Tag:fixing the NHL
Posted on: June 7, 2009 5:59 pm
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Fixing the NHL--4. Crack Down on Cheap Shots

One major issue that the NHL (not so surprisingly, since it's the NHL) has failed to crack down on is cheap shots, especially shots to the head and equipment (mainly sticks) being used as weapons.  Not only is this a major issue involving player safety, but it's an issue that affects the bottom line for the league, as they could see a loss of attendance or TV ratings if a star player is injured and misses a large amount of time.

The incidence of these cheap shots has gone up in the 15 or so years of the Bettman Era; out of the 10 longest suspensions in NHL history, 9 have been on his watch, and all of them for illegal hits or flat-out vicious attacks.  I personally think that rules enacted to cut down on fighting have played a major role in the increase in goonism (see my last post), as the players who are delivering these cheap shots are not facing retribution from the other team's enforcer nearly as much as in the past due to rule changes like the instigator penalty (which needs to go NOW), and the third-man-in rule.

The NHLPA, while in favor of opening up the fighting rules so that players can police the games themselves, have told the NHL that they want an outright ban on blows to the head, but the league's GMs have refused to address the issue.  Toronto GM Brian Burke said that there is "no appetite for an automatic penalty".  Some of them feel that it would take some of the physical side of the sport.

While there will always be instances where a player is unfortunately injured on a clean hit, where he just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the league NEEDS to cut down on the intentional shots above the shoulders.  You can't allow goons to be headhunting other players (or running at their knees, or using their sticks as weapons, etc.), especially while you're tying the hands of the enforcers and preventing them from doing their job of protecting their teammates.

The NHL should remove the instigator rule and ban intentional shots to the head.  If it's incidental contact (wrong place, wrong time, or the player recieving the hit moves at the last second and inadvertantly puts himself in harm's way, cases like that), then no penalty should be issued to the player delivering the hit.  If the player goes at his opponent with an intent to injure (aims for his head, skates leave the ice, etc.), then that player needs to be fined and/or suspended.  The league's players need to be protected from these acts of goonism.
Category: NHL
Posted on: June 4, 2009 8:27 pm
Edited on: June 9, 2009 11:32 am
 

Fixing the NHL--3. Let 'em Fight

A  major issue that comes up when hockey is discussed is fighting.  I'll come out and say it right now: I LOVE fighting in hockey.  It's great when 2 players square off and duke it out, and while I wouldn't want to see this happen in EVERY game, I do like the occasional games where there are multiple fights breaking out all over.  Is this the only reason that I'm a hockey fan?  No, but if it was ever eliminated, honestly, hockey would lose some of its appeal for me (not to mention the fact that I'd feel that it was another case where the NHL has ignored its own traditions and alienated the true, hardcore hockey fans like me, who have supported this league most of my life, to try to appeal to people who most likely will still not pay attention to the sport).
Why should the NHL keep fighting?  There are several reasons why.  One of the most important?  Player safety.  Admittedly, to some people (namely, non-hockey fans), this may not make sense.  Fighting provides a way for players to police the game.  Fighting in the NHL is not a drunken, anything-goes street brawl; there is a code that the players follow that governs fighting.  It helps police the game and reduce injuries for the simple fact that players know that if they cheap-shot somebody, or go after a player (especially a star player) with intent to injure, that they're going to have to deal with retaliation from the other team.  Knowing that you'll have to answer for your actions is a big deterrent in most cases.  While players do occasionally get injured during a fight, in most cases, the worst injuries sustained are minor (a bloody lip, black eye, etc.).  Those injuries are MUCH less severe than the injuries that generally occur from a stick being used as a weapon, an elbow to the head, a hit from behind on an unsuspecting player, etc.  The retaliation factor also helps protect the star players; if the 18th (last) guy on the bench doesn't have the deterrent of on-ice, physical retaliation, he might be much more willing to take a run at a player like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, injuring them to the point where they miss a significant amount of time, or even see their career put in jeopardy.  Hockey is a fast, physical, intense game, and fighting also acts as a relief valve to blow off some of the tension and aggression that builds up during the course of a game.  The fact that the vast majority of current and former players, coaches, and front office officials--the ones who do or have done the fighting--support it for the reasons I've stated above should tell you something.  So remove the instigator penalty, and let the enforcers do their jobs.  I would make one change though--outlaw the instances when one player picks another up and bodyslams him to the ice.  A move like that could seriously injure a player if he slammed his bare head against the boards or the ice.
Another reason is the fact that the fans like it.  People may not admit it as openly as I do, but let's face it, games where 2 teams have an intense rivalry (with an increased chance of fighting) going draw more interest in the media, and put more asses in the seats.  The Colorado-Detroit rivalry in the late 90s was so intense that there was a very real possibility of fights breaking out every game, and they drew so much attention that ESPN showed their games whenever they played.  Just a few years ago, there was a game between the Flyers and Senators which was just filled with brawls.  Even though there has never been much of a rivalry between the 2 clubs, you better believe that people had their matchups circled for the rest of that season and early into the next season, until they realized nothing more would happen.  While there are people who love hockey and think fighting should be banned, these people are in the minority, and the non-fans most likely wouldn't pay attention if it was banned anyway.  People like that might rip it, but at the same time, have you ever seen the crowd at a hockey game when a fight breaks out?  Everyone's on their feet loving it, and I've never seen (or heard of) an instance where people have walked out of a game because a fight broke out, vowing never to return until fighting is banned, or seen a parent cover the eyes of their kid when a fight breaks out.  And it's a LONG season (going from October through June), and it does keep the fans interested.
Fighting can also help change the momentum of a game.  How often have we seen a team come out sluggish, give up a couple of early goals, lose the battles along the boards, only to see them (and the fans) get fired up after a fight, many times allowing them to get back into the game and make it more competitive?  While over the course of a 82-game season there will always be games where teams play uninspired (for lack of a better word) hockey, the elimination of fighting would lead to a higher incidence of these games.

