Fri Aug 12 05:16pm EDT
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People are always very eager to discuss and debate the various rule changes for the National Hockey League, but ignore the larger problem with the NHL's Research and Development camp.
The purpose of these yearly two-day affronts to the sport is ostensibly to make it more… what's the word? Different. They want to make hockey more different. Because as we all know, hockey will only become popular if we change everything about it except that it's played on ice. Which is probably up for testing next year.
The idea of this little fiasco is, of course, a holdover from the days immediately following the lockout, in which everyone fretted about the fact that the League was on a network nobody watched.
"How can we bring the fans back?" developed into "How do we bring new eyes to the game?" quicker than a Pavel Bure breakaway.
The simplest answer was to put games on a network people had the physical ability to watch, but that wasn't a viable solution. So what was going to trick people into watching and eventually liking a sport they previously only occasionally watched highlights of and really only kind of liked if you were going to press them on it?
You guessed it: More Goals and the depthless vapidity of No Ties.
As a result, they changed a million rules. Every game immediately following the lockout was a gongshow of penalties, and therefore goals, but it wasn't watchable hockey in the way that we know it now. The refs have chilled out a little bit on calling penalties for hooks and holds and the like — not a lot, mind, but enough — and the quality of hockey has gotten better for it.
And so too have the viewership numbers. Granted, that's because NBC and Comcast, which used to be Versus' primary (maybe only?) carrier, are now one company, and we have the NHL on NBC and hockey's not exactly treated like the sports child no one wants, or knows how to, take care of these days.
But this Camp Shanny, as it's been dubbed, remains, all in an effort to increase scoring again back to levels that were not only not attracting new viewers in the post-lockout world, but alienating longtime fans.
Things they plan on testing this year, but are certainly not limited to testing: Icing calls for teams on the penalty kill, no line change for a team that went offside, allowing hand passes in all zones, changes to the overtime format that would cut 4-on-4 to four minutes and add three minutes of 3-on-3, and making the nets shallower so more goals can come from a puckcarrier behind the net.
All insane. All terrible.
The point that the NHL has been missing forever is that people are either going to watch and like hockey, or they're not.
You're not going to con them into loving it just because the Blackhawks' power play can score three times in a two-minute penalty (and let's ignore the fact that such a change takes much of the drama and specialness out of a five-minute major). At best, you only annoy or even drive away people who already kind of like the sport. Purists are as dyed-in-the-wool about what they will and will not accept as people who don't like a sport. In short, they're not going to put up with too much crap.
History has taught us that the only way people will start liking a sport they don't care about is to assault them with it.
Let's just take the NHL's new networkmate, Major League Soccer, as a for-instance.
MLS was a disaster when it first started. It didn't utilized the 3-1-0 point system used everywhere for decades. It used an awful best-of-three playoff system. Some years it had a shootout to resolve all ties through regulation, and some years it didn't. In others, teams had two five-minute overtime periods to score a golden goal. It was immeasurably stupid.
And no one watched. The league dissolved two teams, changed commissioners, and eventually changed all its rules to be like every other respectable professional league in the world, except for that whole salary cap thing.
Then, with the United States' surprise run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, people magically and all of a sudden started watching soccer. The sport has more or less exploded in popularity in the U.S. and Canada since; look at the numbers for a World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain.
It also helps that the domestic league has gotten considerably better quality-wise since then and got on a major network, in this case ESPN. That did no small amount of good.
But part of it, too, was that MLS began its existence catering to casual fans who were largely indifferent. Bored soccer moms and their kids who played soccer but didn't care about it, to be exact. But when that stopped working, teams turned their attention to fostering connections with the hardcores in supporters groups and people who liked the game, as-is.
Who could have guessed that seeing a wonderful game as it's meant to be played would make people like it?
It's unclear just how often the NHL will need ratings to keep growing and growing, simply because it's running more games on NBC, before it realizes its attempt to reinsert the sport into popular culture is actually working. And that's without only allowing teams to change on the fly, not during stoppages.
Yes, they're testing that too.
Hockey is the most amazing and exciting sport in the world. And it totally sells itself.
All it takes is exposure. Not gimmickry.
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