Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Just some thoughts

Guy Lafleur, the Montreal Canadians' legend and Hall of Famer, says this weekend's Heritage Classic game, which pre-ceeds the big outdoor regular season game between the Oilers and Habs, will be a snapshot of what the league was like in the past. He says today's league is no fun to watch and hopes the league will soon return to its offensive form and become as it was in the 70s and 80s. Lafleur's solution to today's overwhelmingly boring league is unusual.
"To me they should cut down to 24 teams, meaning more All-Star type players on each team. Eventually, what (the NHL) should do is to have a European division and they play for the Stanley Cup at the end of the season. "The European hockey players would play in their country and here they would have more players that people would easily identify with. That would make a big difference."
I completely agree with the contraction half of Guy's idea. The league is at least six teams too big. There is not currently even enough medium level talent in the world to fill a 30 team NHL, let alone that of the highest level. Too much of the NHL is low level talent, if it can even be called "talent". As it is, for there be any kind of parity, the game has to be dumbed up and slowed down. In order for these lower level players and the teams stocked with them to keep up with the more talented players and teams, strategies such as the trap and all that comes with it have to be implemented. Though this brings parity to the league, it creates high levels of boredom that keep away prospective fans and eventually drive away all but the most hardcore fans (like me). Cut the league down by a few teams, and talent will be more evenly distributed instead of being locked to a small number of top teams (like the Wings and Colorado). Give the best teams of the league the new talent coming in and those kids won't have to be rushed into a game they aren't ready for because their new clubs will have enough depth to get slowly acclimated. It's the other half of Lafleur's plan I don't like. European division?! Huh? How will that create an exciting league? Some of the most amazing players to watch are European and locking them away across the ocean, with at least a 5 hour time difference from hockey fanship strongholds in North America won't do anything to create excitement. Who would broadcast the games? Satellite TV? That's great, force people to pay to watch their favorite players at 1:00 in the morning. Let the Europeans keep their own pro leagues. They don't want the NHL to interfere even more with their sphere of influence. If these European players are going to go to Europe, they might as well play for their old European league teams. That's what they really care about anyway. If this were to happen, what size rinks would the European players play on? International or NHL? If international, the North American side of the league would have to re-size their own rinks to prepare for the Stanley Cup round. Or vice versa for the European teams. It wouldn't work. There is too much money to be lost in a larger ice area and smaller seating areas and Europe isn't going to change for the NHL. Besides, the Stanley Cup is strictly a North American trophy and the NHL has had a hard enough time generating interest in it with European players on this side of the Atlantic, let alone on their own side. I'm just glad that won't happen, at least not officially. We'll see plenty of NHLers over in Europe during the upcoming strike (yes, it's coming) but at least most of them will be back in the States eventually. The league may get contraction whether it wants it or not. A prolonged work stoppage next year will likely push many teams out of business, leaving only those with enough money to hold out. Wayne Gretzky made similar comments to Lafleur's league boredom remarks during a news conference promoting his new autobiographical DVD. However, he doesn't have an active solution to the league's problems.
"The game is going to always have cycles. The game in the '70s was pretty defensive and along came (Guy) Lafleur and Montreal and then (Mike) Bossy and the Islanders and that opened things up. "Along came the Oilers (in the '80s) and everybody said: `That's how you win' so that opened things up, too."
He says the league is just in a defensive cycle and that it will open up again someday. I can buy that. It makes sense but I just wonder if the league will survive this cycle. Also, if the league is on the brink of another offensive era, it sounds like the Avs may have made the right long term decision in stocking up on the forwards. That scares me because the last thing I want is an Oilers-like Avalanche team rolling over the league. An Oilers-like Red Wings, I'd like, even if it's not very possible. The fact is, something needs to be done, whether it's contraction or the outright ban on the trap. Neither is very likely at all, not with the league's current management. The NHL isn't getting very many new customers and is losing the fans it does have. I don't expect Bettman to do anything about it, though. Not the right thing, at least.


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