And yet there are some people, led mainly by certain elements in the sports media, who say that the NHL needs to ban fighting.  Of course, the members of the media are the same ones who'll say that bench-clearing brawls in baseball are a joke because nothing ever happens, it's all posturing, or there might be one guy throwing a punch that's so off-the-mark it's comical; but when there actually is a serious incident, they start screaming about how the commissioner's office needs to give out long suspensions and ban pitchers from throwing inside--as much of a longstanding part of baseball as fighting is in hockey.  These are the same people who rip MMA for being "barbaric", yet can't get down on their knees fast enough to honor boxing, a sport which has been known to cause long-term damage, as well as kill, more than a few of its participants.  And the members of the sports media who are against fighting have jumped all over the tragic death of Canadian player Don Sanderson, who died shortly after a fight in which he slammed his head against the ice.  They report that "a player died in a hockey fight", but they don't report that he played in a league in which fighting was banned, and that he refused medical treatment and wanted to go back out onto the ice after the fight.  Just by reading what these people write about hockey, or hearing them speak about it, compared to how they are with other sports, you really get a sense that they don't like hockey to begin with, and would rather not deal with it, so yeah, I'd say I question their credibility on the subject.
I've heard the arguments of the anti-fighting crowd, and while I respect their opinions, none of their arguments make sense to me, or make enough sense that I can say, "yes, ban it".  They have many excuses for why it should be banned; I'll touch on some of them (and my counterargument) here.

1.  There's no fighting in international hockey, European leagues, college, or kids leagues.
Well, there shouldn't be any fighting in kids sports period--I mean, don't the overaggressive parents do enough to damage their kids when it comes to organized sports?  Although, I did have to laugh when I read that the Minnesota Wild's Derek Boogaard started camps for kids to show them how to handle themselves defensively in a hockey fight...it made me wish that they had camps like that when I was a kid.  In the college level, the ban is in place as the NCAA's main goal is to use sports to develop student-athletes as people (biting my own tongue on their REAL goals here), and they feel fighting doesn't match that goal.  Europe in general is just a completely different culture from North America, and the game there evolved without fighting (probably due in large part to the fact that their professional leagues follow international rules more than the NHL).  Hell, maybe they get rid of all of the aggression they bring to sports through hooliganism at soccer matches.  International competitions are staged with the intent of following Olympic ideals of peace, honor, competition through sports, etc.  While NHL players do take part in international competitions such as the Olympics and the World Cup of Hockey, there are 2 important things to remember: the rink for international games is bigger than a standard NHL rink, which allows for less physicality (again, this applies to European leagues too), and the fact that while the games can be intense, these are EXHIBITION games for professional players, so they might not be as willing to put themselves at the same risk of injury that they would during a game for their NHL team.

