Monday, October 03, 2005

The Return of the King(s)…and the BLUES…and the Blackhawks…

It is back.

Yes, that’s right hockey is back. It’s back and I couldn’t be happier…(well, I could be, but the odds of President Bush taking the rest of his term off on sabbatical seems unlikely, but a man can dream, can’t he??? Heck, I’d like to see the President even spell the word sabbatical…)

After taking a season off, the NHL is about to conclude its first training camps in two years amid a variety of changes to the game and to its teams. As usual, there is good and bad (and even some ugly) to just about everything. Below are some of the changes and how I think they will affect the game.

(You’re asking yourself, what makes you an hockey expert? Well, I am an hockey expert. I’ve been watching hockey for 20 years…so I have to be an elder statesman when it comes to hockey fans, right?)

Good: Shootouts. Whether it's a good way to decide the outcome of games will be debated for years and years, but one thing is certain: The essence of the shootout--the breakaway--is the most exciting play in hockey and that is a good thing for the fans. (While living in Peoria I remember watching shootouts in minor league hockey – go Rivermen! – and always saying to myself – that’s what the NHL should do, go to a shootout system. It’s much more exciting than a tie. The NHL must have been listening to me…)

Bad: Disinterest. Will the fans come back? Hard-core fans and long-time fans will forgive and forget. Mid-level fans may come back in due time. New fans? That’s going to be the hard sell. How will teams get them back? The changes in the game are meant to open up the goal quotient, which the NHL believes will draw new people to the league. I have doubts that will work and that the league may have to go to more drastic measures (folding teams, cutting roster size, etc).

Good: The league appears serious about eliminating the clutching and grabbing, as well as the grabbing and clutching, that has plagued the sport for the last dozen or so years, reducing what should have been a fast-paced, high-energy game to an extended version of tug-of-war on ice. That should change now.

Bad: At least for the first couple of weeks, the players were having a hard time adjusting to the rules or they believe the game eventually will go back to the way it was. (That’s what happens when you don’t read the rulebook.)

Good: Referees will work games as a team and stay together for the whole season, giving NHL clubs an opportunity to keep a book on tandems and know night in and night out how a game will be officiated. (This one, I’m not so sure about.)

Bad: Referees still are without their names on their sweaters--depriving the paying public an opportunity to personalize their insults to the officials. (The minor league refs sport their name on the shirts, so it was nice to personalize an insult rather than just calling them near-sighted zebras)

Good: Led by Sidney Crosby, the crop of rookies poised to make its debut this season appears solid. (Unfortunately, my team has no such rookies, so it’s going to be a LONG season for Blues fans)

Bad: Camps were without some of the legends of the game--Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Ron Francis, to name three. Time eventually claims everyone in sports, even the all-time greats.

Good: Wayne Gretzky, AKA The Great One and perhaps the greatest ambassador in the sport, is back involved on a day-to-day basis with the Phoenix Coyotes, but…Bad: Gretzky's involvement is not as a player but as a coach of a team that will struggle to break even on the ice.

Good: Accelerated free agency concept. After both sides signed the agreement, it was announced that almost all players would be entered into free agency at a discounted price (much like those $3 cassettes you can get at Wal-Mart). This allowed some teams who never got involved in free agency before to get involved for the purpose of evening out the playing field, so to speak. Will it work? I think so, but only time will truly tell.

Bad: Accelerated free agency concept. It cut some teams deep (like the St Louis Blues) and will (probably) cause those teams to be also-rans and miss the playoffs.

Good: The league eliminated the blue line AND icing. About friggin’ time. Talk about an inane and superfluous penalty. I’m a (fairly) smart person, but if anyone can explain an icing penalty to me so I can understand it…enter a comment and I’ll give a shout-out to you in a future blog.

Bad: Player’s names. Most players are from Canada, a few from the United States, and their names are easy to pronounce, like Sidney Crosby. But, with many players coming out of Eastern Europe (with names like Nikolai Khabibulin, Alexander Ovechkin, Kari Lehtonen and Mariusz Czerkawski) the league may have to release a name pronunciation guide.

Good: The NHL will begin a new national television deal with the Outdoor Life Network (OLN) this season. Unlike ESPN, where hockey was far down the importance scale (we HAVE to allow time for another Sportscenter, 12 a day just isn’t enough), the NHL will be treated with more respect, and may benefit from a larger marketing push…but...

Bad: Every sports fan knows what channel ESPN is on his cable system. Where's OLN? And do we have OLN?

Ugly: The black eye. And by that I mean the black eye the league has suffered due to this incredibly stupid act of striking. For the players to reject the final contract proposal from the owners only to, months later, accept a much worse offer shows just how idiotic some people can be. Will the league survive? Sure. Will some teams by forced to fold? Probably. How long will it take? Only time will tell.

The season starts Wednesday and it promises to be an exciting one, so, if you have never watched hockey before, I highly suggest you give it a try. When played properly it can be an exciting and fast-paced game, which it has not been in recent years. But, with the changes the league has made, it should revert back to its old self.

Now, if only we can get the fighting back…