Dear Abbey: What Would the B/R Community Change If They Were NHL Commissioner?

Abbey MastraccoContributor IIAugust 21, 2021

Dear Abbey: What Would the B/R Community Change If They Were NHL Commissioner?

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Welcome to another edition of Dear Abbey, where I don't give out life advice like the real Dear Abby, but I do talk about hockey.

    We're in the dog days of summer, when the most exciting NHL news encompasses entry-level contracts being signed and Jack Eichel emoji tweets. So we decided to shake things up a little—or more accurately, we asked the B/R hockey community what it would shake up if given the chance.

    Gary Bettman is the only commissioner the NHL has ever known. But what if you, reader, were given a chance to step into his shoes for a day? After the booing subsides, what changes would you make to the NHL? The B/R community's responses were enlightening. A lot of people wanted tough, old-time hockey, but even more wanted to find ways to better display the tremendous speed and skill of today's game.

    There were plenty of responses about the officiating and more than a few ideas about where to move the Arizona Coyotes (all of the traveling writers are irritated no one said Hawaii or Mexico).

    Here are some of the most popular and intriguing suggestions.

Ad Space

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Not putting advertising on jerseys.—@PhilaNJ87

    No advertising on the front of sweaters, for starters.—@Rustler46 

    From 2022, the NHL will allow teams to sell ad space on jerseys for the first time, and many fans are not happy about the decision. Last season, in an effort to make up for some of the financial losses brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the league allowed teams to place ads on helmets. Taking it a step further could provide a huge financial windfall for franchises.

    But hockey jerseys are revered. The logos of NHL teams are so sacred that you can't even step on the carpeted designs in locker rooms. Maybe the floor isn't the best place for something of that magnitude, but I digress.

    Hockey fans see this as a similar sin. Sullying the clean look of the blue-and-white Toronto Maple Leafs sweaters with another color would not be right. The spoked "B" on the Boston Bruins' jersey would no longer be the focal point of the uniform with a sponsor's patch affixed on the sleeve.

    This is common practice in European sports leagues, but we tend to regard uniforms as more sacrosanct in North America. The New York Yankees jersey is so respected and iconic that names can't even be stitched on the back.

    Maybe our eyes will adjust and we won't notice the ads quite as much as we get used to them. But it's doubtful. Teams would like to make money, but fans want to preserve tradition. The league probably isn't winning over many people with this decision.

Turning Up the Heat on the Draft Lottery

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    I would make the bottom 16 teams compete for the first overall pick. The day your team is eliminated for the playoffs you start gaining points for the No. 1 pick until the end of the season. The teams would be seeded from 1-16. This would force the bottom teams to remain competitive until the end of the season and prevent tanking for the top pick. In theory, in this format the worst team would still get the first pick, but at the same time the next teams to be eliminated from the playoffs would still have a shot at the first pick.—(@GoBruins63)

    I really like this idea for a few reasons.

    The NHL doesn't quite do tanking like the NBA. When I covered the New Jersey Devils, then-head coaches John Hynes and Alain Nasreddine made sure the teams were playing hard every single night, even after the teams were out of the race and key leaders were traded away.

    And those Devils teams sure did play hard right until the bitter end. They had some prospects, and they had some veteran American Hockey League players who saw the rest of the season as their opportunities to make impressions. Good coaching will help players understand that.

    However, the Devils' tank jobs in 2019 and 2020 were sort of accidental. They intended to be competitive after making a playoff appearance in 2018 but were unable to build on that season for various reasons, mostly because of injuries and player ineffectiveness. So we can't fault them for struggling. They didn't really even tank. Many other teams end up in this same spot because of similar reasons.

    Rebuilding teams have little incentive to win. The Detroit Red Wings have been unwatchable in recent seasons. The Buffalo Sabres can't even tank correctly. For years, the Arizona Coyotes were once best known for taking on big contracts to get to the salary floor and help contending teams clear space (who can forget Arizona legend Marian Hossa?).

    The Devils were rewarded with the first overall pick twice in a span of three years, but can we call the lottery a reward? A system like this would be an actual reward for more than just the teams involved. It would incentivize the rest of the season, plus it would keep fans engaged and give them a reason to keep going to games.

    Can you imagine a first-place team coming into town when your team is two points away from a top-three draft pick? Everyone loves an underdog story, and the Calgary Flames knocking off a loaded Los Angeles Kings team to move into a top draft spot would make it more than just your typical late-season Pacific Division matchup. The Scotiabank Saddledome would be rocking (even more than usual, and that place always feels like it's shaking), the energy would be electric and, most importantly, the place might be sold out.

    Maybe that revenue would be enough for the teams to opt out of selling ads on jerseys. We might have just fixed two problems at once!