2.  Hockey cannot be considered a family sport as long as fighting is allowed.
So do you want to tell that to generations of Canadian families who have been involved with hockey since it's beginnings?  Or to the families that attend games together (when they can afford to)?  The fact is, fake or not, there are MANY more violent acts at a WWE event, yet those events are packed with families in attendance.  If these people were really concerned about the amount of violence in hockey due to fighting, they'd pushing to ban wrestling, MMA, boxing, and any other violent sport--yet I don't hear about that.  While there are some parents who won't let their kids play hockey, or football, or skateboard, or participate in any number of activities due to its "danger" or "violence", it's driven more by ignorance of the sport as a whole.

3.  Fighting isn't a "necessary" part of the game and slows up the pace.
Like a football offense standing around in the huddle to max out the time on the play clock?  A batter stepping out of the box and readjusting every piece of equipment he's wearing before he steps back in?  Or one of my favorites, the excessive fouling at the end of a basketball game that can make the last 30 seconds literally last 20 minutes?  Fighting is an important part of the game for the reasons that I stated above, and let's face it, while it might slow up the pace that the game runs at, it's a MUCH more entertaining delay than in other sports.  And (maybe not so coincidentally), the 1970s and 1980s, when fighting was at its peak, also was the highest-scoring period in NHL history.  Maybe the fact that players like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Jari Kurri, and Mike Bossy were protected by enforcers who were allowed to fight had a LITTLE something to do with that.  So how is more excitement brought to the game through fighting, higher scoring, and protecting star players "not necessary"?

4.  Fighting is rare in the playoffs and they're still exciting, so that means that the regular season would be more exciting without fighting.
Ummmm, no.  There are differences in style of play in EVERY sport between the regular season and postseason, and the NHL is no exception.  In a best-of-seven playoff, EVERY game is important; the same cannot be said of every game during the grind of an 82-game regular season.  As you get deeper in the playoffs, the matchups become better and more even; seeing one of the top 2 or 3 teams in the league beat up on the 29th- or 30th-best team (out of 30) doesn't make for much of an entertaining game; fighting definitely draws more interest to matchups like that.  And FYI: fighting is UP in the playoffs this year; there were over twice as many fights in just the first 2 rounds of this year's playoffs as there were in all four rounds last year--and the playoff ratings are up from last year.

5.  Hockey isn't as popular as other sports because of the fighting.
Whenever critics of a sport in America refer to "other sports", they mean football, baseball, and basketball, and it's hard to compare any sport with another, but for argument's sake, I'll try here.  The NFL is the king of all sports leagues, due to many factors which I won't go into here, but one major factor is--wait for it--the violence, which the NFL plays up, and Americans eat up.  For most of the last 150 or so years, baseball was to America what hockey is to Canada--our national sport, which is still deeply ingrained in Americans (even though the NFL has long since surpassed it in popularity); also remember that MLB doesn't have a lot in the way of competition during the "dog days" of the regular season.  And while the NBA has dropped some in popularity from the days of Magic, Larry, and Michael, it was able to do an incredible job of marketing that popularity on a global level in ways Gary Bettman could only dream of.  Even Kim Jong Il's son is reportedly a huge Michael Jordan fan.

6.  Hockey would be better if you got rid of the goons and added more scorers.
I'd like to clarify one point: I consider "goons" to apply to the players who take cheap shots at other players with their bodies or sticks, and enforcers to be the players whose job is to fight and protect their teammates.  If you ban fighting, the enforcers will be gone, but the goons will multiply, as there will be no one to keep them in check.  Say what you want about "the league cracking down on them, suspensions, etc.", but on-ice officials will always miss calls, and there are acts of goonism that even by reviewing videotape, it would be hard to determine clear intent in every case.  And having enforcers, who take up one of the last spots on the roster, are NOT blocking another Crosby or Malkin; if more of those players existed, they'd be in the league.  If anything, the players who are enforcers now also bring other skills to the table, that enforcers from previous eras might not have had.

