February 17, 2005

Other: In Defence of NHL Hockey

As you have undoubtedly heard if you have any interest in hockey, the NHL has decided to kill the season. I've heard the occasional moan about how bad hockey is now, and it's no great loss, and how no one can play the game anymore since (player X) left, expansion made everything awful, it's too voilent, etc etc etc.

Suck it up.

I wrote this little blurb last year when a certain columnist was pissing and moaning about expansion. I've added a bit at the end to update it, and talk a bit about violence in hockey.

Unfortunately, your view on contraction just hasn't been thought out. It would NOT improve the game for any length of time, because the problem isn't the players. Ironically enough, the team you mention in your story, Calgary, would have been "contracted" a couple of times by now. Unless you'd rather Edmonton went? Anyhow, off to the arguements in favour of removing teams, shall we? I'll start with what may be considered the best possible consequences of contraction:

Fewer games? Not with these owners. Hockey relies on gate far more than other leagues do, and if you take away games, you lose that much money. While I'd LIKE to see a much shorter schedule (say, 60 games), it's not going to happen.

Yes, contraction means a concentration of talent... for now. There is no league, in ANY SPORT and at ANY TIME, where this is not true. If, for instance, the original six had shrunk down to four, a similar increase in skill would have happened. Yes, oddly enough, even those original six had "fringe players", and those players probably wouldn't have made it in today's NHL.

Here's why: Let's go back 36 years, say, to 1967. It's the first major expansion for the NHL, going from six teams to twelve. It would be six years before Philidelphia would get a cup, and frankly, the only reason the expansion teams got any points at all was because they played each other. (Well, and Detroit, but that will come later.) However, the new players in the NHL were playing the game at a higher level than they ever had before, and they improved (like Philidelphia did) or they died (Oakland/California).

Bear in mind that the Canadian players were 96% of the league. This means that teams were drawing from a population of maybe 20 million people. Few Americans were interested in playing hockey, and fewer Europeans wanted to move to another continent to do so. But those that do make it to the bigs are starting to be challenged by more players wanting in. In a couple of years, an entry draft system will be instituted, and teams are starting up minor clubs with the express purpose of training their prospects for NHL play.

Jump to 1983, 15 years later. Detroit managed 95 points in the '69-'70 season, but has been simply awful for nearly twenty years. There has been more expansion, and the WHA has been absorbed and eliminated, and those teams that joined have done well enough (Minnisota) or relocated (Calgary, New Jersey). Teams have noticed that Canada is running dry of talent to share, so have turned to the U.S. and Europe: only about 80% of players are from Canada, now.
There are many who decry the expansions, and long for the era of the so-called "Original Six". They say the influx of players in diluting the game, and too many fringe players are playing in the league now. Hockey is worse than ever. It's time to consider eliminating non-traditional teams that haven't been doing very well, and redistribute those players to the good teams. Eliminate Hartford and Vancouver, say. Washington and LA can go, too. Imagine Marcel Dionne on a good team, eh? The league would be better for it.

Ten years later (1993), only 66% of the players are Canadian, something that has self-appointed purists worried, because there can't be that many good players in the rest of the world, right? Expansion must have been the problem for the NHL, because so many players from other countries are in the league! This, according to said purists, has caused the downfall of the hockey dynasty, unless Pittsburgh can keep it together. The game itself is at it's worst, with the massively diluted talent pool.

Now (still 1993) ALL NHL teams own or share a minor team, and are paying close attention to the development of their players. Each of those minor teams has coaching approved by the big club, and almost no player makes it to the NHL without passing a couple of years in the baptismal font of the AHL or IHL first. Somehow, all those international players seem to have increased exposure for the NHL world wide, and players from around the world want to play in North America. There's some good money to be made. Get some English lessons, quick!

Canada is occasionally losing at more international events than just the Olympics. What's going on? Oh, well: if we get rid of Ottawa, Hartford, Quebec, Florida, Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, Los Angeles, San Jose and Aneheim, the League will be that much better.

