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
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
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 puckdroppings.com/hockeybloginamerica).