7.  And then there's the business argument: the league won't get sponsors and TV deals as long as it allows fighting.
This is the argument that for me makes the most sense, but it just doesn't hold up.  There might be advertisers who say that fighting is holding the league back, and that they won't invest in it until it's banned, and it could be the truth.  But I think that it's just another in a long line of excuses they've given the NHL as to why they won't get involved with the league.
Almost everything Gary Bettman has done since taking over as commissioner has been geared to making the game more "acceptable" to corporate America and mainstream American sports fans (while ignoring the fans who have supported the league all along).  The TV and money (advertisers) people said "We don't like that your division names are weird".  The NHL changed them to the same names the NBA used, but the money never came.  The TV and money people said "The NHL is only a regional league in the U.S.; it's not a national sport".  So the NHL went on a mad dash to expand and relocate teams to the Sun Belt, giving the league a nationwide presence in America for the first time.  The money never came.  The TV and money people said "There aren't enough Americans in the league; it's too foreign".  The league now has more--and better--American players than ever before.  The money still didn't come.  The TV and money people said "Your ownership is too archaic in their thinking; you need owners who are modern in their thinking".  So the NHL gave an expansion team in the LA market to Disney, who named them the Mighty Ducks after their successful movie franchise of the same name.  This was when Disney could do no wrong--if they had decided to take the "Hitler on Ice" bit from the end of The History of the World--Part 1 and made a tour out of it, they would've made money.  (And before anyone gets offended, that's an exaggeration to illustrate my point.)  And the money didn't come.  The TV and money people said, "We don't like tie games", so the NHL cheapened the game with shootouts.  The money didn't come.  The TV and money people said "Hockey's too violent".  The NHL instituted rules that have dropped the rate of fighting far below their peak in the 1970s and 80s, but STILL the money hasn't come.  So why should anyone believe the TV and money people now when they say "Get rid of fighting, and we'll become involved"?  All these changes have not only not increased the popularity of the league, it's regressed to the point where it's struggling to hold on to its status as the "4th major-league sport".  A very solid argument could be made that NASCAR has passed it.
Obviously, they feel that there isn't enough interest in the sport to get involved to a greater degree.  If they're so convinced that hockey would be a gold mine without fighting, why hasn't there been an attempt to start a league in which fighting is banned from day one?  They had a golden opportunity during the 2004-05 lockout, as they could've had their choice of top NHL players, and started with a league of 8 or 12 teams, that would've pushed out the more physical players in favor of the more skilled players due to the fighting ban and the fewer number of roster spots available, but nothing happened.  To me, that speaks volumes about how interested corporate America is in hockey, fighting or not. 
Most advertisers have never shied away from programming that featured sex or violence if they knew that they'd have a big audience, and you better believe that if the NHL went the Slap Shot route and was getting NFL-type ratings, the advertisers would be lined up.  There was even enough interest on the part of advertisers for the XFL that NBC went in as partners with Vince McMahon, and the league played for a year.  But the NHL doesn't even stir up that much interest in advertisers, even though the McMahon connection led to immediate doubts about the validity of the XFL as a true sports league.
Look at the NHL's history of making stupid long-term decisions in exchange for quick cash.  In the late 1980s, the league took their games off ESPN (the only national exposure the league had in America at the time) in favor of SportsChannel, a much smaller cable network (it's now Fox Sports Net), because SportsChannel offered more cash up front.  The league added 9 expansion teams in the 1990s, partly to appease the American TV and corporate people, but also to cash in on the expansion fees.  And they lost half a season in 1994-95, and the entire 2004-05 season, to lockouts in order to force a salary cap to provide cost-certainty (which has failed as many teams continue to lose money).  Given that pattern, it's pretty safe to say that if the TV and money people were knocking on the NHL's door with a fat, national TV contract based on the condition that fighting was banned, it'd be gone within a day. 
At some point in the future, the NHL might hit a tipping point where the league would explode in popularity if fighting was banned.  However, they're nowhere near that point today.  In fact, I think that if fighting was banned now, it would kill the NHL as a major league sport in America.  The mainstream fans and corporations that they've been chasing for so long still wouldn't care, and they'd lose a great deal of the hardcore fans who have supported the league up to this point.  While I'm not going to be one of those people who says if they ban fighting, I'll never watch a game again, I definitely would lose interest, and go from being a hardcore fan to a casual fan.  As much as I love all areas of the game, the fighting and physicality is a big part of my enjoyment as a fan.  It would also send another message to me that even though I've pretty much been a lifelong fan, and have supported this league through thin and thin, that the NHL views the business of the people who have constantly ignored it more valuable than mine.
To paraphrase Patrick Henry (and I feel almost sacrilegious doing it): "Give me fighting, or give me the remote!"