Jump to now (2004). Countries from all over the world are losing their best players to the NHL. Far more Americans and Europeans are interested in getting into the big league, creating a population pool of potential players well into the hundreds of millions. NHL teams not only have AHL affiliates, but many of those affiliates have ECHL teams to send their players down to, until they're ready for the AHL. The average height of an NHLer is 6'1", the average weight 204 pounds, an increase of two inches and twenty pounds from thirty years ago.

None of these players takes summer off: not any more. The Summit Series was nearly lost by Canada way back when because NHL players were coming back from the off season, and they simply were not in game shape. Anyone who shows up to training camp out of shape now is given a severe reprimand, sent down or even cut from the organization. Fewer than 1% of players smoke anymore, and all of them follow diet plans, even in the off season. The competition for NHL jobs is simply too fierce to slack off, and the atheletes are bigger, faster, and better coached than ever before: many players train with additional coaches in the off season. One-dimentional players are looked at with suspicion at best, and dropped from the roster at worst, sent down to learn "a complete game" in the minors before being called up again. More ambitious Europeans have been starting their careers in the CHL to learn the North American game, and to acclimatise themselves to the culture and language, pressuring the players already there to improve their game.

Teams have upped the intensity as well: EVERY team now has a fitness coach, a goaltender coach, and at least two assistant coaches. They watch tape (if they don't have a video coach), hire dieticians and nutritionists, and restrict what their players can do off the ice in their free time.

And yet some critics STILL believe that players are worse than ever. The "problem" in the NHL, which can be narrowed to "lack of scoring" is one thing: coaching. Period. Everyone in the league is micro-managed, with coaches for everything in the game. The toughest award to give is the Selke, because everybody plays like Bob Gainey now or they are sent down. Watch the old games: the goalies were caught out of position far more often, the defencemen couldn't skate as well, and the forwards didn't back check! No wonder there were more three-on-ones and breakaways.

And now:


If you still want to contract, do it for two reasons only: no fan support and/or losing money.

1) Teams that drop below, say, 15,000 fans average attendance will be eliminated by the end of the year unless they can prove sound financial backing EVERY YEAR. Big support at the beginning of the year can salvage a team that drops out of the playoff race early, and likewise any team that starts slow can try picking it up by season's end. Fans will take a much more long-term approach to their teams, too, knowing that if they don't support them for the full season, that team will be gone (or at least relegated - see below).

2)Any team that cries poor will be eliminated by the end of the year. This will put an end to teams signing contracts that they cannot fulfill, and guarantees good management... or else.

This would probably create a tiered system, with teams not allowed to join the NHL until they meet both these criteria, but is that such a bad thing? On fan base alone, you've eliminated Anaheim, Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Carolina, Chicago, Nashville, New Jersey, the Islanders, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Washington! All relegated to "Tier Two", and not allowed to compete for the Cup.

This differs from the list you provide somewhat, but the remaining teams (yes, even Columbus which outdraws Calgary) have fan support, which is the main revenue maker for the NHL. How can removing a team that draws crowds be justified? In my opinion, New Jersey should have been moved when they didn't sell out the first year they were in the finals. If any fans don't deserve a team, it's them. Three cups in six years and rock solid ownership? Doesn't matter, they're still only drawing 14,000 fans to their games. Give the team to Winnipeg or Quebec City for crying out loud!

Back to 2005.

If I hear one more person describe Calgary as a boring team, I'll gladly offer to put them out of their misery! Ask yourself if you think Team Canada played a good game at the World Juniors - Calgary plays that exact same style. High tempo, constant pursuit hockey that, oddly, I didn't hear many complaints about during the Worlds.

As for hockey getting more violent, chew on this: Gordie Howe (AKA Mr. Hockey) was not just an awesome sniper, he was also a feared fighter and the possesor of the fastest elbows in the league. And "Terrible" Ted Lindsay didn't get his nickname because he was a bad player...

So who's right and who's wrong in this lockout? The owners may have a cap, but as long as they fight any sort of revenue sharing, a cap isn't going to do a damn thing to help the poorer teams compete. The owners brought this on themselves: the only reason they give for not offering stupidly big contracts to players is "We can't help it! We just can't!" And that's not good enough.


posted by Thursday at 3:50 pm


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