Kukla's Korner Hockey
by George Malik on 02/20/07 at 10:05 PM ET
By George James Malik
Amidst the golf cart races, moonlit skinny-dipping (resulting in unconfirmed manatee sightings), and Key Lime Pie and Corona cocktail-chugging sessions, those wild and crazy General Managers actually decided to make recommendations to the Board of Governors. Reducing instigator rule suspension thresholds, refining video review, and at least considering halving overtime penalties all sound downright progressive?
On the surface, anyway.
The underlying but apparent message from the two days of GM’s meetings thus far is a disturbing one.
There are glaring holes in the NHL’s claim that attendance isn’t an issue, and fans are disgruntled by the monotonous schedule. The league has an all but non-existent mainstream media presence in the U.S., and in Canada, there are concerns because the CBA never never meaningfully addressed the inconsistency of the Canadian Dollar. Several concerns raised by Sportsnet’s Jim Kelley have been completely ignored in the GM’s discussions:
The real issue that needs to be addressed is what the heck has happened to the competition committee? They don’t seem to be meeting; they don’t appear to be addressing anything. They appear as immobilized as Brendan Shanahan (one of their members) was while being wheeled off the Madison Square Garden ice over the weekend, the victim of a head-on-head hit.
Look around, concussions are still a major problem for the NHL. What’s being done? Knee-on-knee hits seem to be on the rise. What’s being done? The coach of the Eastern Conference at the All-Star game, Lindy Ruff, charges that hooking, holding and obstruction are making their way back into the game. He gets about one day of coverage and then it’s back to who might be traded.
These are serious issues in the game today. So is the fact that Campbell has unilaterally changed the rules about physical contact and seems to have turned a blind eye to the seriousness of serious intent to injure, ignoring some incidents that scream for supplemental discipline while holding to a three-game-no-mater what standard for the few instances he does rule on. How is it that one man holds so much power to determine the shape and course of the game? Isn’t that worth writing about or asking about? Isn’t that more important than a national debate on the value of Ryan Smyth’s contract?
The competition committee’s as willing to address the proliference of head and knee shots as Colin Campbell is to enforce the diver’s list, but they moved at lightning speed to ban Alex Ovechkin’s mirrored visor.
Obstruction’s creeping back in despite the fact that nobody knows what really constitutes a hooking penalty anymore, but you’re more likely to get a penalty for catching yourself putting your free hand on a player and pulling it away than you are if you set up a goal by “picking” a backchecking forward when the puck’s thirty feet away.
Goalies getting impaled? The GM’s say that’s not an issue—the concept of penalizing a goaltender for holding onto the puck, regardless of whether he’s simply trying to get a stoppage in play during a dump-in, or whether he’s trying desperately to prevent a goal with three guys furiously whacking at his hands while standing on top of him in the crease.
The NHL and NHLPA need to be looking at their “partnership” agreement. How close can the two sides be when there is an ongoing federal investigation (According to a report in Sports Business Journal) into whether or not labour laws were violated regarding contractual side agreements between the league and the Players’ Association? Or what about the fact these letters were not revealed to the players who ratified the agreement? The CBA issues between the Players’ Association and the league and the players and their leadership are huge yet go virtually unreported.
Oh, phooey, the GM’s scoff. What do the players know? Besides, those pre-game ceremonies are taking forever—when we’re not hosting them, they mumble under their breath—and that’s hurting the game!
Okay, maybe it matters to visiting teams that Steve Yzerman’s goodbye took 80 minutes or that Mike Vernon’s number retirement dragged on. That being said, what about some dialogue on the bogus system that gives teams a point for losing in overtime or a shootout? Anybody find it interesting that goalies, everyone’s consensus choice as the most valuable players in the game, are being run at every opportunity and it’s not an accident, it’s a coaching tactic? Anyone notice that Wayne Gretzky has flip-flopped on the need for fighting in hockey and how that might open the door for more of it in the game? Does anyone have a lick of interest about revising the instigator rule or “no-touch” icing or the fact that goaltenders really haven’t given up much of anything in regards the size of their equipment or that some coaches and GMs are arguing for a lessening of “soft” penalties, an affront to the still-new officiating standards if there ever was one?