Posted on: May 28, 2009 11:43 pm
 

Fixing the NHL--2. Fix the weak teams

One of the critical problems facing the NHL today is the instability of certain franchises, the vast majority of which are teams that were part of the late-90s expansion or relocated during that era.  The biggest issue facing the NHL right now in this area is the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Coyotes were born as the Winnipeg Jets, a team in the old World Hockey Association, a rival league that existed in the 1970s.  The WHA folded, but four of their teams--the Jets, Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche), Hartford Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes), and Edmonton Oilers--merged with the NHL in 1979.  Despite star players such as Dale Hawerchuk, Teemu Selanne, Alexei Zhamnov, and Keith Tkachuk, the team began to run into severe money problems in the 1990s with the sudden escalation of player salaries.  Winnipeg Arena, home of the Jets, was one of the smallest in the league (matching Winnipeg's status as one of the smallest markets in the league), and several attempts to replace it with a new arena fell through.  Combined with the disastrous effects of the Gary Bettman-driven lockout, which wiped out half of the 1994-95 season, the team could not survive in Winnipeg.  It was sold to a group from Phoenix in early 1996, and the team moved to Phoenix that fall, renaming itself the Coyotes.

The Coyotes made the playoffs in 5 of their first 6 seasons in Phoenix, but were always eliminated in the first round.  The team has struggled ever since, causing a drop in attendance.  The arena problems that forced them to leave Winnipeg followed them to Phoenix, where they spent their first 8 years in America West Arena, which was not suited for hockey.  The team has since moved to Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, which is a much better arena for hockey, but which saddled them with a virtually unbreakable buyout agreement. 

Despite bringing in Wayne Gretzky as a part-owner and head of hockey operations in 2001, the team has struggled.  Since 2003, their average attendance has been 14,827, ranking them 25th in the 30-team NHL in that time (although they have been ranked 29th and 28th the past 2 years).  These struggles led current Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes to seek financial assistance from the league in 2008.  Moyes then declared bankruptcy on May 5th of this year, with Moyes intending to sell the team to Jim Balsillie, Bettman's apparent blood enemy who is the CEO of the company that makes BlackBerry smartphones.  Balsillie plans to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario.

The NHL responded to this by stripping control of the Coyotes from Moyes, and saying that the team could not declare bankruptcy due to an agreement that Moyes signed with the NHL when they gave him financial assistance.  The issue is currently in court, and will be decided in the next few weeks.

Unfortunately for the Coyotes, they appear to be stuck in Phoenix.  Their lease with the city of Glendale calls for a $750 million buyout if the team breaks it.  That puts the buyout amount at over 5 TIMES the $142 million that Forbes magazine valued the team at in their rankings this season.  Combine the buyout with the value of the team, and you're talking almost $900 million, which is twice the value of one of the league's cornerstone franchises, the Toronto Maple Leafs (Forbes' #1 ranked franchise at $448 million).  The only way that the team can get out of the lease is by being allowed to declare bankruptcy, which Moyes apparently gave up the right to do.

But the Coyotes are just the poster child for problem franchises in the NHL.  There are several other franchises in trouble.

The once-proud New York Islanders have been struggling with attendance for the past decade, finishing near or at the bottom of attendance during that time.  They have also been in a struggle to replace Nassau Colisseum with a new arena.  Several plans have been proposed, but nothing has happened as of this point.  The Atlanta Thrashers, one of the late-90s expansion teams, has, with the exception of a few years in the middle of this decade, struggled to produce a winner.  They have also been plagued with ownership problems, to the point where the owners are in court to see who has the right to buy out who.  The troubles of another of the late 90s expansion teams, the Nashville Predators, began before the team even took the ice.  Founding owner Craig Leopold had to deny rumors that the team would be relocated before ever playing a game when they only sold 6000 of the 12,000 season tickets the NHL required.  They even got Nashville to pay over 30% of the $80 million expansion fee to the NHL, as well as cover any operating losses from their arena.  In May 2007, Leopold agreed to sell the team to Balsillie.  This deal fell through when Balsillie, who had told Leopold that he'd keep the team in Nashville, started selling season tickets for the Hamilton Predators.  The team instead was sold to Boots Del Biaggio, a venture capitalist who has since filed for bankruptcy, and a group of buyers based in Nashville.  The team also has a buyout clause in place with Nashville, which allows them to pay a modest (compared to Phoenix's lease) $20 million buyout to Nashville if the team loses at least $20 million and fails to average 14,000 per game attendance by the end of the 2009/10 season.  Del Biaggio's financial problems has led to a federal investigation into his business dealings involving the Predators.  Other teams reportedly losing money are St. Louis, Carolina, Buffalo, Florida, Washington, and Columbus.

