Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The new NHL

The Christian Science Monitor has an article on Detroit Red Wings' winger Brendan Shanahan and his campaign to make the National Hockey League more interesting to watch.

In 2003-04, the NHL had the most exciting Stanley Cup finals in a decade. Then refusing to capitalize on this momentum, the entire NHL campaign was cancelled due to a lockout imposed by team owners. It was the first North American professional sports season ever to be cancelled in its entireity.

One good thing came out of the debacle: the league re-wrote many of its rules in an attempt to generate more excitement and enthusiasm.

And a funny thing happened on the league's way to oblivion: the changes worked!

For the first time in over a decade, the league is now worth watching on a regular basis. The new rules and emphases protect skaters instead of goons. Referees have been ordered to crack down on the hooking, holding and interference which have absolutely destroyed the game in the last 10 years or so.

While many people do like to see the fights (or like myself, don't mind the occasional one) and most fans appreciate good, clean hits, I don't know of any one who is sad to see the demise of hooking, holding and interference... an unholy trinity which rendered the loathsome old NHL about as exciting to watch as golf or the NBA.

Now, skill players can skate with the puck without getting repeatedly mugged by no talent goons bearing weapons. And if they are mugged, penalties are actually called. Of course, some players and fans will always complain when the written rules are actually enforced; they will whine about refs trying to be the star of the show or controlling the game. To them, refusing to give preference to the talentless makes it less macho, "Eurohockey" as some local fans might snidely call it. The muggings and cheap shots make it more of a "man's game."

But as a result of these long overdue changes, many of the games in the NHL are absolutely breathtaking to watch.

To be honest, over the last several years, I hardly ever watched a regular season NHL game, even when the Bruins were on TV. I watched the Stanley Cup playoffs more out of habit than enthusiasm. This wasn't out of a disillusionment with the sport of hockey, but with hockey the way it was perverted by the NHL. I still loved watching high school and especially college (university) hockey. This season, I've already watched more regular season games than I have in over a decade and not just Bruins' games.

Of course, you knew the NHL would find a way to mess this up. While the games are about 50 times better than they were before the owner-imposed lockout, far fewer people can see them. The NHL had been broadcast for almost 15 years on the widely-watched and -respected ESPN networks. ESPN naturally wanted to pay less money for the new contract since the NHL brand had been devalued by the lockout.

So the NHL chose to air its national games on the Outdoor Network (OLN), which has far less viewers than the ESPNs. This is an example of short-sightedness so prevelant amongst those who mismanage the NHL. Yes, OLN offered more money but less exposure. After a year off the sports radar screen, exposure is precisely what the NHL needs to rebuild. Due to the rules changes, they now have the product. ESPN would've given them the venue. But they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Again.

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