While the National Hockey League may not be the most popular league in North America, it certainly has its fair share going for it to make it one of the most exciting sports on the face of the Earth.
The NHL used the slogan “The Fastest Game on Earth” for many years, and that adage holds true today. There is no sport that can boast the pace and non-stop action that the majority of NHL games offer on a nightly basis during the regular season. Baseball, basketball and football all bring elements of excitement to the table, but none come close to matching the speed of hockey.
To grow the game in the United States, the NHL has often had to resort to selling the brutal nature and physicality of the sport. Big hits, fights and all-out line brawls often out-shone the skill and high-tempo action when it came to advertising the NHL. With the increased awareness of headshots and concussions in today’s era of sport, the viciousness has been toned down – but only a bit.
The entire package usually results in an exciting product, but there are still many, many issues the NHL needs to deal with before they can truly compete with the “big three,” the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Football League. All three have deeply entrenched themselves all over North America, while hockey has always been considered a primarily Canadian sport.
Even if the NHL doesn't expand their fan-base by a single fan for the rest of its existence, it still needs to get its act together on certain things if they want their current fans to stick around. It’d be a stretch to say that hockey is “broken” – the game has never been as profitable or popular – but there are still aspects of it that justify its spot on the totem pole when it comes to major North American professional sports leagues.
10 Widen the Blue-Lines
As it stands, an NHL blue line measures exactly one foot (12 inches) wide, according to the NHL's official rule book. While it may seem minute, the length of the blue line often makes or breaks the closest of offside calls. At full speed, it may seem irrelevant (specifically for linesmen) as the play is moving, so it may be impossible to pick up the puck on the blue line. However, players often drag across the blueline with their back foot, something a linesman can keep up with, and a wider blueline, while a small change, could add several scoring chances per game that otherwise would be called offsides.
9 Increase the Ice-Surface
Along the lines of the first point, giving players more room to make plays is imperative in an era where players are bigger, stronger and faster than they've ever been. Not only would widening the rink make more room for players to strut their creativity and skill, it would make more room for players to avoid some of the devastating hits that have led to countless injuries over the past several years. Since the NHL is looking to curb the overall mentality of players on the ice, giving them some more room to operate would only help the cause.
8 Remove the “Loser Point”
The NHL is the only league in North America that rewards losing. Baseball, football, soccer and basketball all have the possibility of overtime, and none reward the loser with any type of bonus point. Quite frankly, it's a bit of a joke. While the "loser point" adds a bit to the playoff races in April, it often gives below average teams an opportunity to steal a final playoff spot from a team that might be more deserving, but happened to lose more games in regulation instead of in overtime. The NHL should keep the tie extinct (see more on how later), but need to stop rewarding losses. No other league does it, and quite frankly there is no logical justification for it.
7 Get Out of the Sun-Belt
If the NHL is serious about "upping" it's overall image and competing with the NFL, NBA and MLB in terms of how they are perceived, they need to rid themselves of the anchors holding down the rest of the league. While the Coyotes might have turned the corner with a new deal to keep them in Arizona for the foreseeable future, the first order of business should be to remove the Panthers from South Florida and move them somewhere where people actually give a damn about hockey (to be subtly blunt about it). The Panthers' putrid attendance to a home game earlier this season not only made them an internet sensation (for all the wrong reasons), it gave people another reason to point and laugh at the NHL.
I can count five markets that, if not necessarily "viable" just yet, are guaranteed to be more profitable that the Panthers. Panthers owner Doug Cifu uttered these exact words in an interview with FOX Sports in August:
“The arena and the team have lost a significant amount of money year over year for the last 10-plus years and the current business model is not sustainable."
Take a hint, Gary.
6 Making All Contact with the Head a Penalty
While the NHL has actually been quite active, and arguably ahead of the curb, with regards to headshots and protecting players from concussions and other brain-related damage, there is still way too much of a gray area that needs to be taken care of. The NFL has basically thrown their arms up in exasperation after being unable to come to a resolution on the issue and has pretty much banned any contact to the head (especially to a quarterback). While the NFL has been able to protect its star players, the NHL continues to waffle between cutting headshots out altogether and leaving a bit of leeway for guys who run around with their elbows up around their temples. While there is a rule in place, the NHL needs to do what they do with high-sticks: any contact to or near the head will not be tolerated. Instead of making a judgement call as to whether it was or was not a headshot, turn the judgement call into deciding on a minor or major penalty.
5 Allow Linesmen to Contribute to Penalty Calls
Linesmen, as it stands, are on the ice for three reasons: offsides, icings, and breaking up scrums. Surely professional officials could do with a few more responsibilities than that. The NFL, NBA and MLB allow all their officials to have a say on "bang bang" plays, whereas the NHL refuse to use half the eyeballs available to them on the ice every single night. There's no need to go into specific examples. It's clear that allowing linesmen to partake in the discussion around close calls would be beneficial. They're allowed to chime in on delay of game calls, so why can't they provide their input in all situations?
4 Get Rid of the Shootout
While the shootout is still an exciting and entertaining part of hockey, it's ridiculous to allow a skills competition to dictate the winner of a team sport. You may point to soccer as a comparable, but keep in mind that goals aren't scored as easily or as often in soccer. Go to our next point to see how the NHL can better their "extra time" product. However, when it comes to the shootout, save it for international hockey and skills competitions. The NHL used it as a way to "excite" fans after the lockout, but the time has come to find new ways to excite spectators.
3 Changes to Make Overtime More Exciting
Why the NHL has yet to listen to suggestions of several highly respected hockey men (notably those in the Red Wings organization) is beyond me. The idea of playing 3 on 3 hockey in regular season overtime sounds a heck of a lot more exciting than watching a shootout. Fans and media alike relish the rare 3-on-3 situation during a game, as a "pond hockey" mentality takes over and the speed and skill of the best players in world tosses aside the grinders and plodders for a fleeting moment.
2 Adding a Coach’s Challenge
This is another example of the NHL lagging behind the leagues they are trying to matchup with. The fact that the old-school, traditional minds running Major League Baseball have implemented video replay before the National Hockey League is a bit of an embarrassment and a stain on Gary Bettman's already blemished record. A coaches challenge would not only give another momentum-shifting weapon to coaches, it would also resolve a lot of the issues surrounding referees missing calls. It's time to erase human error from the equation - as much as humanely possible, anyway.
1 Fixing the Goaltender Interference Rule
This might be the most infuriating issue of the bunch. If the headshot issue was a "gray zone," I can't imagine what color the goaltender interference rule could be described as (perhaps a Picasso, but for all the wrong reasons). One night, running over a goalie is a mortal sin - the next, it's let go. Some nights, being in the crease and screening the goalie is celebrated - the next, you can't even glide the toe of a skate blade over the blue ice, for fear of being sent off.
I could go on and on, but you get the point - the NHL needs to make up it's mind on what is and isn't goaltender interference, and once they do, they need to make sure their officials have one clear and consistent interpretation of the rule.