What are the causes behind these problems?  The economy, to a degree, although that won't be really felt until the 2009-10 season.  I blame it more on NHL leadership: Poorly executed expansion and relocation plans.  Lack of television revenue and exposure.  The NHL apparently spending less time doing background checks on potential owners than diners do on the high school kids they hire as busboys.  The fact that the salary cap which was supposed to provide "cost-certainty" to teams (and which caused the league to lose an entire season of play) has failed.  I know that some people have suggested contracting these teams, not only due to their financial problems, but also due to a watered-down talent pool.  I don't think that's necessary, and I don't buy the talent pool argument.  Up until the past 25 years or so, when the league was mainly Canadian players, I could see that argument; however, with the huge improvement in the quality of American players in that time, as well as the influx of European and Russian players, I think the talent pool has grown with the league.

I also think that every effort should be taken to keep these teams from relocating.  Franchise relocation a sign of instability for a league.  Also, I agree with the reasoning behind the NHL's "Southern Strategy", as I call it (but I disagree with the way they've executed it--which I'll get to in a future post).  Moving a struggling team like the Coyotes to Canada might be good for that team short-term, but bad for the NHL long-term.  I have to admit though, that personally, I'm torn on the issue.  I'm an American, but I sympathise with the Canadian fans who feel that the NHL under Bettman has spit in their faces.  I would like to see more teams in Canada (although I'd be worried about the effect on the Maple Leafs and Sabres if a team was placed in Hamilton), but I really don't want to see teams taken out of cities and away from their fans.

So what can be done to fix these teams?  I suggest the following solutions:

1.  Fire Bettman (the root cause of SO many problems in the league);
2.  Institute a system where potential owners go through a thorough background check involving their finances and any criminal past;
3.  Start an "NHL Bank" so that teams that are in financial trouble can borrow money from a league-maintained pool (which they would pay back with interest when they are out of trouble).  This is different from the league's existing revenue-sharing program;
4.  In cases where a new arena is the issue, the league and team must work together to provide financing for it (again, this is another area where the NHL Bank would work);
5.  If a team needs an influx of cash that exceeds what a loan or line of credit provides them, or is in search of a buyer, sell stock in the team to the fans.  This will provide cash for the team, allow fans to have some say in how the team is run (which should generate more interest in the team since the fans would have more than just an emotional stake), and help provide stability for the league by removing the fear that teams will leave if they're struggling or are trying to extort money from taxpayers through a new arena or other means.  This will most likely require changes in the rules governing NHL ownership, but it should be done.

In any case, this is an issue that needs to be addressed ASAP, or these teams could act as an anchor and drag the rest of the league down with them.

Category: NHL
Posted on: May 22, 2009 1:34 am
Edited on: May 31, 2009 11:14 pm
 

Fixing the NHL--1. Fire Gary Bettman

Of all the things necessary to fix the NHL, step # 1 is simple: Fire Gary Bettman.

Bettman has been NHL commissioner since February 1, 1993.  Since that time, the league has hit a series of low points, including 2 major work stoppages, the loss of national television revenue, an increase in the amount of goonism in the game, poor expansion strategy, unstable owners, the neutral-zone trap, and a lack of respect for the league's history, among other things.  All this has led to a league that was ready for a breakthrough into the mainstream in the early 1990s to a league that is on the verge of slipping into complete irrelevance in less than 15 years.  How did this all happen?  Let's start at the beginning.

