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Fixing the NHL

The unscripted farce that recently concluded with the cancellation of the 2004-2005 NHL hockey season had an unintentionally comic cast of characters. The starring buffoons were NHL president Gary Bettman and NHLPA head Bob Goodenough, but far more fun were the raft of snarling, self-interested owners pacing in the background talking, as free-marketeers always seem to, as if the “free” part is an unruly beast to be groomed to their private advantage. Less fun, but better slapstick, were the cascades of unhappy or simply bewildered players breaking ranks and speaking out—then backtracking furiously back into synch with the party line. Then there was the getting-too-familiar sight of wet-eyed Wayne Gretzky proclaiming, well, not very much of anything, and a whole lot of hockey commentators trying to hide their unease over where their next paycheque is going to come from. All in all, far too much hand-wringing and far too many alligator tears, and the low comedy of wealthy men tripping over themselves to avoid responsibility for vanished profits and a fan base that didn’t materialize.

The lockout, meanwhile, was greeted with utter indifference in the U.S., and much less grief in Canada than the owners and players counted on. But the farce is over now, the season gone, and I’ll be surprised if we hear anything new from these clowns before the leaves turn green. And then yellow. And then green.

It’s probably for the best that there isn’t a season this year. No one, on either side, has addressed the deeper problems in professional hockey, and there’s no point in coming to any financial agreements between owners and players until the more fundamental issues are dealt with and the needed changes made.

The worst problems in hockey aren’t the ones that have been getting the media air-time, and they’re only indirectly connected with the fiscal bottom line both sides appear to think is the important issue. What we’ve been witness to is merely a cat-fight between the owners and the players over a revenue stream that has failed to materialize as both sides expected, and which is shrinking year-by-year as television atomizes into thousands of pin-head sized niche markets. The Bettman plan was to expand hockey into markets in the American south, then capture the lucrative television contracts that would come with continental coverage. Bettman got this plan from the NBA—where it worked, sort of, because the 12 man basketball rosters keep the overheads lower and you’ve got 7-foot-tall acrobats wearing shorts and undershirts. Hockey, with its larger rosters, necessary farm systems, and heavily-padded men in Fiberglas hats that come down over their eyes, just couldn’t make the NBA model work.

Except in a quickly-buried interview with Detroit forward Brendan Shanahan a few months back, no one seems to have looked at why hockey didn’t take in the non-icy parts of the United States, even though from a fiscal point of view, that failure is at the root of why the owners want a radical reduction in player salaries and a salary cap that will allow its small market teams to compete with the wealthy clubs.

About the only person anywhere in hockey who appears to have a clear notion of what’s wrong with the game is Shanahan. What he said, in a nutshell, was that fiscal “rationality” isn’t going to solve hockey’s problems, because the ultimate causes lie with the way the game is played on the ice: hockey just isn’t very much fun to watch these days.

A very large part of the blame for the crappy on-ice product accrues to the League itself, which expanded about six to twelve teams beyond limits of the pool of adequately skilled hockey players. The NHL didn’t do this out of any misguided philanthropic urge to bring the wonders of hockey to American folks who would otherwise be surfing, sipping mint juleps, rasslin gaters, or hanging out with life-size Disney figurines. They did it out of greed, and because for a decade, Gary Bettman ran the NHL as a pyramid scheme, selling new franchises and distributing the take to the existing owners. More than any other single thing, this created the situation as it is today.

What do we now have, exactly? First, the talent shortfall has at least 200 players who have no business playing regularly in an elite league. The NHL, eager to make its expansion teams nominally competitive, dealt with the skills deficit by allowing the neutral zone trap to take over game play. The neutral zone trap, properly understood, is an instrument that allows mediocre players a degree of invisibility. It involves flooding the zone between the bluelines, and then allowing slow, low-skill players to impede the movement of the high-skill speedy players by means which are technically illegal in hockey: stick holding, sweater grabbing, and hooking players as they go by with their sticks. And naturally, once this system became the rule in the NHL, it began to be taught to the nine-year-olds, and is now perpetuating itself.

Allowing neutral zone trap hockey to take over has prevented a whole lot of uncompetitive 17-5 hockey games, but it has resulted in a whole lot of 2-1 games that are as interesting to watch as drying wall paint.

Several other factors pertain here. One of them is no one’s fault, except maybe the quasi-eugenics program being carried on by the food production corporations, who have been supergrowing the food supply and making hockey players too damned big for the rinks they’ve grown up playing on. Players today are bigger, and much faster than they were a generation ago, and the rinks haven’t grown. A player from the old days like, say, Frank Mahovlich—he of the glorious end-to-end rushes in which he’d skate the length of the ice with the puck seemingly six feet from his stick—would be pulled down from behind by two stone-handed behemoths before he crossed centre.

Nothing of what’s wrong is impossible to solve. The ice surface needs to be made larger—a two metre increase in length and width would do it—and a serious enforcement of the rules would do it. A constantly-surfacing proposal to remove the red line at centre isn’t a crazy idea, either, nor is stopping the goalies from stuffing themselves with padding and using sweaters that can be draped from goalpost to goalpost.

Every year, the league seems to announce that it’s going to enforce its rules and thus curtail the neutral zone trap, but everyone knows that enforcement will separate the good teams from the mediocre ones, and the enforcement binge is usually over by November. After fifteen years of this, no serious student of the game believes the League is sincere about anything else than profits.

Several things need to happen to bring back the serious fans once the League and the players have negotiated their way out of the corner they’re in. At least a half dozen teams need to disappear, the ice surfaces need to be enlarged, and the not-so-radical rule changes noted above all need to be made. And whatever fiscal deal the owners and players eventually work out won’t work unless it acknowledges that fans need to be able to afford to attend the games without needing to sell their kids into slavery. Right now, hockey is a working class sport that only wealthy people can afford to watch live.

Don’t hold your breath for any of this to happen. The unfortunate fact is that given the priorities and value systems of the world we’ve made, professional hockey as we’ve known it may never return. But if the alternative is hockey the way it was being played before the lockout began last fall, they can stay off the ice forever.

March 9, 2005  1297 w.

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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