We are only two weeks into the regular season, but there has already been enough controversy to fill the back pages of newspapers (and blogs!) for an entire season. The NHL has been trying to expand their audience for as long as I can remember, but a closer look reveals that most of the time they are their own worst enemy.
The state of the game itself is great. We have never seen so much young, exciting talent in the league than right now. The new rules have helped open it up to allow for more skating and skilled players. And the league is coming off one of it's most successful seasons to date.
So why do people still laugh when you ask them to take the sport seriously?
I've highlighted five reasons that are killing the credibility of the game and leaving both die-hard and casual fans shaking their collective heads.
I could write an entire article on this topic, but let me keep it simple. Does anyone know what constitutes a suspension? How about a suspension length? Is an obscene gesture worth the same as a hit from behind? Does instigating a fight in the last five minutes of a game a worse offense than a blindside hit to the head? Is it ok to 'make a statement' with a suspension to act as a deterrent for the future?
It seems like every other day there is a new controversy about suspensions this season and at the heart of the matter is consistency. If fans, media, and players have no idea how each suspension is rationalized then the league loses a lot of credibility. Don't suspend a player for three games one week and ignore a similar offense the following week. This conversation can be extended to how the league disciplined for New Jersey Devils for trying to 'circumvent the salary cap'. Was it really necessary to fine them that much money and take away draft picks after the fact? Why were previous teams allowed to circumvent the cap without any penalty?
Suspensions don't make much sense if nobody understands any of them.
Speaking of violating rules, does anyone know what is a blindside hit and what isn't? Can skilled players forget about keeping their head up across the middle? Are they allowed to admire a pass without fear of getting hit? What is a hit from behind? Does it matter if the receiving player turns his back at the last moment? Is an illegal hit worse depending on whether a player is injured or not?
The game is so fast and the players are usually reacting involuntary to what's going on around them that it's very difficult to decipher the intent of a players actions. I'm all for taking senseless headshots out of the game, but at the same time let's be reasonable. Hockey is a dangerous game at many levels and especially in the pros. Players know the risks when they sign up to play. You cannot legislate the physical component out of the game.
Here's an idea. Make the ice bigger. Players are significantly bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before so violent collisions are going to be more dangerous. The only problem? It takes money out of the owners pockets because they would lose the first few rows of every arena. The NHL would rather implement confusing rules that make sense to nobody; including themselves.
Also, if the NHL really cared about player safety they would go to a no-touch icing rule. Gary Bettman always talks about how the race for an iced puck is one of the most exciting plays in hockey.
Really? That's news to me because I've never heard that play being a talking point among fans unless it results in an injury. Instead of protecting these players the league would rather have them skate full speed towards the boards where the slightest nudge or edge could end their career (or even their life).
One of the worst things to come out of the last CBA was the way NHL contracts are structured. The league thought it would be a good idea to force teams to pay contracts in full rather than give them the option to buy them out. The premise behind this was to penalize teams for handing out bad contracts. That might make sense, but it doesn't account for the changing dynamics of the game and the salary cap. The salary cap goes up or down depending on how the finances played out the previous year. So a team that pays to the cap in 2009 might be hampered if the cap goes down in 2010.
Fair market value for contracts also change year to year. How many times did we see teams walk away from arbitration decisions this summer because the final number was too high? Take Antti Niemi for example. He was awarded a contract number in Chicago that was twice as high as what he signed for in San Jose. The problem? He was awarded fair market value based on contracts that were signed prior to 2010. After three backup goalies made it to the final four during the playoffs teams have decided to go cheap at goalie, thus lowering the subsequent market value. Now teams like Vancouver are stuck with monster contracts in net that were fair at the time, but not now. Trades between teams now have much less to do with talent and more to do with money.
Another problem is injuries. Some might say that the Islanders were wrong to give that much money in a long-term deal to Rick Dipeitro, but he has been riddled with injuries ever since. Regardless of if you agree with the deal or not, teams should not be penalized because a player becomes injury prone. Now we have teams like Detroit and New Jersey icing rosters with 15-18 players in a game because they can't afford to make any moves or call anybody up from the minors. This is absurdity. The new CBA needs to give teams some options with contracts or this mess will only get worse.
One of the more laughable things about the NHL is the way they settle ties. Have you ever looked at the NHL standings? They still confuse me and I love the game. Now it seems like two-thirds of the league have 100 points at the end of the year and most teams are above .500. How does this make any sense? Tell a non-hockey fan that points are still awarded even if they lose in overtime and they will look at you cross-eyed. Now the league has made a new rule stating that a shootout win does not factor into regular season tie-breakers. I officially give up trying to figure this out.
Gary Bettman can play spin-doctor all he wants and tell the world how much he loves his relationship with Versus, but the NHL won't make serious money from a TV contract unless it returns to ESPN. The only stumbling block? Does ESPN even want the NHL? The last time we saw this relationship was when the NHL was abruptly parked on ESPN2 right before the X-Games and followed by bowling.
The TV landscape has changed a lot over the last couple of decades and a lot more entertainment is competing with the product on the ice. Now kids have the internet, video games and social media to keep them busy. There are roughly six billion channels on TV and about five hundred sports to choose from. The league did good last season with the Olympics and a steller playoffs, but they will need to keep up that momentum if they hope to get back on prime-time television. Versus does a great job with their coverage, but Bettman isn't kidding anybody. He's looking for a more lucrative deal that will install more credibility into the league.
Now don't get me wrong. This article isn't intended to bash the NHL. Nor do I think they should blindly appease non-NHL people just for the sake of the game. The NHL is still a great league and the product on the ice has never been better. At the same time, we should never become content with the status quo. The league has always tried to widen its reach and bring in more revenue at every turn. They have made great stride in many areas and should continue to make it better. But in order to achieve these goals they need to have their house in order. I wouldn't try to sell you a new suit if it has a ketchup stain on it. Many of the issues I've raised are correctable and would go a long way in increasing the credibility of the league. Whether you are a fan or not, the NHL should do everything in their power to do what's best for the game. Unfortunately, they always take one step forward and two steps back. Thankfully these issues are getting more and more attention from the traditional and social medias of the world and there might be hope on the horizon.