The game of hockey is steeped in tradition, with a rich history and an honourable character. The overriding tenor of hockey discussion over the past five years has focused on the need to increase goal scoring. To this end, Gary Bettman's NHL has continually tinkered with the rules attempting to increase the fabled 'Goals per Game' statistic. This approach is misguided and does not address the root cause of the issues affecting the game today, namely a lack of time and space.
Before proceeding any further, I'd like to qualify this article - I'm your typical 33 year old Canadian guy, with a passion for hockey, having played the game actively for over 25 years. However I'm deeply concerned about the direction of the NHL under the leadership of Gary Bettman. I don't like the way hockey is currently being played, nor do many of my friends who watch every Saturday night. We would be considered the typical demographic which constitutes the traditional fan base in Canada.
In the post-lockout era, multiple rule changes have occurred with the goal of increased scoring. The red line has been removed, goalie movement restricted, touch up offside reintroduced, obstruction penalties created, the goal line moved away from the boards and then back to its original position, the blue line pushed back, the introduction of two referees, a further 'quiet' deterrence on physical play through the application of penalties were none existed before, and of course a steady parade to the penalty box through obstruction minors. This of course fails to mention the ever-famous glowing puck and shootouts...sigh. While a couple of these are positive changes which increase flow (red line, touch up offside), the others simply miss the mark as the premise on which their based is faulty.
Attempts to artificially increase goal scoring through a series of rule changes will not be successful and haven't been to this point. As mentioned, the most worshiped statistic in the game these days - Goals per Game - has risen slightly, but only through the introduction of significantly more penalties and the shootout (sigh). A 7-6 hockey game, with fifteen penalties, and minimal north-south flow is not exciting to watch. The result is a game which mirrors half-court basketball and is contrary to everything hockey is founded upon - namely speed, flow, toughness, and emotion.
The main problem with hockey today is simply a lack of time and space. Players are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before. When a player receives the puck, he literally has half a second before an opponent is on top of him. This does not leave enough time to make decisions, allow for speed, or foster creativity. The bodies are bigger, the speed has increased, yet the playing surface is the same size. Now, I'm definitely not advocating a change to European ice surfaces as these provide too much time and space, negating the physical aspect of hockey and therefore emotion levels. When emotion levels are low in hockey, the game is boring. In addition, the NHL has recently gone through a period of arena building, with most cities sporting brand new facilities with traditionally-sized ice surfaces. To change over to the much larger European size is cost prohibitive.
Constant rule changes or band-aids are not required to fix hockey. Everything can be done within the traditional rule book, so long as the focus is on increasing time and space. As such, the following is an outline of what in my opinion is required;
1. Stretch the ice surface - proportionally add 1-1.5 ft. to all areas of the ice to accommodate the growth in player size, strength, and speed. This would probably require the first row of seats to be removed in every arena. One row of premium seats could be added to the secondary level and so on to the top row of seating. Revenue-loss is minimized as club-owners only lose the very top row of seats in each arena, which are the cheapest. In theory, this should allow for a more exciting game with a broader appeal, thus growing revenues overall.
2. Remove the instigator rule. This won't increase fighting, but will make players accountable for their actions. They may think twice before a cheap hit from behind, high stick, or any of the actions which are genuinely dangerous and are occurring with regularity these days.
3. Allow for physical and tough play. Contrary to Bettman's insistence, we really are in the NHL's 'goody two shoes' era. Some of hockey's most anticipated games occur when bad blood exists between two teams. Often these days, you rarely see anger displayed over the course of a game. Games are the most exciting when a high emotion level exists.
4. Call the existing rule book. We all agree with the crackdown on interference-type penalties, but the prevalence of phantom penalties has to stop. Referees now look for penalties, as opposed to waiting for them to happen. The continual breaks in the action decrease the overall flow and momentum of the game.
4b. Stop calling it obstruction!!!! It's called hooking, holding, or interference. If I see another referee make that silly 'O' sign with his hands, I'm going to go insane! (ok...so maybe this has nothing to do with time and space, but it symbolizes everything 'new' about the NHL...sigh)
5. Embrace the games tradition and history. Stop changing things for the sake of change or 'coolness'. Too many aspects of the NHL are sterilized, with much of the personality removed. Return to the traditional non-geographic conference & division names - Wales and Campbell conferences, with Adams, Smyth, Norris, and Patrick divisions. For the two additional divisions, use it as an opportunity to honour other important legends of the game. The NHL used to have unique characteristics, now everything is the same as all other leagues. And put the referees name back on their jerseys!!
With more time and space, the overall speed will increase as will scoring chances. The wheel does not need to be re-invented here; rather we need to let the game's inherent and intangible characteristics expose themselves. And they will, they just need a little more time and space.