Top 10 ways to improve the NHL

People need to get to know NHL stars like Duncan Keith (Pam Rodriguez/THW)

By Steve Kendall

With the general managers of NHL teams meeting this week, it is a perfect time to chime in with the things I would do to make the sport I love better and help it grow:

10. Eliminate the instigator penalty

When this rule was instituted in 1992, it was designed to not only cut down on the number of fighting majors, but also to stop the vengeance factor that was happening across the NHL. In many ways, it has been successful in doing just that – especially ending the vengeance factor. However, it may have also ushered in the return of the cheap-shot artist.

Violent hits and cheap shots have (seemingly) risen over the pat decade. When Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke nearly decapitated Boston’s Marc Savard last year, no Bruins’ player went after Cooke. Most said they did not want to incur an extra minor for instigation in a game the Bruins desperately needed to win.

Guys like Cooke, Sean Avery, Jordin Tootoo, Adam Burish, and Jarkko Ruutu (among others) have made a living from throwing cheap hits, talking trash, and being irritating. In the past, guys like this also needed to be able to fight. Not anymore. These guys have their run of the rink, often injuring players with overly aggressive play, without fear of retribution.

Get rid of the instigator rule and I think you would see the end of the head hunting ways of some of these guys – or you would see them get what is coming to them.

9. Promote ball hockey

Alex Burrows won gold for Canada at the 2007 World Ball Hockey Championships

Not everyone can skate, but just about everyone can play ball hockey. It is a huge sport in Canada, Europe, and in pockets in the United States (Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey, San Francisco), and the U.S. has won the World Championships at the under-20 level. Vancouver star Alex Burrows was the MVP at the 2007 World Championships in Pittsburgh and R.J. Umberger played the game growing up, as did Joe Mullen, Steve Heinze, Rick Middleton and countless other NHL stars.  The Penguins run a street hockey tournament every year, and the Bruins run clinics throughout the city of Boston.

Even though many of the participants have never played ice hockey (though many have eventually transitioned over to the ice), they all love the NHL. It is another way of getting more people involved in the sport and growing the fan base at a grassroots level.  It’s cheap, it’s fun, and it works.

8. Commit to the Olympic Games

Yes, it is a pain. Yes, it stinks to shut the league down for two weeks. Yes, it can be a giant hassle, Yes, players could get injured. No, the NHL makes no money off the deal.

Still, this should be a no-brainer.

During the 2010 Olympics, I had people talk to me about hockey that I did not believe even knew what hockey was. The excitement that was created surrounding the Olympic hockey tournament swept the country and gave a slew of positive publicity to the sport. The number of fans grew quite a bit, as I knew a lot of people who started watching the NHL after the Olympics. Sign on for Russia 2014 – it will only help the game grow.

7. Get rid of the All-Star Game

I must say I like the change to having captains pick the teams from the pool of players selected by fans and the NHL Operations staff. It adds a twist to the game and will at lest shake things up a bit. However, I’d rather see them throw the sticks in the middle of the ice and toss them to each side to make a team.

Actually, if they need to keep the game, the best bet would be to have it as an NHL all-stars vs. the best of the European leagues, including the KHL, with he winning team getting some type of monetary prize.

Still, the best option is to just get rid of the game.

6. Make goalie equipment smaller

Roberto Luongo (Wikimedia Commons)

Have you noticed how much bigger the equipment is today compared to even 10 years ago? Make these goalies work a little harder to stop a puck. Scoring seems to be up, but maybe we can go back to having tough play in front of the net if the goalie’s were forced to use equipment that did not block the majority of the goal.

5. Grow the game at the younger levels

The NHL should help fund youth programs, USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, junior hockey league, high school leagues, and college teams. There also has to be more exposure for these leagues, particularly at the college level. Get these games on TV, market the premier programs, get people into the arenas to see the games (ever been to a top-flight college arena? If you have not, you are missing out – the atmosphere is electric), and get more well-known schools to start hockey programs.

4. Shorten the schedule

With the 82-game schedule, there are just too many nights where the players go through the motions, plus there is no reason to have the Stanley Cup finals in mid-June. Shorten the season by 12 games to 70, and it might help with that issue. If it must stay at 82, and let’s be honest, NHL owners are not going to reduce games because of revenue, add more rivalry games or at least more back-to-back games between teams. Also, starting the season a week or two earlier would eliminate any games being played in June.

3. Eliminate some teams

This is another idea that would help, but will never happen because of money and job losses. However, dropping down to 28 or 26 teams would increase competition, make the league as a whole stronger, and improve the schedule by eliminating games against teams no one cares about (sorry Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers, as well as a few others).

2. More teams in Canada and appropriate U.S. cities

If we have to keep the league at 30 teams, get rid of teams that do not support their teams and put them in places that love hockey like Quebec City, Winnipeg, Madison, Hamilton, Halifax, Saskatoon, and St. John’s. I thought about Las Vegas, but still unsure about whether that city would support hockey.

1. Showcase the stars better

This means getting on a larger network than Versus, creating more TV specials like the upcoming HBO series profiling Crosby and Ovechkin leading up to the Winter Classic, bringing back the World Cup of Hockey every two years, having a showcase game to open the season, getting players on talk shows and event-style TV, and just making sure people know who these guys are. Let’s see more of Steven Stamkos, Duncan Keith, Henrik Zetterberg, Ryan Miller, Zach Parise, and Chris Stewart. Hockey is full of good guys — let the world find out about them!

(Steve Kendall is a freelance writer for several publications. He is a Level 4 certified USA Hockey coach and a public school teacher. He writes a blog at

  • Matt N

    Never thought of what Mike is saying, but I have to admit, it is a great idea. I have many friends who like the general idea of hockey with the non-stop speed and intensity, but literally “cannot find the puck.” It takes some time to understand where the puck is going, thus making it easier to follow the play. There are looser nets in high school hockey, and there is a noticeable difference.

