The NHL has already undergone an incredible amount of change on the ice, most of which came after the NHL lockout during the 2004-2005 season. For better or worse, over the past ten years, the NHL has added the shootout and the "loser point", added the trapezoid behind the goaltender, enforced more interference, hooking and tripping penalties to free up the offense, and took away the two-line pass. All of these moves have helped to add more scoring to a league that had morphed into defensive battles nearly every single night. While this added a new level of excitement to the casual hockey fan, many hardcore fans feel that the NHL has evolved into something completely different than the sport we knew growing up.
As I sat and thought about what should change over the next decade, I wanted to try and find a way to bridge the gap between what hardcore fans desire and what will still appeal to new and casual fans. The NHL is already one of the best sports leagues in North America in reaching out to fans and getting them involved with the sport. It's a very intimate atmosphere between the league and the fans, and there is potential there for an even better relationship. Here are what I feel should change over the next ten years for the NHL:
The NHL will pass a standard for all illegal hits, and the ensuing punishments.
Perhaps the biggest charge against the NHL right now is how one person, Colin Campbell, is in complete control of all discipline for the league. Now that's not entirely different than how other sports operate, yet it's the NHL's "Wheel of Justice" that truly brings out the ire of fans and the media. Without a set standard for punishments and illegal hits (and specifically, what a legal hit entails), every determination of punishment is completely arbitrary.
The NHL maintains that this is so every incident is treated separately, since every hockey play and hit are never the same. Yet if there were an established standard for what constitutes an illegal or dirty hit, then the punishments should never be called into question. The NFL has adopted a similar standard: any helmet-to-helmet hit is illegal and punished according to severity and past transgressions on an escalating scale. The same with illegal hits on quarterbacks and personal fouls.
No system is perfect (the NFL is accused, just the same as the NHL, with favorable attention towards star players), but with a set system in place, the NHL would no longer face accusations of being completely baseless with a number of these punishments. No longer will one hit be frame-by-frame scrutinized next to a similar hit; they would all be treated the same if they fall under the specific criteria for punishment. This will also take out the "if the player is injured the hit is worse" mantra the NHL has apparently adopted.
The trapezoid will go away, and goaltenders will be treated the same as any other player.
There were a number of changes on the ice the past ten years, all with the intent of opening up the offense and scoring. Before, goaltenders had the ability to roam anywhere in their zone to play the puck and do their best to counter an aggressive forecheck. With the trapezoid, the goaltenders have become much more limited as to where they may play the puck, and it's negated the development of some truly exceptional puck handling goaltenders.
If the trapezoid was taken away (and it came close at the last general managers meeting), then goaltenders would once more be free to play the puck in the corners of their own zone. One argument against this is that in the past goaltenders could play the puck at will, yet were protected from any physicality from opposing players. With this new rule, once a goalie left his crease area to play the puck he would open to the same type of hits a defensemen would; while he could play the puck all he wanted, goaltenders would be much more careful as to when and how they did so.
The NHL will once again embrace fighting, and the instigator penalty will actually be enforced.
This one is tricky. There's no doubting that the NHL is wary of its reputation as an overly-violent sport and wishes that the fighting that takes place would just slowly go away, never to return. Yet hardcore fans claim that the lack of fighting has taken the 'self-policing' aspect away from the players. These dirty hits we're seeing more and more of would be punished not only by the NHL's new rules (see above), but also by the players on the ice. While I don't foresee the triumphant return of the 'enforcer' type player, I also believe that this league is in some serious need of attitude towards those that disrespect others. Can you imagine what would have happened to Sean Avery in 1992?
That being said, I don't want the NHL to become a real-life version of "Slapshot". The instigator penalty is there for a good reason, yet is rarely enforced (or punished) as it is spelled out in the NHL rulebook. While I want more policing among the players, I don't wish for things to get out of control to the point that the league falls back into the realm where the NHL is nothing but fights and no skill.
Fighting is exciting. The fans love it. There are sites that are entirely dedicated to this aspect of the sport.
Roll with it.
The NHL will find a way to properly market the sport on television.
This is by far the biggest issue with hockey today. Since 2004, the only people watching the NHL on television are diehard fans of their local teams and those lucky enough to actually have Versus. Love them or hate them, ESPN controls the popularity of sports in the U.S. (witness the improbable rise of poker...poker!) and right now the NHL is getting less airtime than NCAA women's softball. Seriously. No offense to women's softball, it's a great sport.
When the NHL was coming out of the lockout ESPN decided it didn't want to pay as much for the rights to air the games, and the league went to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, that bidder was The Outdoor Life Network, a channel that less than half of the country actually received and even less even knew existed. Hockey enjoyed an incredible rise in popularity in the United States, and you could almost directly relate that rise to the fact that the sport was carried on ESPN or ESPN 2 most nights during the week. ESPN 2 even tried producing hockey in the summer to jump on the popularity. Anyone remember Pro Beach Hockey?
While Versus and NBC have vastly improved their presentation of the sport in the last five years, the fact still remains that the NHL is still not getting the national attention it deserves and used to get. Right now the NHL is about as exciting as it's been in a very long time, yet they are still having issues marketing the sport to not only current fans but new fans as well. What's more alarming is that Versus is currently not carried on DirecTV, removing more potential viewers who could watch the nationally televised games.
The contract with Versus runs through the 2010-2011 season. The NHL should consider weighing whether it would be best to pocket more money for the television contract or find a better solution for marketing the sport on a national level.
Forget the ice girls and theatrics; make the focus be on hockey itself.
Every team markets themselves to local fans differently, and some place more emphasis on certain aspects of games more than others. Yet one thing is abundantly clear: the NHL has lost a lot of the focus on the actual game of hockey.
The Winter Classic is great for the NHL and it's great for hockey. It's incredibly popular among fans and the NHL has managed to turn each game into a popular event for all sports fans. Yet the game itself, the one that is played on the ice, has increasingly turned into sloppy and messy affairs. The first issue is that hockey is just not a sport that translates well during the day. The players are thrown off their schedule, it's not a normal occurrence and the game is not played at the same level it needs to be when a national audience is tuning in. If the NHL desperately wanted to turn new fans on to hockey with these games then exciting, clean and high-paced games are what they need.
The same principle should apply locally as well. Where once you went to hockey games to actually watch the game on the ice, now there are a number of distractions to take the focus away from the ice. "Ice Girls" in skimpy outfits come out to clear the ice during breaks; bars and restaurants are open during the game. Not every team has issues like these, but too often are team's resorting to cheap tricks in order to draw fans to the arena.
The teams and the NHL should be focused on making the sport better and building an atmosphere among the fans in the arena. Not every team has thousands of rabid fans, but if the focus was squarely on the sport and team, then the fans would be much more into the game. It's understandable that losing teams need to find ways to bring the fans in and fill the seats, but there's no excuse for not teaching them to love the sport itself while they are there.