Have the GM’s considered that the proliference of pre-game largesse is partially their fault, or that the fact that so many great players retired either during the lockout or within a season thereof because the lockout’s lay-off forced more than a few players to cut their careers short?
Of course not. In this case, Kelley’s siding with the GM’s, who’d rather talk about making goaltenders wear kiddie-sized equipment instead of addressing the ridiculous return of trap hockey by coaches who know that they can play a dreadful, no-forecheck game and still get two points against a highly-skilled team by rope-a-doping their way to a shootout—a shootout that’s become the great equalizer, and the real reason that there’s so much “parity” in a league whose talent base has finally recovered from the overexpansion of the late 90’s.
None of these issues matter to GM’s. The core issues surrounding making the game that the NHL overcharges their fans to watch, both in person and at home (if you don’t have Center Ice in a non-hockey market, you’re screwed), and refuses to do anything other than encourage a dreadfully boring style of game that encourages its most ardent fans to drop out and turn off, because the GM’s have finally, grudgingly admitted the truth.
The Brian Burkes of the NHL are the ones who hold sway.
GM’s who half joke that having brothers on a team saves them money on a father-son trip are the cheapskates who kept the schedule as-is.
GM’s who claim that there’s still a place for goons can get Gary Bettman to suggest that the instigator rule is a pressing matter:
“Among other things, it means a skilled player doesn’t have to fight,” Bettman said after Day 2 of the GM meetings wrapped up. “This wouldn’t be the first time that we adjusted this. You fine-tune it, and if you need to adjust it again, you do.”
Attendance? Why, the NHL had its best January ever, and revenues are up, up, up (let’s conveniently omit that they’re up because two thirds of the league’s teams raised ticket prices)! All is well!
General managers and owners have been detached from the game they govern for as long as hockey’s been a business. Owners don’t chastise Bill Wirtz for refusing to televise his team’s home games, nor do they feel it’s necessary to remind executives like Jimmy Devellano that the radio, 6 O’Clock news, and print-only newspapers haven’t been the only means by which fans can connect with a team for over a decade.
As far as the GM’s and owners are concerned, as long as the bottom line looks good, they can do whatever they want.
Dave Checketts’ assertions, after mediocre team to get a high draft pick, and admitting that you’re going to tank a season or two to continue doing so, that he jacked up ticket prices because player salaries are on the rise? That’s par for the course.
The very commissioner of the league, who spent the lockout touting “thirty stable, competitive franchises, in the markets they’re currently located in,” spent the All-Star game explaining that the Penguins had the right to explore all their options if they didn’t get an arena “on the right economic terms” from the city of Pittsburgh.
The NHL has fantastic players sloughing along, playing trap hockey while their fans in many markets—some of the best sports fans on the planet—can’t watch their home teams when they’re on a network that’s all but invisible.
The “new” NHL’s controlled by the same dinosaur owners and GM’s who ran it into the scorched earth that was the lockout. The competition committee’s becoming a “good old boys’ club” fast, and Colin Campbell’s as strict a disciplinarian as Homer Simpson.
There is good news, however, and it’s simple. The NHL’s persisted for almost a hundred years in spite of the machinations of its ownership because the players and fans’ passion for the game is unparalleled, and that passion, over time, forces change. If anything, the proliference of internet message boards and blogs have given fans a bigger voice and pulpits with a worldwide scope, and we know is that, at least occasionally, bandwidth finds its way onto the monitors and laptops of those who know how to bend dinosaur ears.
I wish there was a better, more practical answer to taming the Brian Burkes of the world than to suggest that we should keep loving our sport, putting our faith in the guys on the ice who care about us as much as we care about them, and making our voices heard whenever possible, but some ability to affect change is better than only having incriminating pictures of Dean Lombardi wearing a lampshade on his head after one too many Key Lime and Coronas.
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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