When Gary Bettman took over the NHL, he became its first commissioner (the head of the NHL to that point had been the league president).  After having spent most of his career in the NBA, where he rose to third in command, the NHL hired him to replace interim president Gil Stein.  Bettman worked in the legal and marketing departments in the NBA, and was one of the people involved in developing the NBA's salary cap.  This was key to the NHL owners, who had just gone through the first work stoppage in league history, a 10-day strike late in the 1991-92 regular season.  The strike was a victory for the players, but the CBA that was signed lasted for only one season.  The owners fired then-NHL President John Ziegler and replaced him with Stein on an interim basis.  Bettman was eventually hired with the goal of instituting a salary cap in the NHL.

The 1993-94 season was arguably the high point for the league in at least the past 30 years, if not ever.  Hockey was on the verge of becoming a true major player in American sports, due partly to the Rangers' drive to win their first Stanley Cup in 54 years (and the resulting media attention); expansion to new markets in California (San Jose and Anaheim--with the resulting backing of Disney, who named their team the Mighty Ducks after their hit movie franchise), Florida (Florida and Tampa Bay), and Ottawa; and a surge in merchandise sales due to the expansion teams, as well as crossovers such as rappers wearing hockey sweaters during videos, giving the league exposure to a new audience.  However, the seeds of the league's downfall were also in place. 

Bettman, who had never even BEEN to a game before taking over as commissioner, showed his lack of hockey knowledge by snubbing his nose at league tradition by changing the name of the conferences (Wales and Campbell) and divisions (Patrick, Adams, Norris, and Smythe), which honored some of the league's founding fathers, to generic geographical names, taken right from the NBA.  He also tried to turn the NHL into the NBA on Ice by taking steps to remove fighting from the game, angering fans and creating disciplinary problems on the ice.  The league also played without a CBA in place during the season, and when the NHLPA wouldn't agree to a salary cap, Bettman locked the players out right before the start of the 1994-95 season.  When an agreement was finally reached, half the season had been wiped out.  The league, which had signed a new national TV contract with FOX to begin showing games that season, suffered a blow that it still has not recovered from. 

Even after losing half the season, Bettman and the owners had only managed to get a salary cap on rookies, and not on all players.  The CBA was eventually extended to the 2004-05 season, when the league decided to make another push for a salary cap.  Backed by hardline teams such as Chicago and Boston, the NHL gave Bettman the right to veto any offer from the union as long as just 8 of the 30 owners backed him.  The league's insistence on a salary cap eventually cost them the entire season, as the NHL became the first pro sports league to lose an entire season to labor issues. 

By this point, the league suffered a major blow to it's revenue, as NBC was only willing to do a revenue-sharing deal with the NHL, instead of paying a rights-fee upfront (putting the NHL on par with Arena Football as far as American network TV was concerned).  Also, ESPN declined the option on their contract with the NHL, causing Bettman to take the league from a basic cable staple seen in almost every household in the country to Vs. (the recently renamed Outdoor Life Network), which is a much smaller network lacking ESPN's availability.  This loss of television revenue has also caused teams to shift more of the cost burden onto fans attending games.

And let's not forget that just last week, the NHL was forced to alter its playoff schedule due to a Yanni concert.  Yes, you read that right.

I don't want to go too long in this post, and I'll go into greater detail in future posts about the following topics:

What else has Bettman done?  He's pushed for eliminating fighting in the game, which angers hockey fans, as well led to an increase of ugly on-ice incidents due to the players' inability to use fighting to police the game because of the stricter penalties.  Out of the 10 longest suspensions in NHL history (handed down due to cheap shots by players), 9 of them have come in the last 15 years under Bettman's regime.  While incidents such as this have unfortunately happened throughout the history of the game, they have increased as the league has cracked down on fighting.

The NHL has also done a half-assed job when handling expansion.  After seeing the revenue rush into the league coffers in the form of expansion fees and new merchandise sales from the early 1990's expansion, the NHL rushed to add more teams and relocate existing teams into new markets in the American South, relying on the retirees living there to support the new teams, a strategy which has, for the most part, failed.  While trying (and failing) to grow an American audience, he's done nothing but spit at the league's Canadian fans.

