If I were the czar of hockey: 10 ideas to improve the game

Hockey is a great game, but we’ve always seen it as a game that needs some improvement. There have been so many suggestions as to how to improve it, but many of those suggestions – such as penalties for trivial violations, endless delays while linesemen look at an offside as if it were the Zapruder film, and shootouts – have made the game worse (and more gimmicky).

So, a lot of these suggestions aren’t new (alternate title: “get off my lawn,” but here are 10 ideas to make hockey a better game).

1. Make all games worth the same number of points

As long as hockey insists on 3-on-3 overtime and shootouts to break regular season ties, hockey has to deal with the “loser point.” No team/coach is going to be willing to get nothing for tying a game in regulation, then losing in a skills contest that barely resembles the way the game is played for the other 60 minutes. So, whether we’re awarding 3 points for a regulation win and 2 for an OT/SOW (and 1 for an OT/SOL) or simply going back to 5-on-5 OT for five or 10 minutes and allowing ties to happen (or eliminating OT altogether as the NHL did between World War II and 1982), the system of making OT games worth 1.5x as many points to the participating teams as a regular game rewards those who play conservatively and tie.

2. Go back to conference-based playoffs

The ECHL got this one right this year – splitting its 28 teams into two 14-team conferences and placing the top eight in each conference in the postseason. And that’s a league with teams that run on a budget that primarily travel by bus. The NHL went back to a division-based playoff system in 2014, and this year, we’ve got tons of crazy examples – what would be the No. 6 seed is playing the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference (Tampa Bay vs. Detroit), while the New York Islanders were essentially rewarded for falling to fourth in their division to draw an easier matchup in the first two rounds. Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, the teams with the third and fifth-best records in the entire NHL are playing in the first round.

While the new NHL system was supposed to increase rivalries and cut down on travel, neither is really happening. There are always a few rivalries in the first round regardless of the system – in fact, this year, the “old” system would’ve given us a Rangers-Islanders rivalry. Rangers-Penguins is a good series, but pits the 2nd and 4th best records in the East against each other – there’s no reward for a good regular season under the current system. What the new system does do is create a lot of repeat playoff series, which can mean a lot of repeat playoff winners (matchups mean a lot) and it really doesn’t cut down on travel. Only half of the eight series are guaranteed to be in-division series thanks to the wild cards as it is – just ask Nashville and Anaheim if the travel is better under the new system.

Is the idea to decide a champion, or to give NBC compelling TV? And if it’s the latter, that was already happening? If it’s the former, a true playoff with 1-8 seeding in a conference and reseeding after each round (which further rewards teams for strong regular season performance) – the NHL’s system from 1994-2013 – was a far better system.

Take a look at this and see if you wouldn’t have some compelling series. Sure, no Blues-Blackhawks, but it would likely happen in the second or even third round. Instead, a Blackhawks-Kings series to open.

  • The first-round matchups under the old system: 
    East: Caps/Flyers, Panthers/Red Wings, Penguins/Lightning, Rangers/Islanders (instead of Caps/Flyers, Penguins/Rangers, Panthers/Islanders, Lightning/Red Wings)
    West: Stars/Wild, Ducks/Predators, Blues/Sharks, Blackhawks/Kings (instead of Blues/Blackhawks and Kings/Sharks). 

3. Don’t allow teams killing penalties to ice the puck. 

Notice how interesting the final minute of a game is when a team has its goaltender pulled and a 6-on-5 situation? The defensive team can’t just fling the puck down the ice, it has to make a play coming out of the zone after it gains possession or risk giving up a faceoff in its own zone while being outnumbered. But on a penalty kill, that doesn’t have to happen, as a shorthanded team is allowed to freely ice the puck. The WHA didn’t waive the icing rule on shorthanded situations, and it made for exciting hockey as a shorthanded team had to make a play.

4. Stop talking about shrinking goaltending equipment and do something about it

The goaltenders’ union is going to have me drawn and quartered for this. As long as there are goaltenders, there will be guys dressed like the Michelin Man. But while goaltending in 2016 is more about being really big (or, in the case of Ben Bishop, gigantic) and covering the net, goaltending prior to the late-1980s was about playing angles, reflexes and athleticism. The big change since then was an improvement in goaltending pads – as new technologies replaced leather, allowing netminders to get up and down more easily. Go back to leather pads AND limit their size to a standard height and width. Having pads gaining 20 pounds of water weight during a game will change technique. It’s hard to legislate technology out of the game, but this would be a start.

5. Since we’re talking about technology, how about using wood sticks again.

Now, it’s time for the skaters to come after me with slings and arrows, but if we’re in a world of making goaltenders wear heavier, smaller pads, there has to be a trade-off. Carbon-fiber composite sticks are high-tech pieces that allow for much greater feel, touch and power for players. They also are about as sturdy as twigs – how many games are decided because a defenseman’s stick shatters at the blueline, or a player reaches for the puck and takes a penalty because he snaps an opponent’s stick in half. If we’re going to make goaltenders wear smaller, heavier equipment, the skaters have to concede a bit in technology, too. Using more durable sticks would also make the game a bit more affordable for entry-level youth players who can buy a couple of $20 sticks for a season, rather than a bunch of fragile $200 ones. As another concession, at the higher levels, allow more severe blade curves, as the WHA did.

