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November 24, 2003

Courtesy The Fan View
Story by: Michael Hobson

Michael Hobson
The Fan View

The upcoming labour battle between the owners and the players is the main topic of conversation for everyone in and around the NHL. While the league's economic future is foremost on the governors' minds I believe that financial control over the game today is actually short-term thinking, and that the growth of the game should be their most pressing issue. Why dicker over the small monies the game earns today when with a little bit of tinkering the game could grow beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Instead of fighting to gain greater control of one dollar the league could be working out ways to share ten. Of course to be successful the league's hierarchy would have to stop thinking like ostriches, and stop believing that the game is fine the way it is being played.

As I have said many times before I grew up loving the game of hockey. There wasn't any other sport for me as a youngster. I played it regularly, watched it frequently, and followed it religiously; I knew every team, their rosters, their records, their histories, and their logos. I was the perfect fan-young and enthusiastic. But as I grew older the game changed. The game that was once billed as "the fastest team sport in the world" slowed precipitously as the league expanded beyond its capabilities, and the wrong men gained control. Nowadays that "perfect fan" can't even bring himself to watch playoff games, and the reason is simple-the game is BORING.

While the game has always had its issues--how it can continue to think that fighting is an integral part of the sport is beyond me-at least its players were allowed to display their skills in the flow of play. But instead of trying to raise the average player up to the level of its superstars-the way the other more successful sports do-the NHL brings its superstars down to the level of mediocrity. It allows the slower and lesser skilled players to clutch and grab and hold. Mario Lemieux once termed the NHL as a "garbage league" and this description has only grown more apt with time. Games are now played mostly in the neutral zones as trapping has become a standard form of defense. Computers and the video age have assisted coaches in devising systems to slow down the talented player. This has perpetuated a growth of the larger, less skilled player capable of slowing the faster skaters with a slight hook, capable of cycling the puck along the boards for what passes for an eternity, and, with several of them lined up along the blue line, capable of clogging up the short passing lanes. The game is now the "slowest team sport in the world" rivaling soccer for the team sport with the fewest opportunities to score during a game.

Changing this mindset is a priority for the NHL. They cannot continue along these lines, to be afraid of tinkering with a traditional sport, afraid of angering the tiny fraction of the North American populace that call themselves hockey fans. They need to realize that the game today is a far cry from the game that was played during the height of its popularity in the seventies and the eighties. The game today is dull. How long will it be before the staunchest of hockey supporters begin to turn away from the game and look to invest their heavy dollars in other entertainment vehicles? Even in Toronto, where thousands would pay top dollar just to watch two teams skate around the rink as long as one team was the Maple Leafs, the thought process has to change. Their clientele is slowly turning bitter as the organization puts dollars ahead of championships.

The game needs to change. The league is under the impression that more goals is what the fan desires, but this is the wrong impression. The fan simply wants more action-more skating, more shooting, more opportunities for its elite players to display their talents. The NBA knows that fans want to see star players play like stars. The NFL knew enough to protect its star players-fans don't want to see back-ups replacing injured starters. Even MLB is trying to accentuate its star performers. The NHL is the only league that is going backward, going away from the absolute. The league needs to make the changes needed to open up the game-make larger rinks, eliminate the red line, reduce the players on the ice-whatever it takes to speed the game up.

After all, if I wanted to watch this much holding I'd watch pro wrestling. Or Oprah.




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