    Also, I agree that the NHL could use some relocations. I’m an avid Flyers fan, and I watch almost all of the 82 games in the season. Especially this season, watching the Flyers is always exciting, but I get less excited to watch the games against certain teams, particularly those within the Southeast division. I would personally like to see Atlanta or Florida moved to Seattle or Midwestern Canada. With a ton of NHL stars coming out of Manitoba, not to mention the fan base there, it seems logical to restart the Winnipeg Jets or a similar franchise.

  • Steve Kendall

    I do like that idea Mike. Simple, but definitely important!

  • Mike Moore

    There’s something real simple the NHL could do improve the game. In fact, it’s so obvious that the fact they don’t do it frustrates me to no end. Before nets were introduced to the game, there were two pipes sticking out of the ice. A player scored when he shot the puck past a goalkeeper and between the pipes. The idea of netting was to catch and trap the puck so it was easier to determine that a goal was scored. Today’s netting is tighter than a trampoline. Pucks fling back out so quickly, nobody can actually visualize the goal until a slow motion replay. When watching on TV, we depend on the announcer and other visual cues, like player reactions and the red light for at least half the goals that are scored because the puck is in and out so quickly, we can’t easily determine the goal ourselves. Most other sports are so much more watchable, especially to the novice because a score is easily seen and determined by the viewer, whether it be a base hit in baseball, a touchdown in football, a basketball through the net or a soccer goal. LOOSEN THE NETTING SO FANS CAN SEE THE PUCK IN THE NET AND A GOAL HAS BEEN SCORED!

  • Steve Kendall

    Actually, that would be 74, so if you played every team in your conference 3 times, we’d get to 84. Then again, would 74 games be so bad?

  • Shayne Cassidy

    I agree with some of what you said, but the one thing I’d like to see is more inter-conference games. I’m a Flyers fan and I don’t get to see teams like the Kings or Canucks roll into town very often. With an 82-game schedule, there should be more than enough room to have a few more out of conference games and still leave room for maintaining division and conference rivalries.

    • Steve Kendall

      I agree that I’d like to see a few more interconference games and less games against, say, a conference foe in another division (Boston vs. Florida, for example). Unless you cut back substantially on divisional games, not sure it can happen. If you played every team in your division 6 x (3 home and 3 away), every other team in your conference twice (once home and once away) and every team in the other conference twice (home,away), that would be 84 games.

  • Steve Kendall

    I’d actually like to see a few more back-to-back games between teams than anything else. I guess that’s the college hockey fan in me — I like seeing the teams battle on back-to-back nights or every other night. I love it when the Bruins play the Rangers or Sabres (or others) in a home-and-home series. It’s happened a few times over the years.
    I also forgot to mention I kind of like Tampa as well, and I don’t mind Carolina. Florida, Atlanta and Nashville are brutal NHL cities, and I think they need to move at least one (if not all 3) soon.

  • Steve Kendall

    Thanks Justin. I know there is no chance of a reduction of teams, so I’d rather see them relocate some of the struggling franchises to places that might appreciate the teams more. I have no issues with Dallas — ownership has done a good job and the fans support the team. I wouldn’t mind seeing Seattle get a team (and I realize most of those other cities are unlikely, but I think they might be good places for NHL teams).
    I agree that the divisional and conference games in the Western Conference can be an issue. I guess we are spoiled here in the East with so many teams in close proximity. I’d actually like to see Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, and the other Western teams more often than I get to currently. Thank God for NHL Network and Center Ice or I’d never see some of the teams.
    I have no desire to see the NHL on ESPN, which I loathe. I was thinking a combination of Versus, more games on one of the networks, and maybe a third cable outlet (TBS, TNT).
    Thanks for the corrrection on the typo … fixed that.

  • Justin

    I agree with most of the first half of the list (I’m not sure I dislike the all-star game enough to advocate its banishment)

    But the second half needs some correction.

    I do agree shortening the season would probably lead to more sellouts, I don’t think you’d ever see that happen as long as a majority of teams sell out a majority of their games. Personally I like the schedule fine as it is. As a fan of the Minnesota Wild I wish the Western Conference weren’t so spread out but there’s not much to be done about that. I don’t miss the schedule used for the first three years out of the lockout when there were 8 games against each division rival instead of 6 now.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to eliminate teams. I do think the expansion in the 90s was way too much too quick (by the way there are only 30 NHL teams, not 32). However, there hasn’t been an expansion team in 10 seasons and if the league stays on this “expansion diet” for another decade I think the talent will improve simply because participation in hockey is growing (yes even in places like California and Dallas). From a business standpoint it’s probably too expensive as the other owners would have to “buy out” the contracted franchise. Even struggling franchises are better of operating.

    I would like to see some relocations, but nowhere near the mass exodus from the south some traditionalists advocate. Despite Ownership issues Dallas has drawn quite well. You’re targets are right though, it should be Florida, Atlanta, and Nashville in that order. I’m skeptical of more Canadian franchises, it’s been 15 years since Quebec City and Winnipeg have had to pay NHL ticket prices, I think all the other cities you listed are pipe-dreams at best. I think a Southern Ontairo team is enticing, and with the NBA out, this would be a prime opportunity to work a deal to get a team to Seattle.

    As far as TV goes, remember during the lockout ESPN picked up the NBA and expanded their MLS rights along with other properties like WSOP. If the NHL were to go back to ESPN they would probably be at best relegated to a game of the week on ESPN2. I’ll take the extra games Versus offers (though there are rumors of a Versus/ESPN/NBC split in the next TV deal, ala NBA with ESPN/TNT)