6. End the minor penalty for shooting a puck over the glass from the defensive zone

Many times, the “delay of game” is a fluke or a strange play where a player swings his stick at an airborne puck and accidentally bats it out of play and therefore incurs a minor. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime – especially with what officials allow to go these days. Treat it like icing – the defending team can’t change players prior to the faceoff. There’s still a penalty – just as there is for icing – but not one as egregious as a minor.

7. Limit video replay

The Game 2 controversy between Chicago and St. Louis wasn’t the first time we’ve been splitting hairs over whether or not a play was offside. Yes, Jori Lehtera’s back skate was in the air when he crossed the line, but it wasn’t the first time this season we’ve seen games turn on a hair-splitting replay review of whether or not a skate was a millimeter off the ice when a team crossed the blueline – and often, the goal that gets wiped away happens several passes after the zone entry. Linesmen are very good, and most of the challenges for offside are on plays that are haier-splittingly close. The challenge system basically allows the defense a “get out of jail free card” if it’s close. Time to allow the game flow to happen and end the challenge for offside.

The NHL had a pretty good video review system when the only things that could be reviewed were whether the puck went in or whether it was directed in legally (e.g., to check if it was directed in by a high stick or a kick) or whether a goal should’ve counted at the end of a period. Allowing a challenge for goaltender interference makes some sense, as it’s judgment call that often directly impacts the goal being scored (and also easier to see if a goaltender is flopping himself into a defender to get the call – a la Carey Price). But the hair-splitting on offside reminds me a lot of the old toe-in-the-crease rule that negated a lot of goals when a player would happen to skate through the opposite side of the crease and have nothing to do with the puck going in. It needs to go – and probably will.

8. Get the NHL and IIHF in a room and get them on the same page

I’m looking forward to this fall’s World Cup of Hockey. But the problem is, the World Cup will never be viewed as a “legitimate” world tournament outside of North America, and the North Americans will never really view the World Championships as a “legitimate” tournament, either, since so few NHL players compete. The only tournament that featured the best of all worlds was the Olympics, which appears to be losing its NHL participation in 2018. It would be great if the NHL and IIHF could agree on money & control and simply use the World Cup of Hockey as the World Championships once every four years. Logistically, it’s difficult – European and Asian leagues start earlier to accommodate the World Championships, for example, but it would be great to have a true best-on-best tournament without gimmick teams like “Young Guns” and a “Best-of-the-rest-in-Europe” team.

9. Shorten the season

Wait, I’m advocating for less hockey here? As a matter of fact, yes. The season is roughly 26 weeks long. ECHL teams are cramming 72 games into those weeks, and only 52 of them can be on those prime Friday and Saturday dates where teams make their money. AHL teams are cramming 76 games (or the West Coast teams, 68). And NHL teams are playing 82 – an average of more than three games per week. Hockey is a physical, demanding game, and when preseason and postseason games are added in, an NHL team can play up to 118 games in a season that stretches from early September to mid-June. Shorten the NHL season to 68 or 72 games, giving greater weight to more games. Shorten the minor pro seasons to 60 or 64 games – the western AHL teams were lobbying for 60 to allow for more practice and development time – and add more rest for the legs and a better product for fans for those games.

The minor pro teams won’t lose out on much revenue, as the games that would be eliminated from the schedule would be more likely to be midweek and Sunday games that are lightly attended, and it would allow the front offices to concentrate on promoting a few prime dates.

Over the last three decades in Indy, we’ve had 82-game seasons in the IHL, 64-game seasons in the CHL, 60-game seasons in the USHL and 72 games in the ECHL. The only noticeable difference was there were very few mid-week games in both the CHL and USHL, but to a season ticket holder, the difference between attending 32 or 36 home games is pretty negligible. Meanwhile, in the IHL, there were a lot of 3-in-3s and a ton of weeknight games (and a much longer season).

10. Call the rulebook

Seriously, if it’s a penalty, call it. The reason there are so many “open-and-shut” penalties (such as slashing a stick and breaking it in half, the puck-over-glass delay of game) is because so few penalties are actually called in the name of game flow. If a player holds, hooks, spears, grabs, call it. They’ll adjust. And pro hockey leagues will get the more power plays and more scoring they desire.

Bonus #1: Patrick, Adams, Norris, Smythe

Yeah, nobody outside of the game knew who they were, but hockey celebrates its history better than any other sport.

Bonus #2: Brass Bonanza. A lot

The greatest hokey goal song ever (and yes, I spelled that right). A few NHL organists have worked hard to bring it back, and often play it as a tribute to the Whalers when the Carolina Hurricanes are in town.

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