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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Declare the Sabres an AHL team and promote the AHL champ to replace them.—(@ Jester69)

    Contraction. No fewer than eight teams need to go or be relocated.—(@ dryan91)

    While I love the idea of relegation, it's just not possible with the existing North American sports structure. The AHL serves as a development league for the NHL, so you wouldn't be able to relegate the Buffalo Sabres and replace them with the Calder Cup winner—a team run by a different NHL club. For example, if the Texas Stars took the Sabres' place in the league next season, then the parent club in Dallas would be on the hook for NHL salaries.

    What would happen if the Dallas Stars lost a goalie and needed to promote one?

    Plus, you have certain rink specifications that need to be met in order to play in the NHL. Many of the minor league teams play in smaller towns that don't get gate revenue during the week, which is why AHL teams primarily play on weekends. The extra time during the week also allows for teaching time and time with the development coaches.

    A better option is the revamped draft lottery system outlined earlier.

Salary-Cap Compromises

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    Phelan Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Salary cap throughout the whole season, including playoffs, so a Tampa Bay Lightning charade doesn't happen again.—(@ jralston1)

    I was expecting this one.

    Prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Lightning and the Montreal Candadiens, Bettman was asked about the Lightning being $18 million over the salary cap in the postseason, when the cap becomes moot.

    Bettman said he was not upset with the Lightning's decision to put Nikita Kucherov on long-term injured reserve and then activate him for the postseason because the league investigated and found that Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois did not break or circumvent any rules. Kucherov's recovery timeline happened to coincide with the Stanley Cup playoff timeline.

    But this story is about getting to be Bettman for the day, so here's what you do: Implement a minimum games played rule. In order to be eligible for a postseason roster, a player has to have played a minimum of 10-20 games in the regular season. Players on entry-level contracts can be exempt from this rule since this is more about salary cap circumvention than anything. 

    You could even mandate a single game, but that's probably not enough. What you would end up with is teams dressing players like Kucherov in garbage games, playing them for a handful of shifts and then benching them with upper-body injuries. For me, 10-20 games is a good minimum, but this isn't about me. It's about the readers. So maybe a different Bettman thinks a handful is enough.

Howlin' at Hamilton

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Move Arizona to Quebec City or Hartford.—(@JABLONSKI) 

    Move the Coyotes to Houston or Kansas City.—(@ KobeKopitar)

    I would move the Coyotes to Hamilton.—(@ boondockfaint)

    Move the Arizona Coyotes and deprive the world of the Kachina jerseys? How dare all of you! The year-by-year lease with Gila River Arena was never a good idea. The situation with the City of Glendale is a mess.

    But while moving the team out of Arizona might seem like an easy solution on paper, it's not that easy in reality. Hartford does not have an NHL rink. Quebec City or Hamilton would force more conference realignment. Houston is intriguing, as is Kansas City, which has a downtown arena that can be retrofitted for hockey. Sacramento has also expressed a desire to have an NHL team in recent years.

    However, the league seems committed to the Arizona market. Contrary to popular belief, the Coyotes do have a solid fanbase. It might be small compared to the fanbase of the Habs or the Chicago Blackhawks, but it's a passionate group. The Tempe/Scottsdale area in the eastern part of the Salt River Valley is where most of them reside. The team has been wanting to build a new rink in that area for about 20 years, and talks to that end were confirmed in July.

    There is optimism within the organization that a new arena can be built in Tempe, which is the home of several MLB spring training complexes and Arizona State University. Plus, many of the players live in that area. Glendale was never optimal for fans or players, who want to be around more of the action that Tempe, Scottsdale or even downtown Phoenix can provide.

    But Gila River Arena is booting the team from the facilities after next season, and one year won't be enough to build a rink, so where does that leave the Desert Dogs? Maybe they temporarily relocate for a year, which would be unprecedented for the NHL but has been done in the NBA and, most recently, in baseball, when the Toronto Blue Jays played the 2020 season and part of the 2021 season in Buffalo because of coronavirus-related restrictions in Canada. Maybe negotiations between the Coyotes and Gila River Arena start up again and a short-term lease agreement is reached.

    Craig Morgan laid out some options in his recent Substack piece and provided a lot of information about the situation between the Coyotes and the company that operates Gila River Arena, the surrounding rinks and what might be on the horizon.

    The long-term picture is as murky as the desert air during a haboob, but regardless, Arizona remains a viable hockey market. Just ask Auston Matthews, who grew up playing in Scottsdale youth leagues, and former Coyotes captain Shane Doan, whose son Josh, a Coyotes draftee, is playing hockey at Arizona State.

    Don't give up on the desert. It's a worthwhile market.

Calling Games by the Book

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Fire everyone in the player safety department. Then create a set of rules that apply evenly to all regardless of star status or if an injury occurred. Then hire people who have the guts to follow those rules. Second, hold refs responsible to call the rulebook consistently regardless of the player committing the penalty.—(@ HansGruber)

    The NHL's biggest enemy is itself. Player safety and officiating are two of the biggest challenges the league faces when it comes to popularity, and the thing is that Bettman can make changes to these areas if he wanted to, but he has not always seemed that way inclined.

