Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


NHL on thin ice

Did anyone notice? The NHL is approaching playoff time, and there are some races out there that are tighter than a Randy Savage headlock.
Five teams in the Eastern Conference — separated by a mere three points — fighting to decide who gets the good match-ups in the first round of the playoffs? Four teams in the Western Conference — separated by five points — fighting for a chance just to see the playoffs?

Any of this sound familiar?



Yeah, I didn’t really think so.

I have to admit that even I was a bit surprised when I took a look at the standings the other day and found that my beloved Blues are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since I’ve been alive.

And I love hockey.

I’ve loved hockey since I was a little kid. I love watching it, I love playing it, and I love talking about it.

But for all that love, I think the only conversation about pro hockey I’ve had in recent memory was about a thug from a second-rate team who tried to kill another player.

There’s something very wrong with that.

Todd Bertuzzi’s insanely criminal attack, though, is just a symptom of the problem with the NHL right now.

It’s gotten to the point where the question regarding professional hockey no longer is: what’s wrong? What do the powers that be need to change?

At this point the question is: what isn’t wrong? What do they not need to change for this sport to stay in existence?

And it’s really not all that clear that anything about the NHL at this point is going to be worth keeping after the inevitable lockout at the end of this season. Pretty much everything has to change.

I can’t cover that much in my allotted space today, so here’s a little list of the three biggest problems facing the league right now:

1) The CBA: At the top of the list of problems has to be the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Before this CBA came into being, the system wasn’t all that much better, with owners reaping in all the profits as players suffered in the 1980s. Now the players are getting paid, but at the expense, regrettably, of the game itself.

Teams are constantly on the verge of going under, but are forced to decide between either spending too much money to put a competitive team on the ice that people will actually come to watch, or else running their organizations on a shoestring and enduring lowered attendances.

While this is probably the biggest problem with the league today, it could also be the easiest to solve. A new CBA will be negotiated at the end of this season. The owners and the players need to be forced to come to some sort of compromise where power is shared instead of (as it has been forever) power being squarely on one side or the other.

It’s unfortunately not clear whether NHL commissioner Gary Bettman can be the person to lead these two forces to a middle ground.

Bettman is a good man and cares about the game as much as anyone. He recently (in something of a drolly ironic move) commissioned a study of why the game is losing so much money — for 700 grand.

But if there is one thing that Bettman has shown during his tenure, it’s that he is not capable of finding a way for players and owners to coexist.

The new CBA will be Bettman’s chance at a positive legacy. If he can somehow find a way to negotiate a compromise under which owners can stay in business and players can take a small hit, without reverting to the problems left behind in the ’80s, he can be remembered as the man who saved the game.

If he can’t, he will be remembered as the man who let it die.

2) Too many teams in too many weird places: The talent level in the NHL has been so diffused in the past decade that only the best teams can expect to put as many as two lines of players who actually deserve to be professionals on the ice.

There are 10 teams in the league with average attendances over 18,000 this season. There are about 10 more teams who have lower attendances, but are based in cities that have stood the test of time as good markets for the NHL (i.e., Chicago, Boston, New Jersey, etc.).

That’s 20 teams that deserve to stick around. There are 30 teams in the NHL right now. Ten of them simply need to be cut.

And who couldn’t have seen this coming? When professional hockey spread to places like Columbus, Nashville, Atlanta, Carolina and Phoenix, in the mid-to-late ’90s, who couldn’t have predicted that the NHL was over-extending itself?

Hockey is a sport played on ice. Most people in these cities think ice is something that only exists in freezers.

For the NHL to return to prominence, these teams need to be dropped and the league needs to do something to the extent of holding a draft of their players, where the teams that need attendance the most get the players to create it. Cities like New Jersey that are underdrawing will benefit greatly from the new faces.

By contracting teams playing in the literal hockey hotbeds, the NHL can improve the league’s standing in the figurative ones.

3) Mixed marketing: The league needs to decide very soon what the product it’s selling is. Right now, the NHL is selling itself as a violent sport — a la football or boxing — while at the same time, the league asks referees to crack down on it in actual games.

If violence is the image that Bettman and company want to sell, they need to start letting it go a bit more in games. If they want to get back to the point in time when hockey was regarded as a skill sport (which would be my preference), then they need to cut down on the violence and sell the game for its bevy of ultra-skilled players — not its goons.

Hockey is a great game and is a professional sport that people love, even if many of us have forgotten why. There’s a reason that it is regarded as the fourth major sport: there is a market out there for it.

Unfortunately, until some serious changes are made, the NHL is skating on extremely thin ice.

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