The league has also had problems with owners (and potential owners).  Bruce McNall, who owned the Kings during their glory days in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was sentenced to 70 months in prison due to fraud, and the Kings were forced to file for bankruptcy due to his dealings.  Disney bailed on the league, selling the Ducks at a loss in 2005.  The Penguins went into bankruptcy, forcing Mario Lemieux to take ownership of the franchise because they couldn't afford to pay him.  The Islanders have been gimping along trying to get a new arena built for a decade now.  The Predators and Thrashers are struggling.  The NHL is currently in a court battle with Phoenix owner Jerry Moyes to see who controls the Coyotes.  And Bettman has been carrying a years-long feud to keep Jim Balsillie, CEO of the company that makes BlackBerry smartphones, out of the league.  Balsillie is currently trying to buy the Coyotes out of bankruptcy and move them to Hamilton, Ontario, after being blocked from buying the Penguins and Predators.

A major on-ice issue that emerged during the Bettman Era was the use of the neutral-zone trap, in which teams would score a goal to take a lead, then clutch-and-grab opposing players in the neutral zone (and pretty much all over the ice) in order to prevent them from moving the puck and be able to score.  This led to a steep reduction in scoring, and a very boring style of hockey to watch.  This style of play, which took hold in the mid-1990s, was not addressed for 10 years, with rules to crack down on it going into effect during the first season back from the lockout.  Somehow, I can't imagine the NFL letting something like that go on for so long.

Then there was his suspension of Sean Avery for his "sloppy seconds" comment earlier this season.  While I am not a fan of Avery at all, and yeah, it was a crude comment, it did not merit a 6-game suspension (which was announced as "indefinite" at first).  While there's a LOT things Avery's done in his career that could've merited suspension, this was the least of them--but it's the one Bettman went after. 

While there is one--and only one--thing I'll give Bettman credit for (The Winter Classic), even THAT'S tainted by the fact that he told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year that he didn't see it as something the league would do every year.  Bettman HAS to go.  This league can never succeed to it's true potential as long as he's in charge.

My choice to replace him: Flyers owner Ed Snider.  He knows hockey, having been in the league over 40 years as the Flyers' founding owner, and has turned them from one of the "Second Six" in a non-hockey town to one of the strongest franchises in the league.  Hockey went through an incredible rate of growth during the Flyers early years, and they continue to try to create new fans, going as far as taking over the operation of city-owned rinks in Philadelphia when the city was going to shut them down due to budget problems.  They also run clinics for inner-city kids to expose them to the game, as well as promote youth hockey throughout the Philadelphia area.
Category: NHL
Posted on: May 15, 2009 12:19 am
Edited on: May 16, 2009 9:23 pm
 

How to fix the NHL: An Overview

Back in the early 1990s, the NHL was poised for a breakthrough into mainstream American sports.  Rappers wore hockey sweaters in their videos; the Rangers brought a lot of attention to the league by winning their first Stanley Cup in 54 years in 1994; the league expanded into new markets (San Jose, Tampa Bay, Ottawa, Florida, and Anaheim), and got the resulting revenue from merchandise sales for the new teams; after a short-sighted decision to abandon nationwide coverage on ESPN to go after a bigger-money contract with Sports Channel in the late 1980s, the league went back to ESPN, as well as showing a game of the week on FOX; and Sports Illustrated even ran a cover story in their June 20, 1994 issue, titled "Why the NHL's Hot and the NBA's Not".  That all came to a crashing halt by the fall of 1994.  The 1994-95 lockout was the league's second labor stoppage in two-and-a-half years, and cost the league half of its season.  Fifteen years later, the NHL still has not recovered.

Hockey is a great sport, and it can succeed as a major sport in America.  But changes have to be made for that to happen, both on-ice and off-ice.  Over the next few weeks, i'll post a series of blogs with my ideas on how to improve the NHL.  For now, here is an overview:

1.  Fire Gary Bettman

2.  Fix the problem franchises like Phoenix

3.  Get rid of the instigator and third-man in penalties to allow the players more leeway to police themselves, and accept that fighting allows them to do that

4.  Crack down on the cheap shots, head shots, and use of equipment as weapons

5.  Get the NHL back on ESPN

6.  Address the failures of the league's "Southern Strategy"

7.  Improve marketing of the game

8.  Start a Champions League format similar to what UEFA does in soccer featuring the top teams from the NHL, European leagues, and the KHL

9.  Develop alternate sources of revenue to ease the cost burden of fans attending the games

10.  Remove the salary cap and increase revenue-sharing

If i think of any other changes, i'll add them to the list.

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com