Before I start, let me say that I am ecstatic that the NHL is back after that long hiatus. The new game is pretty exciting and I will admit a little more entertaining. Nevertheless, as has been typical of the NHL, how dare anyone say a bad word about it? I’m not talking about just the players, so far the media seems reluctant to write anything bad about the NHL (which, given the way the NHL was treated prior to this season that may not be a bad thing). So I’m going to do it. The new game is fine and hopefully will bring some fans back to the rink, but there are things the NHL and the media keep overlooking for their own benefit. Now I’d like to shed a little light on some of those.
Gary Bettman, who should be on the NHL’s get rid of list, won the war in September, but refuses to admit losing some battles then and since. In a recent news conference Bettman boasted about the league and how fans are flocking back to the rinks, saying attendance is up. He was quick to point out the increase in goals and power plays, and the decrease in fighting. He even is making promises of new, exciting jerseys next year. Given some recent attempts, that could be a disaster (see: bright orange Islanders jerseys and vomit yellow Nashville jerseys). Let’s take a quick look at this increase in attendance. First off, I was watching a RED WINGS game and noticed a ridiculous amount of empty seats in the lower level. If they can’t fill seats in Hockeytown we’re in trouble. Secondly, yes, typical hockey markets like all the Canadian teams, Philly, Colorado, Minnesota, etc., are all up near 100% in terms of attendance/capacity*. Apparently even Detroit is too. Even a few surprise teams like Dallas, Atlanta, Florida and LA have very respectable attendance rates. However, eight teams are below 80% capacity for the season. Among them? An original six team (Chicago), one of the best teams in the last decade (New Jersey) and two respectable franchises in decent hockey markets (Buffalo and New York Islanders). So Gary can you sweet talk your way out of that? What might help is if Gary forced Bill Wirtz (arguably the worst and cheapest owner in the NHL) to actually televise Blackhawk games in Chicago. If you didn’t know it’s true. If you live in Chicago, or that general area, you do not get local TV coverage of your hometown team. And about all those goals. Aside from the fact that a lot of them are coming on the ridiculous amount of power plays there are each game, how much do you think the few 7-6 and 10-4 showings have swayed those numbers? Yes, there have been more of those high scoring tilts, but there still have been a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games (which personally I’m more a fan of).
So before you let your head inflate more, Gary, here are some things to think about. You had better hope the number of penalties per game decreases sometime soon. I would hope there aren’t a lot of fans who like seeing fifteen power plays and penalty kills by their team in one game (except for maybe in Washington because they’re power play is about their only bright spot). The crackdown has been good in a way because there is a little more room to skate, but part of hockey is grinding it out a little on the boards and earning goals too. While sometimes players pin opponents a little too long against the boards, they should still be afforded that luxury. Defensemen are at a huge disadvantage because they can’t really do much of anything to a forward along the boards. Similar to that, Bettman has to let defensemen control their territory a little more like in the past (i.e., they can put a little hurt on the forwards in front of the net). Not only are goalies and defensemen up in arms about this, but forward John Leclair has even said that he thinks it’s cheap that he has such an easy time getting to the front of the net. He claimed it took away from some of the toughness it takes to play the game. When a forward is saying he misses getting abused out front of the net, you know you went too far with the crackdown. Not everyone does like the shootout Gary/media, although I think more do than don’t. Not everyone likes two- line passes or the new restrictions on goalies or the decrease in fighting, and a lot of people are saying they wish there was more contact in the game. Once again, I would also like to propose what I still believe could’ve solved many problems years ago and still could: GET BIGGER RINKS. It is very possible. Yeah in some stadiums you’ll lose a good chunk of seats, but as said earlier, apparently some stadiums don’t need as many seats anyway.
Now that that’s all off my chest, it is good to have hockey back. Truthfully not one sport can cater to all of its fans and what each one wants, and to some extent there is only so much Gary and the NHL can do. And again, many of the games I’ve seen so far have been enjoyable. I’ve seen some impressive goals, still some good hits, some highlight reel saves and even one of the better fights I’ve seen in a long time. So while there is still work to do, and beating around the bush to avoid, the game is back and with a great crop of young stars there is hope that it can return to the respectability it had back in the early 90’s.
* Attendance figures are according to ESPN.com as of 11/07/2005