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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Time to celebrate the end of the NHL season

Globe and Mail Update
Tuesday, June 10, 2003

East Rutherford, N.J. — So it's all over for another year and the best news is that National Hockey League games took less time to play than a year ago and the season ended four days earlier, even though the Stanley Cup final went the seven-game limit.

These, by the way, represented the two most positive developments in a year characterized by mostly bad news.

Less really was more.

In a year which featured bankruptcies in Buffalo and Ottawa, a fire sale in Pittsburgh and another year on the playoff sidelines for the big-budget New York Rangers, there was little to recommend the 2002-03 season, which ended Monday when the New Jersey Devils won their third Stanley Cup in nine years.

Television exposure was down in the United States. Ratings fell. Hockey's importance was neatly summed by the fact that on the day the Stanley Cup final opened in New Jersey, the New York tabloids put the 52nd game of the New York Yankees season on the front of the sports section and pushed the Ducks-Devils' series inside.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman likes to say the game wouldn't necessarily be better if more goals were scored - and on one level, he's right.

A 1-0 game is perfectly acceptable, provided the teams actually produce scoring chances and exceptional goaltending keeps the score down. The problem is that, nowadays, a game can end 1-0 and the goalies aren't even much of a factor in the result.

The Devils' Martin Brodeur, for example, recorded three shutouts in the Stanley Cup final (and a record seven overall in the playoffs) and yet, he was hardly tested in any of his four victories against the Mighty Ducks, the primary reason he didn't win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

There was a sense that Brodeur's back-up, Corey Schwab, might have done equally well, especially at home, playing behind the Devils' ultra-efficient defence.

The Devils' gameplan is to push everything to the perimeter and force the opposition to play the game on the outside. It's all chip-and-chase - or worse, chip-and-don't chase. Teams sit back, outside the defensive zone, and steer the play to the boards once the opposition crosses the blueline.

The result is long periods of play, when not much happens. Teams try to keep the scoring chances down and hope more goals pinball in - or deflect off - their forwards than their opponents'. One of these days, the league will awaken to the fact that there is no percentage in paying Paul Kariya $10-million or Sandis Ozolinsh $5-million if all they want them to be is Mike Leclerc or Niklas Havelid.

Every year, Bettman holds a press conference during the Stanley Cup final to cover a cross-section of issues. In recent years, Bettman has blamed reporters for constantly raising the collective bargaining issue during his state-of-the-union address. This year, no one bothered with CBA issues, even though the current agreement expires in 17 months and the urgency is about to increase.

Instead, the discussion focussed almost completely on the state of the product. Bettman, of course, believes there's little amiss with the game. The tangible evidence, mostly TV ratings; and the empirical evidence - a sense that large numbers of even the most devoted hockey aficiandos don't care about the NHL the way they once did - suggests the game really, truly does need something to change.

When serious fans evolve into casual fans and casual fans tune out altogether, then the league has a problem, whether it wants to admit it or not. While unscientific, e-mail traffic usually represents a good barometer of what's on the public's mind. Not once in the past season did a message arrive, suggesting, 'the game's fine, leave it alone, I like what I see.' On the contrary, manifestos show up daily - long, involved treatises, offering solutions, big and small, to fix what ails the game.

A suggestion: On a preliminary investigative basis only, maybe the manufacturers can be consulted for advice in two major areas:

One, to see if goaltending equipment - leg pads, shoulder pads, catching mitts - can be shrunk in size, without surrendering anything on the safety side of the equation; and two, to design a couple of prototypes for larger nets, or nets with elliptical goalposts, just to see what, if any, difference that might make.

This would, at least, represent a starting point, a sign that the league is receptive to improving a product which, frankly, needs help. ROBTv Workopolis