find difficult to pronounce and who struggle to interrupt in interviews? What results is a serious connection gap between players and fans. And that’s the NHL’s current status.
The European and Russian style of play is top-caliber hockey. Sweden and Czech Republic have won three of the past four Olympic games. Additionally, the USSR (now Russia) is viewed as the pinnacle of hockey philosophy and style.
But what is so wrong with the North American game and style of play that the NHL decided to stray from it in the mid ‘90’s? The Canadian game is elegant with crisp passing and speed while the Americans hit like a ton of bricks. That product rose the NHL to financial reward by the early 90’s—why go against it?
Did foreign players come cheaper? Did GMs really believe they were better? Was it because the NHL All-Stars got shown up by the Soviet Red Army in the 1979’s Challenge Cup? Or is it just a result of the Russian domination of Olympic hockey?
To suggest that the Russian and European game is superior is false. In actuality the North American game is right on par with the rest of the world. It may be a different style of play and attack—but it ain’t any less.
Realize that during the Soviet Union’s dominance on the world stage (’56-’92), only the United States won gold during that era (’60, ’80) also getting the silver (’56, ’72) while Canada won silver twice (’60, ’92) as well as two bronze (’56, ’68)—proving the North American game was the Soviet's most equal opponent.
And remember, until 1996, the US sent amateurs to compete in international play—or as one Soviet put it, “you have boys, we send men.”
Well, our “boys” held their own.
Olympic Results to date:
1920 Canada United States Czechoslovakia
1924 Canada United States Great Britain
1928 Canada Sweden Switzerland
1932 Canada United States Germany
1936 Great Britain Canada United States
1948 Canada Czechoslovakia Switzerland
1952 Canada United States Sweden
(Soviets finally allowed to participate in Olympic Games)
1956 Soviet Union United States Canada
1960 United States Canada Soviet Union
1964 Soviet Union Sweden Czechoslovakia
1968 Soviet Union Czechoslovakia Canada
1972 Soviet Union United States Czechoslovakia
1976 Soviet Union Czechoslovakia West Germany
1980 United States Soviet Union Sweden
1984 Soviet Union Czechoslovakia Sweden
1988 Soviet Union Finland Sweden
1992 CIS (Russia) Canada Czechoslovakia
1994 Sweden Canada Finland
1998 Czech Republic Russia Finland
2002 Canada United States Russia
2006 Sweden Finland Czech Republic
And let’s be honest. Gold and silver are what matter – not the bronze. Hence the chart below with a column for “TWB” (Total With Bronze):
Since 1956 Gold Silver Total Bronze Tw/B
USSR/Russia 8 2 10 2 12
USA 2 3 5 0 5
Canada 1 3 4 2 6
Sweden 2 1 3 3 6
Czech 1 2 3 4 7
Finland 0 2 2 2 4
Other 0 0 0 1 1
Post USSR (’92 to present)
Sweden 2 0 2 0 2
Canada 1 1 2 0 2
Czech 1 0 1 0 2
Finland 0 1 1 2 3
USA 0 1 1 0 1
Russia 0 1 1 1 2
And if the four-year layoff of Olympic competition doesn’t sway the argument, consider the Canada Cup (now the World Cup of Hockey) as yet another form of an international measuring stick.
Played under NHL rules, not those of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the Canada Cup has been held in ‘76, ‘81, ‘84, ‘87, ‘91, ‘96, and ‘04:
’76 Canada Czechoslovakia
’81 USSR Canada
’84 Canada Sweden
’87 Canada USSR
’91 Canada USA
’96 USA Canada
‘04 Canada Finland
The real issue comes from a marketing standpoint. North Americans prefer ourbrand of hockey—not circles and four or five lanes of ice. Look no further than in Hockeytown, where thousands of Detroit Red Wings seats were left empty during the 2008 playoffs.
Breaking down the NHL by player origin, there are currently 650 players in the league. In the 2007 season, 373 were Canadians (57 percent), 150 were Americans (22 percent), and 127 were European (20 percent).
This poses the question—if only 20 percent of the league is European, why did the league office alter the All-Star game format from East/West to North America/World from ’98-'02? Another league office marketing flop!
The point is, the North American players are just as good as their European and Russian counterparts—just not as fast or flashy. While the change in roster origins would bring slightly slower play, it’s still play of the same quality as the statistics above prove. And it’s the product the fan base wants—winning domestic hockey.
