How This Diehard Fan Would Fix Hockey

I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day, a guy who is a big sports fan, and I brought up the National Hockey League lockout. His response: "There's an NHL lockout?" He's not the only one in the dark. The sad truth of the lockout is that for the vast majority of American sports enthusiasts, it doesn't much matter. The NHL may well lose the entire 2004-05 season, and most sports fans in this country won't even notice.

I'm the exception. I love hockey. I've played the sport since I was 7. At 40, I still make time to play in two recreational leagues. And I'm lucky enough to have two sons who love hockey as well, so I get to coach their teams.

That's why the lockout drives me nuts. It couldn't come at a worse time, now that hockey's cachet is diminishing, overwhelmed by far better marketed sports such as NASCAR, professional golf, and even events such as the X Games. What better way to alienate an already shrinking fan base than calling off the season? You think fans in new markets such as Nashville and Raleigh, N.C. -- where the league has already been struggling to build support -- will come back after the lockout? "The longer this goes on, the less relevant teams are going to be in marginal markets," says Tod Leiweke, former president of the NHL's Minnesota Wild and now CEO of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. And yet neither NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman nor Players' Assn. Executive Director Bob Goodenow seem to feel much urgency to save the game I love.

So here's my solution -- an overly ambitious attempt to address some problems and salvage the sport. The biggest sticking point is the owners' insistence on a salary cap and the players' determination not to accept one. There's no easy solution, but I'm partial to an idea offered by former Vancouver Canucks General Manager Brian Burke. He proposes a team payroll threshold of $38 million and a payroll minimum of $33 million. (Last season, team payrolls ranged from $23 million for the Nashville Predators to $78 million for the Detroit Red Wings.) Then, for teams that top the threshold, he'd set a tax stiff enough that most teams would think twice. Burke's proposal would begin to give owners the "cost certainty" they're after, while not tying players' salaries to a formula linked to the owners' financial reporting, which they don't trust.

But the league and the players shouldn't stop with reaching a collective bargaining agreement. Even before the lockout, the game was struggling to retain its fan base and win over converts. The negotiations, whenever they resume, give the league and the players an opportunity to address the issues that have plagued the game in recent years. "As bleak as times are now, there is an opportunity to be creative," Burke says.

One problem is that NHL hockey has become a plodding game. The league's rapid expansion in the last decade has flooded the game with players who can't skate with the stars. At the same time, the players have gotten bigger, and so have their pads. The combination has created a game where coaches get lesser players to clog up the so-called neutral zone in the center of the ice. The idea is to run enough obstruction to neutralize elite players. But it's boring.

It doesn't have to be that way. Think about the Olympics. They offer the most exciting hockey there is, drawing fans and nonfans alike. That's because Olympic contests are played on a wider ice rink that opens up the game and gives the elite players space to be creative. The NHL should adopt Olympic-sized rinks. Owners might fret about lost revenue from the high-priced rinkside seats that would disappear. But I bet they'd win new fans with a more exciting game. They could also adopt stronger rules to curb the neutral-zone trap.

Of course, the Olympics benefit from featuring only the game's best players. It's a lesson the NHL should learn. The league watered down its talent expanding to seven new markets in the last 10 years. What's more, many of those teams account for the losses that owners now cite as a reason for demanding cost certainty. It's time for the league to recognize its mistake. It should cut the number of teams by at least six.

But the key change the NHL should make is to stop trying to be something it's not. The league has developed a bad case of NBA envy: It wants to appeal to every corner of the U.S. That's why it expanded so rapidly. And that's why it keeps looking for gimmicks like the proposal to end tied games with a shootout, which reduces the outcome to a single offensive skill. It's a cheap stunt meant to appeal to fans in new hockey markets.

So Mr. Bettman, Mr. Goodenow, please get back to the bargaining table and fix my favorite sport. You have less time than you think.

By Jay Greene in Seattle

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