Monday, October 31, 2011

Parched? The Watered-Down NHL Will Quench Almost Any Thirst

Remember back in the late 80s when players like Gretzky, Lemieux, Messier, Hull, and Yzerman were racking up points; and Brendan Shanahan was racking up fights and PIMs? My how things have changed. Lemieux, having made his millions after freely roaming the ice for years protected by the likes of Troy Loney, Grant Jennings and Jay Caufield is now an owner. One that is more content bashing tough guys instead of respecting them. Shanahan, who first made his mark in the league because of his fists, is now dishing out suspensions at a torrid pace, as the league's head disciplinarian.

The late 80s gave us a multidimensional game, full of both individual displays of scoring feats and enforcers who were actually allowed to enforce the game in the moment. Was the correlation a simple coincidence? Or did opposing players know that if they touched Wayne, Marty was coming for them? Or if Steve was touched, Bob wasn't going to be far behind? Don't even look at Brett cross-eyed... the Twister was watching your every move.

Yeah, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. The NHL was expanded from 21 to 30 teams between 90-91 and 00-01. So most would say that the talent pool has thinned out. Others might say that during the same time, and even more since 00-01, NHL teams have expanded their scouting reach ten-fold. These days, we have players coming from countries you never heard of in the early 90s.

What else has changed? When scoring dropped off in 03-04, with the likes of Martin St. Louis leading the league in scoring, the NHL thought it was necessary to "tinker" with the rules during the lockout. All that "clutching and grabbing" was slowing the game down... you remember? What better way to spend all that time than to "improve" the game by tossing in a few more rules that were designed to increase power plays and scoring. And an increase in scoring, of course, meant an increase in fans. Fans love goals, nothing more! At the same time, the NHL thought it would be wise to curb fighting a bit, (e.g. instigators in the final five minutes of a game brought suspensions for the player and coach). Excessive fighting was thought to be a hindrance from the casual fan making that leap onto the frozen ponds of hockey.

Guess what? It worked! As the clutching grabbing slowed, the speed of the game increased... and so did scoring. Thankfully for the NHL, instead of that anti-charismatic St. Louis, the superstar pool filled with marketable stars like Ovechkin and Crosby. Phew! [And now stop for a second and picture the league without those two guys... where would the NHL be?]

With the exception of Sid sidelined with a bruised prune, all is looking up, right? You would think. But some don't. Let me ask a few questions and then answer them to sound smart...

For a game that's on the up and up, where's that big television contract? Instead of being highlighted in primetime on ESPN, the NHL can only muster a television contract with an "Outdoor Sports Channel" which, let's face it, is best known for deer hunting, fishing, and monster trucks. The game has improved, surely the NHL should be back on ESPN; yes?

What about the whole "hits to the head" issue? Has the NHL made any "headway" on this front as of yet? Has Shanahan's increase in suspensions deterred head shots? Is it just me or does anyone else feel some of these head shots are borderline and simply can't be deterred? Has anybody else raced around a rink at blazing speeds and accidentally run into someone? It's going to happen. A faster game = more scoring. And a faster game = more violent, uncontrollable collisions.

How about the role of the enforcer which so many Hall of Fame players benefited from and so many fans grew to respect and endear? They’ve all but been phased out. Who needs them in this fast-paced, high-scoring, “safe” game? Unlike when "Shanny" was a young buck, who’d immediately have your back should an “Ulf Samuelson” stick a knee out on you, these days, he'll dissect the play from his executive leather chair and discipline you a few days later.

So you best pull up on that hit Alex Ovechkin. No more being a bull on the ice... a tamed pony will do. Should somebody stick a knee out on Mike Green, we'll get em on the power play, right Boudreau (he said it, not me)? That'll deter em next time. By the way, how's that "tough guy" Jay Beagle doing these days? Nice job hanging him out to dry Bruce.

It's working, right?

And how are those rivalries going that we all loved so much, which made so many non-hockey fans tune in because they knew they were going to see an emotional, physical game? The Battle of Alberta; long gone. The Wings/Avs rivalry; not since Shanahan was tackling Patrick Roy at center ice. The Isles vs Pens? The NHL nixed that 15 minutes after that "travesty" (according to Mario) of a game ended. Indeed, a look into the stands at all those paying fans displayed faces of shock and horror. Many were running to get away from it. [It's getting pretty thick in here, isn't it?]

Let's face it folks, for many of us, the NHL isn't worth watching until the 82 regular season games have ended and the playoffs have started. Sure, there's barely any fighting in the playoffs. But when teams face off up to seven times in a series, there's some animosity (assuming the whistles are tucked away), the passion and hitting pick up, and much like Olympic hockey, teams are playing for something meaningful. Rivalries are the Caps vs Pens these days. Two teams which "get up" to play one another. There's no real animosity between the teams. How can a team have animosity toward another in today's NHL? The mere thought of animosity yields a pre-game phone call from the league.

Not that I anticipate a phone call will be needed this year, but I can imagine Shanny's first call.... "Uh, hey Claude. Things got rough between your team and the Habs last game. There were two fights and one of them came off a draw, meaning it was premeditated by our standards. Lucic threw a big hit on Moen and gave him the evil eye as they were doing to the bench. It was a travesty. And I don't want to see it happen again tonight. Please consider keeping Thornton out of the lineup. I'm calling Claude now to tell him to keep that monster Hal Gill out as well."

Hey, you might like all of this; and to each their own. If you enjoy a faster game that is full of specialists, (e.g. shootout, faceoff, penalty kill) has less hitting, more agitating and diving, and less fighting, this is the game for you.

To me, and I certainly know there are other, let's say, "traditionalists" out there, this game has become watered down... one dimensional. What was once a wonderful, passion-filled game which was played out on the ice is now a game that is as much controlled off the ice by a set of minds that thinks more rules equals better hockey.

But it's working for the fence sitters, right? They're hopping over in droves, eh?

Nah. Not me. I'm the guy that once forked over his money to NHL Center Ice without hesitation. These days, I can get the scoring highlights on “Youtube” and the fights on one of the ten different hockey fight websites out there. Truly, why would one pay to watch a fairly one-dimensional game?

By the way, isn't it crazy how there's so many hockey fight websites out there but no websites devoted to historically recording and voting on the best goals or assists? I don't know... maybe it's just me... the phased out traditionalist that isn't thirst for Kool-Aid.


Anonymous said...

There's a lot I agree with, but some that I can't.
I've watched games from the 80's and early 90's on classic NHL, and even have some old VHS tapes (yes, I'm that nerd), and I can assure you there is far more hitting in today's game than in yesteryear.
The game was downright docile in comparison to the craziness happening in today's game.

I have no problem with the NHL getting rid of fighting altogether.
Most of the fights today are scripted and boring and I no longer have the stomach to watch guys lay on the ice concussed or pulling teeth.
Scraps like Subban and Marchand are fine as they're from the heat of battle. But watching two goons, who've scheduled a fight ahead of time via twitter, and then seatbelt each other for 20 seconds is neither entertaining or detrimental to a games outcome.

I will agree however, that the game needs more clean, even-strength goals.
Goalies are too good and too big.
The ice is too small for today's speedy player - which is the real reason for the extinction of the goon.
The league needs more 50 goal scorers, and could really use 1 or two 140-point guys.
There's nothing wrong with every player in the top 10 reaching the century mark.

But to do that, you need to make the goalies smaller or the nets bigger.
If I were the NHL, I'd present the goalies with an ultimatum. Either shrink your equipment or we go with bigger nets. As a consolation, if they choose to shrink, the NHL will outlaw composite sticks. Done.

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