If fans wanted an international game, they would fly to Leningrad to watch hockey—but they don’t. And until this issue is fixed, the league, its fan involvement, and TV ratings will continue to suffer.
To bring back fans at the record numbers like that of '94, the NHL needs franchises to draft more domestic-born players. The league needs to spend and invest in more domestic programs to encourage and develop home grown talent, especially in the states (USA Hockey) rather than bringing talent from abroad.
Honesty, think about it—do Europeans want to pay to see an American soccer league in their region of the world?
2) Relocate or Fold
Ask any older hockey fan (that means pre-'90s expansion) and they’ll tell you their No. 1 problem with the NHL is too many teams in the league. Commissioner Bettman’s expansion model went too far, and it has turned pure fans away from the game.
Since 1992, nine clubs have been incorporated into the league: San Jose Sharks (1992), Ottawa Senators (1993), Tampa Bay Lightning (1993), Florida Panthers (1994), Anaheim Ducks (1994), Nashville Predators (1999), Atlanta Thrashers (2000), Minnesota Wild (2001), Columbus Blue Jackets (2001).
It’s an overload of teams in a short period of time, as the league attempted to establish southern markets in the wake of popularity of the game arising from Gretzky’s fame.
But the temporary interest in those markets is running dry. The league needs a solid mode—one that regains fans interest and trust, not just money AND generates TV revenue. The current model does neither.
Take an example of another league, the NBA. Over the past five seasons, three clubs have been on the move: Vancouver to Memphis, Charlotte to New Orleans, and Seattle to Oklahoma City—and the league has put a team BACK in Charlotte.
The truth is, there just isn’t enough support for any of those clubs, no matter their location. The interest which owners seek cannot come from every market. And it hinders the product and the game.
So it goes for the NHL. Fans will respond to a few new clubs— as they showed in 1994 (five clubs had been added at that point). But not nine. NINE?
And the same goes for a TV audience. TV viewers tune in to watch the Red Wings-Rangers, Bruins-Canadians, or even Kings-Blues—not Predators-Thrashers. That matchup cannot guarantee enough appeal to draw interest and enthusiasm for hockey fans to watch. And with nine new clubs, you get that form of a match up on a consistent basis.
Look at hockey’s Neilson ratings, as the viewing numbers overwhelmingly support this argument. And because of the flux of new teams, it’s like a new league. Fans have shown by their floundering attendance figures that they desperately want a return to the hockey of yester-year.
What’s even more alarming is the relapse of events. From ’68-79, 16 clubs were added into the NHL. Of those 16, one is defunct, and five have relocated. Now with the addition of the “new nine” from ’92-01, the NHL needs to yet again change the landscape of the league to prosper.
The perfect number of clubs in the league would be 24—twelve in each conference. But the reality remains that with 30 clubs, the league can’t just dump six of them. There’s too much money, contracts and business ventures invested in each franchise. Although let it be said the addition of the Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets was simply just “too much too soon.”
Without these moves, hockey hotbeds such as Boston, Chicago, New York and Detroit continue to suffer in attendance and ratings. Additionally, the St. Louis fan base has evaporated since the 2003 season, and they’ve done nothing to combat it. Florida and California have too many clubs, and as a result the Panthers and L.A. Kings are struggling.
Yet while expansion has had a negative effect on the sport, some clubs have shown moderate success. So suitors could be found for relocation.
Sharks (11): ’94, ’95, ’98, ’99, ’00, ’01, ’02, ’04, ’06, ’07, ‘08
Senators (10): ’97, ’98, ’99, ’00, ’01, ’02, ’03, ’04, ’06, ’07*, '08
Ducks (6): ‘97, ‘99, ‘03*, ‘06, ‘07 (Cup Champs), 08
Lightning (5): ’96, ’03 (Cup Champs), ’04, ’06, ‘07
Panthers (3): ’96*, ’97, ‘00
Predators (3): ’04, ’06, ‘07
Wild (3): ’03, ’07, ‘08
Thrashers (1): ‘07
Blue Jackets (0): never
* Lost Cup Finals
To solve over-expansion, which the league has now done twice, the Commissioner must realize relocation or folding is an option and bring the league to 28 teams. And if the NHL is to ever fully succeed again, owners must realize that Bettman’s model has limited the leagues financial growth and a new model (which includes bringing teams back north) needs to be put into place.
