Commissioner for a Day
Give Winnipeg team, crack down on illegals, tell truth
If I were NHL commissioner for a day, I would:
1. Put a team back in Winnipeg: If it means putting Pittsburgh out of its misery or shifting laggard Atlanta, so be it. Hockey belongs in places where it's part of the fabric of daily life. In so many cities (hello, Tampa) it seems like an NHL game is a 2½-hour gathering of enthusiasts, like stamp collectors or Mercury Merkur owners. When the arena doors are flung open at the end of the night, that hockey feeling vanishes. Winnipeg, indeed all of Canada, cherishes the game, and the Manitoba capital has a sparkling new arena that, although maybe 1,500 seats too small by NHL standards, certainly would work in the new economic structure. If Quebec City builds a suitable pleasure dome, it also should get its team back. The league should play to its strengths. That means preaching to the converted in Canada.
2. Put the All-Star Game in Europe on a rotating basis: Once every, say, five years, take a six-day break and move the game to Helsinki or Prague or some other European hockey capital. For several hockey generations Euros have made the game more entertaining -- peruse the top 10 scorers for the past decade or so -- and this would be a small gesture of recognition and thanks. Charter some airplanes, fly players and their families over and make it one big hockey party. (Any increase in the NHL's popularity and licensing sales would be merely coincidental, of course.) The only drawback is that some NHL franchise and its city is going to miss the annual revenue windfall from All-Star weekend, which always is more fun than the game itself. My response: tough.
3. Fire the advertising agency that came up with the My NHL campaign and the My Stanley Cup campaign: The league takes a year off for the lockout and the best it can come up with are phony, sexist and just plain dumb commercials than use actors instead of actual players? The players, now the NHL's partners, are the game's greatest asset. Promote them, not Sun Tzu or scantily clad manservants. And as for those faux-dramatic, insulting My Stanley Cup commercials (which, mercifully, at least show actual NHL players) ... I'm going to leave a note on this desk that the guy can see when he returns tomorrow: "Dear Mr. Bettman, Denis Leary is not Jack Nicholson."
4. Scrap the form-fitting Reebok jerseys, which apparently are still a year away: Yeah, yeah, they are as sleek as a downhill racer's suit, but let the damn things stay at the Hahnenkamm. Those Reebok prototypes might be more aerodynamic and retain less perspiration (not to mention are less comfortable), but the old-fashioned hockey sweater is iconic, part of the arena landscape. You wouldn't want Frank Gehry to redesign the Stanley Cup, and you don't want Reebok screwing with this sweater tradition. Better materials, sure. Tighter fits? Not a chance.
5. Tell the truth about attendance: Announce tickets sold, not tickets distributed. Those announced (inflated) crowds, trumpeted in monthly press releases, raise more questions about the NHL's credibility than the empty seats.
6. Cancel the last year on the OLN deal: I would crawl over broken glass up to Bristol, Conn., and beg ESPN to take us back, offering a similar revenue-sharing deal that the NHL has with NBC. Not even the new NHL broadcasting wizard, the estimable John Shannon, can smear enough lipstick on this OLN pig. For the $70 million in TV rights the league grabbed, the NHL moved out of the mainstream and into a sports demimonde, a quirky, unaccustomed address for fans of the Big 4. In addition to quick cash, OLN has offered the NHL shoddy production values (although they improved during the season), microscopic ratings and zero buzz. I have no idea why OLN wanted the NHL. Did it really think that having the NHL would help it land some NFL games and mount a challenge to ESPN? Or did the network hear that there's a lot of cycling down low in NHL games and thought hockey would be a good fit?
7. Return the referees' names to their jerseys: No, the game's certainly not about them. But years ago the NHL dehumanized the refs in some small way by, to paraphrase the song, giving them a number and taking away their names. This rights a historic wrong. Putting those names back makes them more like people, less like zebras.
8. Order my hockey-operations people to take a consistent position on illegal equipment: If a skater is caught with an illegal stick, he gets two minutes. If a goalie gets caught with illegal equipment, he serves a stretch in San Quentin. If the NHL isn't going to let up on goalies with fines and suspensions for illegal pads -- and in the ongoing effort to boost scoring, how can it? -- it also has to stiffen its spine against curved blades. No more wrist slaps. If you can't cork a bat with impunity, why should you be able to use an illegal curve (until the last 10 minutes of the game when, as you know, everybody changes to his legal stick). To those who argue for unlimited curve, which is another method to boost to scoring, I say the potential for injury just isn't worth it. Which brings me to ...
9. Mandatory visors: If the stubborn NHL Players Association still can't view this a workplace-safety issue instead a matter of choice, then I have to. Grandfather visors right now. Visors are not perfect -- ask Montreal captain Saku Koivu, who was clipped under his by Carolina's Justin Williams during the playoffs -- but they are better than nothing. The counterintuitive notion that sticks will come down if visors come off is debatable (although dubious) in some caveman quarters, but visors indisputably also offer protection from flying pucks. Detroit captain Steve Yzerman put one on after an eye injury in the 2004 playoffs. If it's good enough for Stevie Y, it's good enough for me.
10. I love rivalry games, but there are too many: Instead of playing eight games against each team in the division, I would pare it to six, allowing for more interconference games. You know, rivalries are not based on mere geographic proximity. (See Avalanche-Red Wings.) More flexibility in the schedule would allow Detroit to play its Original Six friends in the Eastern Conference and assure annual matchups among all six Canadian teams. Seven, with Winnipeg.