Gazing out the living room window, it’s hard to feel as though the beautifully changing leaves aren’t being wasted away by the drenching early October rains. But, just like the NHL and it’s monsoon of greed and ignorance, there are always flashes of sunshine to hang on to. In this case, it’s still fall, and there are still seasonal beers (Woodstock Autumn Ale Brew is tops) and fresh apple crisp to be had by all.
And, just like a late season trip to the Orchard, there’s still a few fresh fruits to pluck over the NHL’s work stoppage. A little time off ought to give the brains that be, if there be any left, a little time to eek out some improvements to the game. Grab your favorite brew (maybe a Southern Tier Pumking?) and bang down one for each of these five ways to make the NHL even better. And no, burning Gary Bettman at the stake for witch-craft doesn’t count.
1. Ditch the Geometry: The trapezoid. It was an idea. No one said it was a good one. Honestly, for a sport clamoring for clarity among new and casual fans, the thing just adds to the confusion. With the deaths of both the red line and clutch-and-grab hockey, a speedier game has emerged. Letting goalies play the puck like a hot potato while bacon-sizzle-fast wingers barrel down on them could add an element that’s missing. Let the goalies make the gamble. Without a two-line pass rule, needle threaders like Martin Broduer and Marty Turco (sensing a first name trend) could spring quick turn-around rushes. And how exciting would it be to watch guys like Stephen Stamkos or Sydney Crosby intercept those spuds for an odd-man turnover? Sour cream and cheese.
2. Six Men In: While we’re talking about net presence, let’s quit playing around with appetizers and get to the meat of things. The goalies are the most protected men out there. If they want to roam and play the puck, let’s put them in play. By either extending the crease area, or adding a second line, a-la basketball’s 3-point arc, the league could create a “protected area” for the keepers. Outside of that, fair game. Allot of folks, raised a big stink about Milan Lucic’s rail-roading of Ryan Miller last season. Things might have gone differently if Miller had been prepared for contact. Playing the puck (see previous rule change) would become a much bigger gamble if goaltenders knew they could be targets, potentially even wedged into the boards as a trailing forward collects a freed up puck near an undefended net. When in doubt, follow Warren Zevon’s advice… Hit Somebody.
3. Call Me Maybe: The NHL is like an overzealous Halloween party. They got the ok for about 25. Then they feared no one would show and invited 30. Only problem is, everyone showed up. Sorry guys, we’re going to drop a couple suggestive “the cops are here” and see who sticks it out. The NHL talent pool is diluted. As much as the league wants to compete with 30 teams, it could win a stronger fan base with better talent. During the 2010 Olympics the games, especially between Canada and the US, were phenomenal. That’s because those teams were stacked with the best of the best. By dropping six teams, the NHL could replicate a bit of that magic on a smaller level. Think about the league’s six worst teams and who the top two or three players are on each. They’d all still be quality additions to any team in the league. By holding a dispersal draft, middle of the line teams could weed out goons and stone-handed wingers for usable parts. Quality over quantity. The likely culprits? Phoenix, Florida, Anaheim, New York (I), Nashville, and Carolina. Most of these markets don’t have much of a youth hockey base and don’t draw well, even when the teams are doing ok. Yes, Nashville and Carolina pull crowds when the teams are contending, but not when they’re out. Columbus stays because might actually draw a base if they undergo a franchise transformation, and win a few games. Right now, they just taste like that Sam Summer you’ve been hanging on to.
4. Thirsty Thursdays: Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Baseball are staples of the American lexicon. Hockey needs to hop on board and designate a day, Thursdays, to showcase it’s marquee match-ups. Fans need a night to look forward to, week after week, when they can enjoy, as the Old Man would call it, full on “hockey-mania”. Every team in the league should be playing every Thursday night, preferably against a division rival. Intermissions could include fast paced highlight reels of all the action. Local broadcasts could highlight their Thursday night matchups. And NBC could host the feature match-up of the week. Getting a nationally covered game should be nearly as coveted as MNF. All the while, the league should capitalize on an oft-neglected audience. The young, beer-drinking college crowd. Thirsty Thursdays, complete with blue collar hockey, sudsy sponsors, and perfect “pre-gaming” conditions could be a perfect draw for a prime new audience. College staples like Nattie Ice and the High Life could eat up ad space. Creative, yet suggestive, marketing could be done by individual teams as well.
5. Instant Wood: B’s announcer Jack Edwards keeps a rogue tally of how many shots each player takes between stick breaks. That’s a telling sign of how fragile the new generation of graphite sticks can be. The NHL ought to take a page out of baseball’s book and ban non-wood sticks altogether. For the purist, it seems like an advantage on the verge of cheating, somewhere below steroids and above a well-timed glove wash. While it may help some guys get that extra torque to beat today’s super fit goalies, something about it seems too far removed from the games roots. The solution? Re-introduce banana blades. There’s a bit of a skill behind this as most of the players back in the day would torque the blades themselves with a blow-torch. You’d also see a split between players who favored an extreme hook, giving them an added lethalness to their shots, and those wanting a straighter blade, giving them more control and actual use of their back-hand. You don’t buy those aluminum Bud bottles at home, you go for good old glass (or a can!).
With any luck, the powers that be will consider these changes, or better yet, come to their senses and just end the lockout. Until then, as they tussle over who should be more drunk with power, the colors of the fall are rapidly fading. Here’s to a season! (Pumple Drumpkin, Cisco Brewers, Nantucket)