November 26, 2009
(No, the first decade of the 21st century doesn't technically end until 2011. Save your bellyaching. But we've had nine NHL seasons and one stolen from us since 1999-2000, and Yahoo! Sports has decided it's time to rank the best and worst of the last "decade." The following is written by Ryan "Two-Line Pass" Lambert, author of our ‘What We Learned' and College Hockey 101 columns. Enjoy, and snark freely in the comments.)
Let's face it, you and I are always going to love hockey. If we've suffered through a lockout, Gary Bettman's antics and a Red Wings dynasty, then we're going to suffer through anything. And the NHL knows that.
They can add 30 more franchises, all of which are south of the Mason-Dixon line. They can make every NHL game feature not just a shootout, but also a speed skating and hardest shot competition. They can even go so far as to replace the Avalanche with a team of skating bears. And we'd still watch. That's what makes the NHL the dichotomous professional sports league in North America.
In the past few weeks, we at Puck Daddy have given you nothing but Top 10 lists, but it would be unfair to put the 10 decisions, good or bad, by the NHL into one list. To rank just the bad would be to ignore some really positive things that the League has done, and to rank just the good would be to ignore the dizzying depths of its lack of foresight and hypocrisy.
So here we go: The five best and worst NHL decisions this decade:
Part 1: The five worst
5. The Wheel of Justice
It seems like the dial on the NHL's sense of right and wrong has been set to "insane" the past decade.
On Feb. 21, 2000, Marty McSorley took a baseball swing at Donald Brashear's(notes) head and got 23 games, which was the remainder of the season including the playoffs. It seemed somewhat fair, but then a jury convicted him of assault and the League upped the suspension to a full calendar year. And that was just the start.
Since then, Todd Bertuzzi(notes) literally almost crippled someone and only got 20 games from the league, partly because, get this, he apologized. Sean Avery(notes) got suspended six games for badmouthing an ex-girlfriend to the media, while numerous players were suspended less than half of that for giving people concussions and/or putting their careers in jeopardy.
There's no rhyme or reason to any of it, except that a player's star power is the ultimate factor in determining whether or not he should be suspended. And that's just stupid.
4. More expansion
In 2000, we got two brand new NHL teams, just a year after the League presented us the joyous gift of the Atlanta Thrashers and Nashville Predators. Because what everyone was thinking after those teams went a combined 42-104-14 was, "Boy I sure hope there are more teams like this, and soon!"
Enter the two new teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild. The teams have combined to win one division title (Minnesota in 2007-08) and make the playoffs four times (Minnesota in 02-03, 06-07 and 07-08 and Columbus in 08-09). Combined win percentage? That'd be .486.
Apart from Minnesota's one run to the Western Conference final, including their hilarious knocking-off of the Colorado Avalanche, has this further expansion done anything besides give us under-appreciation of Rick Nash(notes) (who could be playing for Toronto RIGHT NOW!!!) and another team that played the trap for nine years?
Nothing says "credible league" like a broadcast deal with a network nobody gets.
At the time, the Outdoor Life Network was in something like 65 percent of the homes that got ESPN and ESPN2, but this was a Gary Bettman take-the-money-and-run decision. You see, Comcast, which owns OLN/Versus (and also the Philadelphia Flyers, tee hee), offered the league $200 million for a three-year deal, and ESPN had no interest in shelling out that kind of money.
The best part though is that, in deference to building OLN/Versus into a semi-respectable network -- and they just might do it in another 15 years or so -- the NHL also allowed for some games of the Stanley Cup Finals to be aired on this network rather than a network people actually know how to find, like, oh I don't know, NBC. Really.
Also if you have DirecTV you'll have to take my word for it that this is a channel that exists.
(Author's note: Please also consider this listed under "Best decisions" if you like watching games featuring teams in the Atlantic Division.)
2. The shootout
You just can't logically reward a team for winning in a skills competition after it played 65 minutes of hockey. But then that last sentence had the word "logically" in there, so of course the NHL does it anyway.
