State of the NHL: Is It Heading in the Right Direction?

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State of the NHL: Is It Heading in the Right Direction?

A little more than a month into the season and the NHL is experiencing some of its best times in recent memory.  Scoring, attendance and TV ratings are all on pace for record numbers after the strong October that the league had. 

 

The NHL put more fans in the seats through the first month of the season than they have in the past, averaging 17,388 people in attendance per game (an increase of 3.1% from last season).  This is the first time in league history that the NHL is averaging more than 17,000 people in the stands.

 

Television ratings were also up.  Hockey Night in Canada’s broadcasts in October saw a 12 percent increase in ratings while TSN’s also experienced an increase in viewers, going up 5 percent. 

 

In the States, the number wasn’t so bad either with VERSUS increasing 5 percent over October 2007.  Of the 30 NHL teams, 21 had local ratings that were up from or right on par with the numbers from a year ago. 

 

All the NHL wants is more goals and they saw an increase in that too.  Through Tuesday’s games this week, the NHL as a whole had produced 688 even strength goals compared with 647 of last season after the same amount of games.  These two numbers are higher than the 2003-04 season, when there was only 563 goals scored in the same amount of contests (a 22% increase!!!).  Not to mention the astonishing fact that the NHL, during October, averaged 5.9 goals per game which is also up (like everything else) 3% from last season’s 5.7 a game.

 

Games were also more exciting.  Of the 149 games played in the first month of the season, 70 saw lead changes (and that includes 14 third period comebacks).  That back and forth style of play is just what the NHL wants.

 

Fans and even just casual observers are also hitting the web.  NHL.com has seen a 7% increase of unique visitors despite 6 fewer regular season days from last year. Sales of NHL-licensed product on NHL.com for October increased by 26 percent compared to the same month span last year.

 

The increase in salary cap from year to year also shows that the league is experiencing an increase in revenue.

 

The NHL is on the rise again, and everyone is happy from owners down to the fans of the league; however, some things still need to be assessed as rule changes jump to the forefront. 

 

The NHL has made some great changes since the lockout year, and the product has shown that on the ice.  When is enough, enough though with the league?  It seems like every year new rules are coming out to try to help out scoring. 

 

I will try to tackle (or check) some of these new ideas and what I think needs to be done with the NHL to continue to make one of the best games in the world even stronger.

 

TV CONTRACT

For some strange reason, the NHL thought it would be a good idea to extend their TV contract with VERSUS in January for three more years.  That means that we have to watch the terrible crew that VERSUS has assembled to watch games up through the 2010-2011 season.  What a bonehead decision that will turn out to be. 

 

Instead of just waiting a few months to see if they could get a better channel to air its games on, the NHL jumped the gun and signed a deal with a terrible channel that I could rant about all day if there was anyone to listen.  A lot of you might not even know what I am talking about though, seeing as VERSUS isn’t even included in your TV lineup. 

 

Taking a look at TV ratings in the past, it is a complete shock why the NHL would do such a thing after the game is at an all-time high and the fan base is growing.  In the three years already the Versus/OLN has had exclusive rights to NHL games it had been a rating disaster.  The TV channel has not had an average rating higher than .3 in the last three seasons (.2 in 2005-06, .2 in 06-07, and .3 in 07-08).  To put those dismal numbers in perspective, in 2006 more people watched the 13 WNBA broadcasts on ESPN2 than the NHL on OLN.  Not to mention that NBC’s poker series which preceded the network’s NHL playoff coverage outdrew hockey by 200,000 viewers!

 

TV blunders have also added to some of the high profile NHL games.  Just two seasons ago, NBC decided to go to live coverage of the Preakness instead of covering overtime of Game 5 between the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators during the Eastern Conference Finals.  I guess that is understandable since the Preakness is more widely watched over the nation than the hockey game, except for the fact that the live coverage of the Preakness was the “pre-game show”, two hours before the race even began! 

 

The NHL needs to swallow their pride a little bit and work out a deal that puts their product on a real national TV channel.  It might mean that they have to take a little less money, but it will bring the game of hockey out to a larger audience and improve the league’s fan base. 

 

The NHL should also move their All-Star Game onto a channel that the whole nation can actually watch.  It has worked for baseball, basketball, and football so why can’t the NHL do it? 

 

The All-Star game on Versus over the past two seasons have put up a .8 and .7 rating.  In 2004 where hockey wasn’t as popular to the nation, the game put up a 1.8 rating on ABC.  The previous 13 All-Star games before the switch to Versus averaged a 2.4 rating on FOX, ABC and NBC. 

 

The NHL has to get it stars out on the national scene.  A move of the All-Star game to a national channel is greatly needed to try to get people hooked on the NHL.         

 

ONLINE COVERAGE

Nothing really needs to be changed in this aspect of things that they are doing online, I just wanted to say what a great job the NHL has done in this department in the age of computers. 

