Wednesday, June 6, 2007

NHL: Finals

The Ducks look set to capture the Stanley Cup tonight (Sigh, so much for going with my heart.). I'm sure that its babylonian captivity in the distant realms of SoCal, a period which future generations will no doubt call the interregnum, will be short lived. I somewhat suspected that the suspension of Chris Pronger would work rather like it did in the series against Detroit. As a motivating force for his teammates rather than a crippling disadvantage. Unlike the NBA, the loss of a single hockey player isn't such a big blow to a team. Even the best (and overworked) defenseman only plays around 30 minutes a game. And even then only as part of a defensive pairing. Aside from a goalie, they're the most critical position on the ice. But teams play four or six of them every game. The Ducks seem to have a real short bench and, really, they only have two or three defensemen carrying the team even with Pronger, but get away with doing so because those players are so good. The Mighty Ducks can - and did – weather the loss of Pronger by turning to their other defensemen and picking up their play a little bit.

Anyhow, the thing to note about this series (And which I'm not the only one to notice.) is the abyssmal ratings. It's the worst rated sports broadcast ever. And with the way sports ratings have been falling that's saying something. Hell, I'm not even watching it and I'm a pretty dedicated hockey fan.

Thing is, I'm watching it a bit right now – Ducks are up 3-1 – and I can't really understand why. It's a good, flowing, tension filled game as the Sens are trying to stave off elimination. There's not a hockey game I can point to that I've watched these playoffs that's really disappointed me. The quality of the on-ice product is markedly superior to what it was five or ten years ago when the Trap Ruled Everything Around Me. But I'm just not enthused. And if I'm not enthused then the league, for all Commissioner Bettman will swear up and down otherwise – has problems. Even this year's Red Wings seemed to be a pale echo of earlier teams. Even though they were the sort of overachieving underdog story that should have gotten me pumped – that's maybe not so surprising since they were the #1 seed again and we're stepping down from the Yzerman era and into whatever's next.

But I think, like the teams in the Finals, that's the main problem. They just don't have an identity of their own. I could name probably half the players on the Annaheim and Ottawa rosters – and there are some big names there like Pronger and Alfredsson – but they don't have anything to really distinguish them besides what's on the front of their jersey. They're just the sort of generic hard checking, dump and chase team that makes up half the league. At least ten years ago you had teams with real personality like the Wings with their Russian Five and the Devils with their Neutral Zone Trap and the Avalanche with their complete douchebaggery. You matched up against a team like Philadelphia and you could at least count on hating Lindross to get you out of your seat. Now? Annaheim has Chris Pronger, a player who nearly took the head off one of my beloved Wings and who's history as a playoff rival/roadbump goes way back to his days on the St.Louis Blues. I should hate the guy. I have hated the guy. But now, I just can't be bothered.

Maybe it's because I've watched too much hockey, maybe it's because I've cared too much in the past, I don't know. But the perception that none of it seems to matte is what's kept me from watching, if you ask me.

Anyway, there's doom and gloom in the air and solutions for fixing hockey are flying. So let me just re-air mine. What's hurt the game more than anything else has been chasing the mainstream American market. It's a niche sport that doesn't have a historical grounding in areas beyond the east coast and northern midwest. And, you know, Canada. They changed the rules, tried to phase out the physicality and fighting that drew a lot of people (including myself) to the game. They couldn't squash the trap fast enough when it first popped up and it hurt the quality of play, along with an explosive increase in equipment, training, and scouting which dragged the game down into the defensive muck (Defense wins championship but offense sells tickets.). But, more than anything, they overexpanded. Sure, they had an influx of foreign players to bolster the pool of player talent but it's spread over 32 teams now and that's way too many. Fewer teams means the better players get to play with each other. And, not for nothing, means the bigger markets like Chicago and New York have a better chance, percentage wise, of playing significant games.

If you ask me, and you didn't but I'm going to say it anyways, the league needs to contract. The last few years were a perfect opportunity to clear off some deadweight and shuffle around the players but I guess nobody wanted to deal with giving up the franchise fees and whatnot. But I say the league should immediately fold a few franchise – places like Columbus or Atlanta that really have no business being in the league – and then ship six fanchises – places like Phoenix and, yes, Annaheim – overseas to Europe. Create a European division out of those six teams to go along with the smaller Eastern and Western North American ones (I'm going to say 12 teams in two 6 team divisions in each, possibly less if they can get away with it. Trim some regular season games and a round off the playoffs, too, while they're at it.). The European division is the red-headed stepchild, of course, and the East and West will still play for the Cup, but afterwards, the Cup winner will play the winner of the European division for a new trophy as well (Probably in a 3-3-1 format, if need be.) as well as have the occasional “summit series” where teams will make an extended trip to the other continent. I'd be more inclined to watch that than the All-Star game.

There's already professional hockey in Europe but the point would be for the NHL to get into that market and to develop it because it's already where they're getting a lot of their talent from. Because what the league needs, more than anything else, is not just to develop itself but to develop the grassroots from which their fans grow. I'm a hockey fan because I come from a long line of hockey fans. Professional hockey's been in Detroit for years and years. But so too has PeeWee hockey and the AHL and the CCHA and other, minor hockey. It's ingrained in the landscape. The NHL needs to take advantage of hockey hotbeds like southern Michigan and Minnesota where they've already got a presence and look to develop them elsewhere. Europe – places like Russia and Sweden – seem like fertile ground for that. It's a slow strategy and one that won't pay dividends initially which is probably why it'll never be adopted but if the people controlling the league are serious about safeguarding it for the long term, it's the kind of plan they need to look at seriously.

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