August 27, 2008
Every weekday in August, Puck Daddy presents "5 Ways I'd Change the NHL," in which a cross-section of sports media and hockey personalities offer solutions, suggestions and absurdities to remake the League to their liking. We're thrilled to have Eric McErlain, hockey blogger for The Sporting News and lead blogger for AOL Sports' NHL FanHouse, contributing his list today ...
By Eric McErlain
1. Say Goodbye to the Winter Olympics. I'd really like to believe that sending NHL players to the Winter Olympics has helped promote the game to the casual fan, but I'll be damned if I can find any evidence that's the case. Truth be told, sending professional hockey players to the Winter Olympics have done more for the event and NBC than it's ever done for the NHL. So let's save on airfare, cancel the World Juniors once every four years, and send those young, hungry and inspiring kids to the Olympics instead of the professionals. The World Juniors consistently delivers more drama every year than the Olympic Tournament does every four years, so much so, that I think it deserves to be played on far larger stage.
2. Say Goodbye to the Shootout. There was a time when I believed in the shootout, and there are few fans of the game that would dispute the fact that it's delivered some drama -- albeit manufactured. Unfortunately, that sort of drama has come at the expense of teams retreating into a defensive shell late in the game, turning more than a few third periods since the resolution of the lockout into a snooze fest. I don't blame the players or the coaches for the current state of affairs, as they're only acting in their own best interests. If you've read anything about game theory, you know that the current setup actually encourages teams to conspire to get to the extra period so each team gets a guaranteed point. I don't know about anybody else, but I'd trade away the shootout for more frantic third periods filled with desperate play. The next question becomes, what do you replace it with?
3. Three Points for a Win, One Point for a Tie, No Guaranteed Points. If you want to change behavior, you need to change incentives. As I wrote above, the current system incents teams to keep things close in the third period and play it safe. If you'd rather see more attacking hockey, you need to offer an obvious reward for teams to play that way, and an extra point for a victory is just the way to do it. We'd keep the five minute OT period, but there shouldn't be any guarantees once you get there. Want to retreat into a defensive shell to get that extra point? To do it, you're going to have to forgo the possibility of two extra points. What we want to create is the feeling that in order to force a tie, you're going to have to withstand one heck of an onslaught and sacrifice a chance to move up in the standings -- and with teams banking three points for regulation wins as well, I think more teams would gamble in OT.
4. Overhaul the All-Star Game. It's been a long time since anyone outside of the league's sponsors who get wined and dined in person cared about the NHL All-Star Game. Now that it's broadcast on Versus, even the folks in the U.S. who would like to watch it can't find it anymore, which is problematic when the goal of the game is to create some positive buzz about the sport in the midst of the season. And with the Winter Classic generating real excitement, the All-Star Game has managed to lose even more luster.
To reinvigorate the event, why not revive the original format of pitting the defending Stanley Cup Champions against a team of All-Stars from the rest of the league and play it before the start of the season? The same method works in the English Premier League, where the previous year's winners of the EPL and the FA Cup play for the FA Community Shield one week before the start of the regular season. All in all, it's a nice way to remind a casual fan that your sport is back in business. And when you start your season in October and go up against playoff baseball, you ought to find a way to make a big deal about it. Even better, think of it as another way to reward the Stanley Cup champion by letting them play the All-Star Game as part of an extended homestand, instead of abusing them the way the league did with the Anaheim Ducks just one year ago.
5. Bring Back the Canada Cup. The two most intense hockey games I ever watched in person were the clashes between Team Canada and Team USA in their opening games in the 1996 and 2004 editions of the World Cup of Hockey. The 1996 game in Philadelphia was a 5-3 American win that set an early tone to a tournament they would eventually win, and came complete with Claude Lemieux and Keith Tkachuk dropping the gloves just 20 seconds into the game.Now that's hate you can bottle.
In 2004, I carried the only visible American flag into the Bell (now Molson) Centre to watch Team Canada win 4-1, and spent most of my evening defending the honor of Canadian-born Brett Hull, who had the temerity to lace 'em up for Team USA. The tournament is also the source of my greatest hockey regret, as I grudgingly gave up my tickets to the 1996 Semifinal in Philadelphia, a matchup that turned out to be a classic, as Team Canada edged Sweden 3-2 in double overtime -- the longest game in international hockey history.
And we traded all that excitement in exchange for watching Tommy Salo get bonked in the melon against Belarus? What the Hell were we thinking?
Bring the tournament back, and bring it back now. And when you do, drop the name World Cup. The World Cup is for Soccer. Canada is the birthplace of hockey, and if you want to win hockey's ultimate international championship, you should have to tear the Canada Cup out of the cold, dead hands of Team Canada on their home ice, whether it's in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Hamilton, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg or Vancouver.