And if you do really, really need it, why not at least create a different points system so we're not awarding a team the same amount for winning in an actual hockey game as we are for winning a talent show? Giving out three points for a win wouldn't be the worst thing that ever happened.
The ultimate proof that it's stupid, of course, lies in the fact that the rule disappears in the playoffs. If it's so good, why not have it all the time?
1. The lockout
I don't feel as though I should have to explain to a bunch of hockey fans how detrimental to hockey the loss of an entire season to stubbornness and greed was. It gave all the meathead football/basketball/baseball fans out there just another reason to point and laugh at the league to stupid for its own good, and gave ESPN another reason to ignore the sport for three or four years.
What a terrible time that was.
Part 2: The five best
5. The elimination of the two-line pass
Get your jokes in now. I'll wait...
This was literally the stupidest rule in the history of hockey. I don't know who came up with the rule, or who approved it, but this is the kind of rule, like touch-up icing, where I can't see how anyone thought it would help the game. "What," its creators must surely have wondered, "can we do to make the game lower-scoring, slower and less fun to watch?"
Thus, with the League smartly eliminating the rule (along enacting with a host of others intended to increase offense) made the game higher-scoring, faster and more fun to watch. What's not to love about that?
4. Dumping the league's hopes on a goofy-looking kid from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia
Pick up your local paper the next time the Penguins are in town. There's probably a story on Crosby somewhere on that sports front page. Pick up that same paper if, say, the Panthers are in town. Not even a mention. The NHL hype machine threw its full weight behind Crosby and, it turns out, with good reason.
He's won a scoring title, a league MVP award and a Stanley Cup. There's going to be a natural backlash from the hardcores because of how much attention he gets, but you can't say he hasn't lived up to the hype.
Everyone knows who Sid Crosby is. And that's a good thing for hockey.
3. Embracing new/social media
You really have to give the NHL credit for its forward-thinking approach to things like this. The NHL had an official YouTube channel and Twitter before most other leagues knew those things are (and in fact the NFL and MLB still make YouTube pull down any clips using their broadcasts, which is six distinct kinds of stupid).
What leagues offered Twitter-exclusive contests for their fans that cost nothing before this one? The NHL is so far ahead of everyone else it's not even funny. And where else can you find a player of Mike Green's(notes) status droppin' F-bombs?
In addition to that, NHL.com has become an excellent website. Incredibly detailed stats as far back as the late ‘90s, video highlights more or less as they happen, and I can pull up a third-pairing defenseman's blocked shots number from an individual game in 2006. The league's website used to be frustrating and now it's fantastic. Full credit to them for being ahead of the curve by a good two or three steps.
2. The Winter Classic
Granted they didn't actually make up "outdoor game as national attention-getter." You have to give that credit to the University of Michigan and Michigan State, which played The Cold War at MSU's Spartan Stadium before 74,544 people in 2001. Then the Oilers and Canadiens played in the Heritage Classic in Edmonton two years later and 57,000 people showed up.
But NHL did think it'd be a good idea to do it every year, and now a regular-season game in January is almost as important to the league as the Stanley Cup Finals.
Ratings bonanza? You bet. Iconic moments? I can't imagine it's easy to forget Crosby scoring a shootout winner in the snow. Big crowds? More than 121,000 people have watched just two Winter Classics in-person. This was a great, great thing for the league.
1. The lockout
I know what you're thinking. How can this be simultaneously the worst and best thing the league did? While a year without hockey is hardly a year at all, the way the NHL has come back from an incredibly dark time has been nothing short of remarkable.
The game is fantastic nowadays. That much is obvious. That's because of the things that the League and NHLPA agreed upon during the lockout. This new collective bargaining agreement, while not perfect, has been incredibly helpful for the league.
Imagine if things had continued on their 2004 course. Without a salary cap, this would still be what is effectively a five-team league. Without the rule changes, Alex Ovechkin(notes) would never have scored 65 goals in a season.
Without the lockout, hockey would still be dying a slow, boring death or might have even done so already. We can all agree things are much better the way they are now.