These recommendations are easier said than done, being that we are talking millions of dollars invested with each franchise. Yet with Canada’s economy rebounding—their poor economy the reason they lost the Nordiques, Jets, Gretzky and Lindros in the first place—it's time to put hockey back in its heartland.
This is what the league should do:
a) Buy out the Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets. Much like the NBA bought out the final two owners of the ABA who refused to fold in the merger, the NHL must do the same. The players from the folded clubs enter into a supplemental draft all the way down through their minor-league affiliates. New minor league affiliates should move to the disbanded cities.
b) Move Nashville and Atlanta to Canada. Hamilton would be the first option, with Milwaukee as an alternative to towns north of the border..
3) Realign and Rename
Go back in hockey’s history and you’ll discover a thousand different names for its divisions and various realignments every few seasons.
Initially, the NHL was six clubs in one division. Then the league went to a two-division format, split into the East and West in 1967 with twelve clubs.
By 1975, the league decided to take a standard route, splitting into two conferences with four divisions—two per conference. What was unusual was the league's decision to name the conferences and divisions after historical contributors in hockey.
But the NHL abandoned its unique history for the '93-94 season (which happened to be the first full year under Commissioner Gary Bettman).
For all you younglings, the Eastern Conference used to be called the Prince of Wales Conference because the Prince of Wales Trophy was donated in 1924 by the then-Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VIII. The Eastern Conference champ is still awarded the Wales Trophy today.
The Western Conference was the Campbell Conference named after Clarence S. Campbell, who served as President of the NHL from 1946-77 and the Western Conference champion is still awarded the Campbell Trophy.
But the new powers-that-be in 1993 thought it best to sweep that history under a rug, and treat the expansion markets like cavemen. They made the geography of the league easier to understand by renaming the conferences East and West again.
Not to dwell, but hockey has such a storied history, based on royalty and the development of western civilization from the East. Yet the change made its newer fan base even more confused—because newer fans don’t understand the link to the league’s history.
So why do away with it? Simple, Bettman had an agenda to simplify the game, and he failed miserably, with bland divisions and play alienating his old fan base.
Now more than ever, is the time to bring the leagues’ history back. Rename the divisions by their former names, the Adams, Patrick, Norris, and Smythe under a two conference ( Wales and Campbell) four-division league with seven clubs per division. Hockey fans embrace their sports’ history—not a carbon copy, “East/West, North/South” league. Bring back hockey’s rich history and fans will respond.
And while the NHL needs to fold and/or relocate clubs, and adjust and rename the divisions, let it be said that the playoff seeding structure should remain intact The league has benefited by conference-based seedings, which has provided various intriguing postseason match-ups without losing any rivalries.
4) Reduce Goalie Pad Sizes (again)
In the early 80s the league had an offensive boom—in part, because goalie pads were too small. The game advanced so quickly in the 80s that in response, goalie equipment grew. And grew. And grew. The modern tender looks like a cross between the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man and the Michelin Man—not a goalie.
With the change in padding, along with all the clutching and grabbing, the offensive boom in the 80s became an offensive draught by the late 90s. Goals were at a premium—and the league has suffered ever since.
Look no further than Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Giguere by all accounts is a good goaltender, currently one of the best in the league. But the size of his padding is nothing short of ridiculous. There is no room to score—and that is not an exaggeration. Nowadays the goalie doesn’t make the save, the padding does!
The NHL took steps to reduce goalie pads in the past few seasons, but not, as offensive statistics continue to suffer throughout the league as a whole. Scoring is down, thus attendance is down and the league IS DOWN—so bring goalie pad sizes down!
Notice that since the hiring of Bettman in late 1993 and the increase in goalie pads, only 46 players have scored over 100 points. Yet from 1980-93, 157 players crossed the boundary marker.
* Bettman hired February 1993
5) Eliminate Shootouts
The shootout is the difference between creating excitement and manufacturing excitement. How does the league front office believe they can take a team sport for a 60 minute competition and break it down to an individual event with a shootout to determine the result?
It would be like the NFL incorporating field goal attempts in replacement of sudden-death overtime or the NBA heading to free throws after the first OT. After 10 seasons of shootouts, it still doesn’t make sense, and bloats teams' win records.
