What has become of the game we loved so much?
If I speak in the plural, rather than the singular, it is simply because it seems everywhere I turn I find debate on the status of the NHL game from a multitude of angles and varying opinions. Disatisfaction flies rampant from the casual and passionate fan, from players, from league officials, and from broadcasters and media.
Everyone involved has their dime and gripe on where the game is at. I'm hardly alone in my disillusionment.
All agree that much is wrong about the game today. Most agree to disagree on the fix and where to start.
Initially, I must state I totally agreed that the game needed some tinkering. Coming off a locked out season, hockey was in need of a launchpad promotion to revive and stir newfound interest. I, like many others, had the lurking feeling the popularity of some changes catored too much to the fairweather Johnson's of hockey fandom, and not enough to the game's die hard fans. To put it bluntly, there was a south of the border reality that clashed with a Canadian viewpoint in regards to the overhaul of the NHL as we knew it.
A year and a half into this experiment is enough gnawing on bitter fruit. It must be said that the majority of empty seats are not in the snow zone.
This is a crisis time for the league whether they realize it or not. Perhaps even more crucial than they realize. While sitting out the game for an entire year created a thirst for the game, enduring it's growing pains is becoming increasingly agonizing. Fans are being turned off in droves. While the league remains quietly concerned, it continues to spin the tired yarn that all is well.
It is business as usual in Canada. In other parts, it's a different story altogether.
The trouble lies in the absence of a consensus of what is most wrong. There are so many areas of concern, league governors hardly know where to begin. Taking a back step, it is clear that the NHL tried to do too much too soon to repair the game's reputation as a major sport. Turning back and repairing error is not a league strongpoint.
The dilema lies in the fact that certain moves were positive. Opening the game up offensively by cracking down on neutral zone fouls has served to highlight the mass of talent in the league. On any given night, fans are blessed with highlight reel performances that become tomorrows water cooler talk. Whether it be the exploits of Ovechkin, Crosby, Briere, or Malkin, fans are talking of games well after they are played. The fact that previously insurmountable leads are no longer foregone conclusions keeps fans in their seats. The fact that more teams remain in a playoff hunt longer ought to be what keeps those seats warmed longer.
The problem is, it isn't exactly working out as planned. How to warm an empty seat is not a global warming issue solved by the Kyoto accord!
While all out offensive explosions make for titilating scripts, the subtleties of the game have been overlooked.
The nature of the game of hockey, it's accent on speed and prowess versus physicality, has all but been removed. It is robbing the game of its soul while shortchanging the spirit of competitive play.
At the heart of the bleeding, lies the conundrum that is officiating. It was only a matter of time before this zit popped its puss.
While the league has imposed a stricter set of foul crackdowns, it was all but inevitable that the day would come when such a whip cracking would coil back.
Have you noticed, as I have, that with more to call in terns of fouls, that more is now being missed?
It is almost as if the league has memoed referees to ease back some. I see more and more of the so called new rules being tolerated, almost ignored. I see confused players, game in and game out, frustrated by inconsistancy. I see coaches up in arms, questioning referees without answers. I see games outcomes, altered by calls or non-calls, pretty much on a nightly basis.
The NHL continues to spin their version of the truth with a total disregard for the fans astute game knowledge. They interpret the declining number of calls as a sign that players are adapting to the rule changes. What a bunch of hogwash that is!
The simplicity of the equation is as bare as this. With more calls for the officials to make, comes the rising likelyhood that there is obviously more calls to miss. With four on-ice officials to collectively turn a blind eye, it has fans leaving games shaking their heads at the dubiousness of the rules instead of the overall content of the games excitement.
Perhaps what the NHL failed to seize was the perspective from a losing teams side.
