Hockey has been in my blood for over three decades. I started playing at age six and watched the New York Islanders on WHT television with my dad after the Uncle Floyd show. My first game was a tense affair between the Islanders and cross town rival New York Rangers at Nassau Coliseum. I was fortunate enough to be present at the historic game six at the Meadowlands Arena when Mark Messier pulled off the most heroic playoff performance that sports has ever seen (Sorry, Michael Jordan fans, but its true). After the Chicago Blackhawks drafted Patrick Kane in the first round in 2007, I decided to start following them also and have not looked back with regret for a second.
Today, it is woven into my daily life as much as ever. I coach my son’s bantam team on weekends and have been given a great opportunity to write for this outstanding website surrounded by so many people who share my passion. I am much slower and far less conditioned than I used to be, so my playing days are all but over. However, that does not mean I don’t look around at what this great game has become and wonder about a few changes that I personally feel would change things for the better.
With the Hawks running the table on the NHL and in reality, at this point, just practicing drills awaiting their first round playoff opponent to be determined, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to put my thoughts to my keyboard and put them out there to be analyzed, discussed, applauded or mercifully thrown into the trashcan. These thoughts are mine and mine alone, so be gentle. Or don’t, that is what this business is all about after all, isn’t it?
The Top Five Things I Would Change In The NHL
1. Eliminate The Shootout: This certainly might not be the popular choice, as the skills competition was introduced in 2005 to appease the fans coming out of a lockout. But is it really a fair way to award a team an extra point during the regular season? I can almost see the merits of it when it pertains to European football, as those athletes literally run around a field as large as 130 yards x 100 yards for 120 minutes with 3 substitutions. But in hockey? You have diminished a regular season matchup valiantly fought for 65 minutes awarding the team with the best breakaway finishers an extra point? Some will say that the league makes sure it does not count as a tiebreaker at the end of the regular season in the standings. I would counter that if my team missed the playoffs by one point, and that point was earned in the shootout, I would not be going home with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Give each team the point and move on. It would make overtime more exciting as teams would actually push for the bonus instead of sitting back and hoping to make it to the skills competition and catching a break. For such a team sport to turn into an individual show has never sat well with me. Is the below, as entertaining as it was, really a way to hand out an extra point in the standings? And yes, I know it didn’t go in, but you get the point.
2. Institute No Touch Icing: This has been a hot topic for some time now, and it really underscores how rough the game has become. It’s a modern day miracle that at the speed these guys motor at, there are not more injuries in this fashion. The rule was first passed in 1937, after the New York Americans iced the puck over 50 times to protect a 1 goal lead against the Boston Bruins. In the rematch two weeks later, the Bruins proceeded to ice the puck 87 times in a scoreless tie. International, European and most amateur leagues have no touch icing in place already. The NCAA has hybrid icing, which is the method I am suggesting the NHL move to immediately and adopt. Instead of being a race to a brick wall, the winner is determined at the faceoff dot. In all seriousness, if you were to go back and analyze all the icings that occur during a typical NHL season, how many actually get wiped out by a forechecker winning the race to the puck? There really is no need to put the players at further risk.
3. Expand The Rink Size: The regulation NHL rink is 200 feet x 85 feet and that was perfect many years ago, when the average NHL player was 5’11 and under 200 lbs whereas today its 6’2 and 205 lbs. There is no argument that players today from a very young age are going through rigorous conditioning and weight training to make them bigger and faster. The benefits of proper nutrition as it relates has also been made more widely known. Could you imagine some of the past NHL greats running into Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Dustin Penner and some of the other giants of the league today? Compound that with the Robocop equipment that is being strapped on prior to each tilt and you have, what I believe, a reason to point to regarding the increase in injuries directly related to hard hits. I am not saying to take hitting out of the game because it’s been a staple of the sport and needs to stay. But the skill players need more room to do their magic. Most who played in Europe during this past lockout commented on how fun it was to play on the larger surface and be able to play with the puck. Don’t we, as fans, want to see that on display every night? Or would you rather see Chara crush Cory Conacher of the Lightning? It does lead to other questions, such as, who funds the change to each arena? How many seats are lost to the expansion? Can the work be completed league wide in one off-season? I am not suggesting necessarily adapting to Europe’s 197 x 98.5 dimensions but there has to be a happy medium between keeping the intensity and allowing the skilled players to show off their skills to the world properly.
4. Change The Rules On Fighting: Eliminate the ridiculous jersey tie down rule and while you are at it, get rid of the instigator, which is not called often enough and left for too much discretion at the hands of the officials. If you wear a visor, you don’t fight, simple as that. And no removing your helmet to fight like this is some sort of gladiator battle at the great Coliseum. All you are doing is opening yourself up for a serious, potentially life threatening head injury. Bicycle riders wear helmets for a reason, as do hockey players. Why would you remove it with the threat of banging your brain on concrete or ice staring you in the face? Just does not make much common sense at the end of the day. Secondarily, players have to be allowed to police themselves. They skate around with sticks at breakneck speeds on razor sharp skates. Right about the time the league started to introduce all these restrictions on fighting is when head injuries started becoming more prevalent. Stars need to be protected. You cannot have players like Matt Cooke, Daniel Carcillo or even worse Patrick Kaleta running at Sydney Crosby, Patrick Kane, John Tavares or any other superstar for that matter with the sole intention of knocking them out of the game. There should always be a role on a professional hockey team for the cop, as brutal as it might be sometimes.
5. Playoff Format: Realignment has been the talk of the town lately and rightfully so. It has angered some but most have accepted it and already moved on. More important to this fan is the current playoff format. 16 teams out of 30 make the playoffs, more than half the league, diminishing the regular season somewhat. Who really cares what division their team plays in if all they have to do is finish in the top half of the conference? Please bring back divisional playoffs. I long for the days of the Patrick Division semi and conference finals. The days where the Islanders and Rangers met in the opening round and went at each other tooth and nail, leaving every bit of blood, sweat and tears on the pearly white surface. The ill feelings that build up over the regular season have a much better chance of surviving into the second season. Now I know that the conference format has given us some treats such as the Penguins-Flyers last season but imagine those teams in the same division, playing 7 times during the regular season with a real shot at a first round playoff matchup? It would be incredible.
The Bottom Line
Would these changes make the game better than it currently is? I don’t know. I honestly do not think anyone knows. A lot of proposed changes are discussed each and every off-season, with some being tested in the American Hockey League. Out of the changes I discussed, I would think the icing rule would be the easiest to change and meet the least amount of resistance from players, general managers and owners alike. So what is behind the league reluctance to do it? I have heard some say that it ruins the integrity of the game. In life, especially in today’s climate, we have to be adaptable to change or we get left behind. If that holds true in the ‘real’ world, why should sports be any different? If league owners are serious about protecting their investment, which truly is the players, changes need to be discussed that address the safety concerns that still exist in a sport played at tremedously high speeds with such large athletes in a small confined space. In my mind, it just makes perfect business sense.