    Hockey has a chance to implement by-the-book officiating. Tim Peel's firing laid bare the open secret of game management and makeup calls, and the ugly brawl at the end of the season between notorious Washington Capitals wing Tom Wilson and the New York Rangers showed some problems when it comes to player safety.

    Wilson knew how to get around the rules. So did the person who issued his punishment, George Parros.

    I've heard both sides of the player safety argument. Some think the NHL should use an independent arbitrator to judge player safety, maybe a former coach who did not play at a high level; others think it's important to have someone who played in the NHL and played in important games for an extended amount of time. They can make the judgment calls because they understand the nuances of the situations, what goes on in scrums and how the physical play of one can affect the game for others.

    The solution is probably somewhere in the middle.

    The biggest point our friend HansGruber and other readers made was transparency. Sometimes, we don't know why some calls are made, and the league has made the officials untouchable. The NHL has gotten better about issuing explanations for the rulings of coach's challenges and goaltender interference, among other calls, but making officials available to the media would bring about more transparency.

    The game is faster and more skilled than ever before, and the refs are human and prone to errors, just like the rest of us. Officials need to be held accountable, but we also need to make it easier for them to do their jobs effectively.

    Bettman is unwilling to acknowledge a problem, but it sounds like it's a big one the fans want to see addressed.

Using Olympic-Sized Ice

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    Minas Panagiotakis/Associated Press

    Expand the rink dimensions to at least Olympic size and possibly larger. This would emphasize skill and speed and attract more viewership, IMO.—(@LTrain9)

    More than a few of you advocated for Olympic-sized ice. It would certainly help European prospects adjust to life in the NHL much faster, and it does lend itself to more creativity and flair appearing in the NHL. It would allow the fastest players to demonstrate even more speed, and we would see more fluid skating. 

    The problem is retrofitting the arenas. Most of these buildings were made to house ice sheets measuring 200x85 feet, with a corner radius of 28 feet. International ice sheets are 197x98.4. Bleacher seats would need to be reconstructed. 

    It goes beyond remodeling NHL arenas and practice facilities. Youth hockey and junior hockey teams would have to start playing on international ice sheets as well. And yes, some facilities have two sheets already, but not every facility. Ice time is expensive. Hockey is already inaccessible to many, and changing the ice size might not help.

    However, I won't disagree with the notion that the game can be more entertaining on bigger ice. Maybe there is a way to use NHL ice at some levels and international ice at the highest level, phasing out the NHL rink dimensions at lower levels over time.

Rule Changes

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Allow one coach's challenge for ANYTHING in a game and treat it much like the current challenge, where if not overturned, it results in a penalty. Could alleviate some of the non-calls and bogus calls on the ice.—(@penaltykilla)

    Eliminate offsides calls completely.—(@jay_brew)

    Get rid of the shootout and play three-on-three until you get a winner. And eliminate getting points for losing in OT during the regular season. A loss is a loss IMO.—(@Hissam86)

    These were the favored rule changes among some of the readers. A handful of people also wanted to eliminate icing calls and the delay-of-game penalties that result from chipping the puck over the glass.

    But let's talk about overtime and shootouts. It's tough for the fans to see the point of shootouts sometimes. I get it. I've got veteran reporters in my ear each time an overtime period ends saying the game should just end in a tie like it used to.

    The NHLPA won't agree to continued overtime because it means teams could be playing all night long during the regular season. A back-to-back set in Pittsburgh and Ottawa? No one wants to be leaving the rink at 3 a.m. when a trip through customs and a snowy drive down to Kanata awaits them.

    There is an injury risk associated with that as well, and it's just not worth it to many players or coaches in the regular season.

    I've never heard any spicy takes from players about three-on-three play. Some teams rarely practice it, and others have become adept at utilizing all of that extra space to make their opponents pay in the most creative ways possible. And then there are some teams that just throw out some penalty-killers and try not to lose. A shootout might be more favorable. A good way to prevent this might be to make losses worth nothing, as Hissam86 suggests.

    Other suggestions included three points for a regulation win, two for an OT win, one for a shootout win and none for a loss of any kind. This new point structure would be interesting.

    My biggest takeaways from today's mailbag were that hockey fans want to see an entertaining product marketed to a wider audience and want it officiated fairly. One fan even threw out a suggestion to have Snoop Dogg as an analyst during the Stanley Cup Final. I like it. It's fun, and hockey needs more fun.

    Despite the league's efforts to expand to non-traditional markets like Arizona, Florida and Las Vegas, it still seems to exude a Regina George type of attitude. You didn't wear pink on Wednesday? You can't sit with us! You haven't been a fan since the Original Six days? You can't sit with us!

    Rule changes like these, as well as switching to bigger ice dimensions and having better officiating, tell me fans want a more competitive, creative game and they want the best players in the world to shine on the biggest stage.

    Keep it up, everyone. We just might fix hockey yet.