 

The deal that they signed with Youtube and Google Videos was huge.  It gave fans the replays that they wanted to see and even full length games.  It was overlooked for so long but it was such a smart idea. 

 

Think of how many times you search for NFL highlights or big hits to finally find the video after scrolling through all the search results pages.  You click on it ready to watch but the video has been removed due to copyright infringement.  That doesn’t happen with the NHL which is to its benefit.

 

Also the release of NHL GameCenter Live, the League's new interface for watching NHL games live online, has already been a success.  Fans are already jumping on board, as the League increased its subscriber base nearly 270 percent year-over-year.  The league saw what MLB did with there live games over the internet and the NHL countered with this.  Great work to that department too.

 

RULE CHANGES

 

1. How to Stop Hits to the Head

The NHL players now-a-days have no respect for one another as hits to the head have jumped rapidly in the past few years.  My solution to this is to look at hockey’s past and take out the instigator penalty and let the players police themselves. 

 

I am probably a lot younger than anyone who is reading this article so I didn’t grow up watching the fights of the 1970s or 80s.  I have of course seen highlights of them though and some of them went way over the line.  I am not here preaching bench clearing brawls or cheap shots. I am just saying that if the instigator penalty went away and the teams had a way for sticking up for one another, that the hits to the head would stop. 

 

Now, players don’t have any consequences for hits to the head.  They might get fined or suspended for a few days but nothing serious.  Sometimes they might not even get a suspension at all.

 

If you can go to a bank and steal all the money in it without getting caught or just paying a small amount of the money back, would you do it? 

 

That is what hits to the head are right now.  Let the players handle it on the ice and be able to stick up for themselves.  If that person who hit an opposing player in the head gets beat up all game, he is a lot less likely to do so again. 

 

2. Scoring and Goaltenders

Since rule changes such as the two line pass for example, were taken away scoring has gone up drastically.  One of the biggest concerns now is that the goaltenders are taking up too much of the net, and not just because of their natural size.

 

They are getting help with bulky equipment.

 

Goalies now are a whole lot better than their predecessors, with or without bulky equipment.  The entire position has changed over the years to give us the physically strong and flexible goalie that we have today.  

 

My opinion on this matter is not to lessen the goalie equipment.  They have already done that in previous years and as long as the NHL keeps a rule on how big it can get (like they do now) it shouldn’t be a problem.  Just increase the sides of the net by a couple inches either way and those post shots that you here now will be lighting the lamp with the change.

 

Another possible idea to increase scoring is kicking the puck.  Now hockey is meant to be played with a stick but I don’t see why hockey doesn’t let you give it a boot from time to time. 

 

A player can redirect a shot with his skate as long as it is not a distinct kicking motion but he can’t just give it a tap if his stick is tied up?

 

Now people are going to argue that players are going to be trying a lot more to kick the puck, but it will not change the game at all really.  If you had the option between an 80 MPH slap shot or a 5-10 MPH kick what are you going to chose to try and score?

 

3. Blocked Shots and Touch up Icing

This debate has come up now since former defenseman, and now Montreal Canadiens GM Bob Gainey has spoken out on the topic.  Gainey wants to crack down on players who throw themselves into the path of a shot or slide across the ice to break up a play.  I think that he is nuts.

 

The blocked shot is an art form in this game and a sacrifice for your team to win the game.  Players who go down to block shots are trying to win at all costs, even if it is going to hurt (and believe me it does). 

 

Players put their bodies out there on the lines for their team, and coming from a guy who made a living doing the same thing, I highly disagree with Gainey on this one.

 

Block shots are part of the game just like scoring and hitting are.  Now Gainey’s idea is just so players don’t slide in front of a shot, they can still go down on one knee.  My question is why? 

 

Defensemen are going to try to take away the shooting lanes no matter what, whether they fall to a knee or slide across the ice.  Shots are still going to be blocked like they are now.  It really isn’t going to increase the scoring like people think.  Kids are taught growing up that it is part of the game.  It has been through hockey’s existence and needs to stay in the game.  If a player is willing to risk his own body, then let him do it.

 

Touch up icing on the other hand, should go.  Throughout a players entire career, from childhood, international and college play, icings are no touch up until they get to the NHL.

 

The touch up icing is in the game right now for excitement purposes.  The race between two players racing towards a puck at full speed is sort of exciting but also dangerous too.  Not to mention that the defense usually always touches the puck first anyways.

 

It is pointless to have in the game and is just a waste of time.  With it gone the game wouldn’t have to worry about the two players crashing into the boards at top speed hurting themselves.  It would protect the players and make the game move faster.  This is one rule that should be pulled from the game.

 

 

The NHL is growing bigger and bigger as more people start to jump onboard.  They people in charge just need to do the right thing to keep the fans coming.  Maybe, just one day soon, the NHL will be considered one of the top leagues in the country again. 

 

Hey us fans can hope, right?

 

Feel free to have a debate in the comments below about anything written in this article, or any other ideas you have for the NHL.  Your feedback is greatly appreciated

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