Saturday, April 5, 2008

Saving the NHL: Part 1

There are a lot of theories about what's wrong with the NHL today: not enough fans, not enough goals, the utter impossibility of finding a game on basic cable (S.W. subscribes to Center Ice because S.W. has DirecTV), too much fighting, too little fighting, soccer like ties, the shoot-out, clutching and grabbing, goalie equipment too big, too many penalties, not enough penalties... I could keep going, but suffice it to say, there are a lot of theories.

The problem with most of these theories is that they are predicated upon the assumption that professional hockey should make whatever changes are necessary to appeal to the general sports fans and to the potential casual hockey fan in order to boost TV ratings, fill arenas, and get them back on that crap-hole network known as ESPN. As a more dedicated NHL fan, I am here to tell you this is a load of crap. Hockey has a smallish but loyal following and, outside of that following, is not well understood. People complain: "I can't follow the puck," "They're the only team sport with fighting, that means they're stupid goons," "Icing is too hard a concept to figure out," or my personal favorite, "There are too many rules." Compare the roughly 10 rules or so that professional hockey employs (generally to keep players safe) to the hundreds of subsections in the NFL playbook and you realize, people who do not now like the NHL, do not get it, and when it comes to fixing the NHL, their opinions don't count.

This brings me to the first of two issues that are really killing the NHL (tomorrow I will tackle the second). These issues don't annoy casual fans that might only want to see high-scoring, or hard-hitting, or big-brawling games; they are the issues that are killing the game for devoted fans such as the S.W. and they are the things that have the potential to drive home for me the fact that I am wasting my scant recreational time I, watching grown men play a kids' game (normally, I can live quite happily denying this fact).

The first issue has been alluded to in a prior post by the S.W. and recently by Ish. But to state it clearly: league discipline within the NHL is a complete and utter joke: a waste and a farce. It makes a mockery of the very concept of discipline, it makes a mockery of fans who would like to see a hard-fought, but clean contest, and it will soon get a player killed, this I guarantee. Hockey, because of the sheer speed at which it is played, and the unforgiving nature of the playing arena, is horrifically dangerous. A player along the boards with his head down can get checked and have his neck broken in less than a second. The players carry and swing sticks, smack an incredibly hard chunk of rubber around at 90-100 mph, and strap metal blades to their feet and hurl themselves at each other on ice. Without respect for one another, the game is unacceptably dangerous as a recreational activity.

For years this mutual respect has been enforced through the unwritten code of conduct: take a run at an opponent's star or lay an especially dangerous hit on someone, very quickly someone bigger and meaner than you is going to approach you at high speed, pull your sweater over your head, and feed you your own teeth. It wasn't a perfect system, but it worked pretty well. Then we decided that the casual fan doesn't like the fighting, that he or she is turned off by it and go watch boxing instead, so we make fighting and instigating fights too expensive in terms of penalty minutes for any team not already too far behind to care. This doesn't mean that the code is dead, but it have been crippled.

With the fighting dynamic of the code muted, and many coaches (like that fat piss-ant, Marc Crawford) repeating to their players idiotic crap about finishing you checks no matter what and sending special "messages" to the other team, it is incumbent upon the league to enforce discipline themselves. Since the danger of pummeling has been alleviated, the danger of harsh fines and even harsher suspensions must be clear, present, and terrifying in order to protect our favorite players (and I have a lot of favorite players that play for every team in the league, even the Ducks-go Teemu). Since Brian Burke was head of League discipline, this brand of discipline has lessened, not increased. Players made dirty hits that take out other players for months and received very minor suspensions: 2-3 games... bullshit. Since leaving his position as head of league discipline, Burke was G.M. of the Marc Crawford coached Canucks when Todd Bertuzzi broke Steve Moore's neck, certainly with the encouragement of Brad May, almost certainly with the encouragement of Crawford, and doubtless with the tacit approval of the GM. Now with the Ducks, Brian Burke has put together a team full of really terrific hockey players who also happen to be terrible human beings. His old favorites are there: Todd Bertuzzi and Brad May, and some new favorites like Chris Pronger. These are the players he likes; he would never seriously penalize their type of play.

With Colin Campbell at the helm, things are moving in the right direction (at a glacial pace) but penalties are still mild and inconsistent. If you are a less-skilled player with a history of unacceptably high risk behavior and deliberately stomp on the leg of another player with the blade of your skate, you can lose 30 games. I would have made it an entire season, but 30 is what Chris Simon got. If you are a marquee player, say for instance Chris Pronger, with a history of unacceptably high risk behavior and deliberately stomp on the leg of another player with the blade of your skate, you get an eight game suspension very conveniently sized to make you available for the playoffs. It's a joke. Do we care or not? If we can't care about something this fundamental: our ability to cheer for familiar faces and feel good about their chances of being whole and alive for next season, then I'm not sure if I can keep caring about the NHL.

Source: CBC, The Instagator Archives

Next time: The most incompetent officiating in pro sports.