Adding the shootout was done for two reasons:
a) To generate more fan interest
b) Eliminate teams playing for a tie
The ‘74-75 NY Islanders were 33-25-22. Yet in 2002, the Minnesota Wild ended the season 26-35-12-9 (was that their record, or a zip code ?). No, the “9” is not an additional bank account number, but a club’s “OL.” Adding a fourth statistical column, OL (Overtime Loss) in 1999-200, quickly became a joke to hockey fans—never catching on and has really yet to be accepted.
Look, ties are part of hockey.
The issue here is the fan base believed for quite some time hockey clubs would play for a tie, and if tied, would attempt to preserve a tie to pick up the almighty “point” rather than go for a win. In the old days, if clubs were tied late in the third period, playing for a win risked possible odd-man rushes and scoring chances for opponents and ultimately losing the game and that “point.”
Again, this was a part of hockey—and rather than embracing it, the new regime had a new model which rejected the old format and developed a new method for determining outcomes.
What regular-season ties did provide was an intense atmosphere for sudden-death playoff hockey.
In the NFL, which uses a 16-game schedule, a tie typically kills a club in the league playoff picture. Hence you play for the win. But in the NHL’s 82-game schedule, ties add up and can be the difference maker in getting into the postseason with those ties giving you a few extra points to creep in.
In the NBA or NFL, wins get a team into the playoffs—but in the NHL, “points” get you into the playoffs, and ties count towards points. It’s what separates the league from other sports, but the league has been in a decade-long decision to manufacture results with shootout wins as a W.
So presently we find the post-lockout “new” NHL going to from W-L-T-OL to W-L-OL and doing away with the T (tie) column by combining it into OL with the understanding if a team achieves a shootout loss decision, they pick up a point for a tie through regulation and overtime—and if they win the shootout, the club just gets a W. A rather cheap W in the hockey purist's mind, but a W none the less.
Well, you are not among the minority. For the league has changed this area so much since its addition in ’99, that fans struggle to keep it straight, and detest it, asshown by the box office audience.
To fix the issue, the league either needs to embrace the tie or eliminate it by going to W’s over points, so that ties would in turn achieve nothing and clubs would “play for the win.” Either way, get rid of the shootout.
6) Remove Bettman
This is the most critical element to the long-term success of the NHL.
Gary Bettman has destroyed the NHL to within a shell of its former self—the only remnants being the jerseys and locations of some franchises. The rules have changed, cities have changed, division and conference names have changed, the scoring has changed—even the league logo has changed!
But what Bettman was hired for (money) he has provided. Figures suggest the league has increased revenue by 600 percent since his hiring, which tickles the owners so much they could care less about what their product resembles—as long as Bettman lines their pockets. So how are so many clubs in turmoil?
The owners must understand their decision to keep Bettman has cost hockey everything. Its soul. Its identity. The link to its history. And the result is a confused fan base (or lack thereof), several struggling franchises, and insulting hockey’s country of origin, Canada.
It’s said that Bettman’s agenda was to “Americanize” the game—and his actions over his 15 years—relocating two clubs from Canada to the US, building southern markets in California, Phoenix, Atlanta, North Carolina, FLA, Nashville, and Dallas—do nothing to disprove those claims. Hell, he even intervened when a purchasing group attempted to buy and move the Nashville Predators to Hamilton.
Additionally, he has presided over two labor stoppages—with one resulting in the loss of an entire season (’04-05)—directly due to his destruction of league income and owners inability to afford players' contracts. The result of Bettman’s management drove more fans away and created even less revenue streams.
The league office will show numbers that suggest otherwise—but the pure fact is, to have a successful league financially, you must be successful in the TV market. And under Bettman’s tenure, that goal has turned into a disaster. The league’s TV audience has dropped so badly that the NHL most recently was relegated to take a deal with the Outdoor Life Channel (now Versus) in 2006.
Here are the current TV contracts of the five major sports:
NFL: $21.4 billion (CBS, NBC, FOX, ESPN combined)
MLB: $5.5 billion (FOX/Turner/ESPN combined)
NBA: $4.6 billion (ABC/ESPN: $2.4; TNT: $2.2)
NASCAR: $4.8 billion (ABC/ESPN)
NHL: $207.5 million (Versus/NBC)
All Bettman’s financial model has done is create a 1.8 percent viewer share. Because nobody tunes in, advertising doesn’t sell.
Why don’t fans tune in? Not because hockey doesn’t translate—people loved the ’80 Olympic team & the ’94 Rangers—but because the game has altered away from its history, changed its rules, changed its format, and now ca