By making tie games extinct, which was one of their goals, it has essentially outlawed what once was a proper outcome of a game. It was said and often criticized that NHL hockey was that last sport that awarded points for ties. They sought to eliminate this so-called sister kissing with the advent of the overtime loss and the shootout loss. While it has parlayed itself into the expected excitement in some quarters, the awarding of 3 points - 2 for a win, 1 for a loss - has negated the importance of a win in and of itself. The added point has served only to falsify standings and an illusion of parity.
I cannot make sense of 23 teams out of 30, playing .500 hockey! Look up the word abomination, if you will. I find that this method of sugarcoating losses, absolutely contrary to a teams rightful reality.
One goal the NHL seeks to achieve is the creation of rivalries. It has erroneously believed that increasing the number of games versus divisional rivals to eight, and tightening the standings, would assist in this. It is now being told that it is hardly happening. In Chicago and Boston, where hockey was once a hotbed of interest, 10,000 empty seats are showing up nightly to not watch the Blackhawks and Blue Jackets play four meaningless regular season games. This is no way to grip a season ticket holder and convince them to lay down thousands of dollars yearlong in hopes of finding passionate and embattled play.
Many believe that playoff series are what creates rivalries most. Again, they are dead wrong. With eight of sixteen teams eliminated come the first round, how often can rivals meet in the post season? While repeated playoff matchups do lead to rivalries, the scenarios can hardly be planned.
Offsetting this worthy argument are teams who decry the fact that certain elite players and teams currently only appear in their town once every three years. This fact is hot on the NHL agenda. Imagine holding season tickets to Coyotes games and only seeing the aforementioned Crosby or Ovechkin every thrid year. It's an outragious notion that the pursuit of divisional rivalries that don't exist cannot buy back.
This week in the league, the NHL has swung a promo angle terming it "Rivals Week". On Sunday, we witnessed a Rangers and Islanders tilt that was quite exciting. Back to back Ducks - Kings games were also of interest. A Bruins and Canadiens matchup on Monday resulted in another game that was fiercly competed and instantly forgotten in the midst of a schedule that sees rivals meet eight times.
Before the Habs - Bruins game, ceremonies honoured these past heated rivalries and it reminded me only of everything the game misses.
In a between game interview, Habs legend Guy Lafleur, no stranger to controversy and total political uncorrectness, hit the nail on the head. While almost terming today's game as a version of flag football on skates, Lafleur decried the total absense of any passion in meetings between what would be rivals these days.
Lafleur pointed the finger directly at league rules that curb the basic competitive nature of the beast on skates known as a hockey player. Surprisingly, but not without insight, Lafleur suggested that the lack of heat, blood, and sweat rising from the games was due in no large part to how the officiating obliterates any chance of incidences occuring that lead to heated mixups, fights, physicality, and henceforth retribution and on ice paybackback from such play. He singled out the instigator rule as being a detriment to such things. He mentioned that the absense of a defenseman's ability to play a rugged game is leading to pansy style hockey.
He abhored the crackdown on fouls natural to the spirit of the game as being a prime reason a regular season game does not rise above anything beyond meaningless in the larger scheme of things. In his opinion, Lafleur basically stated that unbridled passions be allowed to flow.
In an eigthteen year career, it must be noted that Guy Lafleur dropped the gloves a total of three times.
In those years, he was likely the target of an opponants wrath countless times. He played his best games when his talents were key to the outcome, regardless of the bounty placed on his being neutralized by whatever means or threats possible.
Don't think that greats such as Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, or Wayne Gretzky weren't motivated to perform at higher standards for the same reasons.
Lafleur went on to state that he initially warmed to shootouts, only to fall back on the fact that with a point in the bank, teams played to roll the dice on the overtime or shootout outcome. The sad ending he said, cheated fans of impassioned team versus opponant play. It was of his mind that games be settled in the same manner as a playoff game. Play the overtime until a team wins it, with no points awarded to the loser.
Pretty cut and dried - with no iffy outcome as to who should have won. I can't say such a scenario would be unpleasant, unsatisfactory, or inconclusive.
It would heal much of what ails the NHL.
That and a more balanced schedule for starters.