Thursday, January 10, 2013

My Bad Relationship With The NHL

I feel like I'm writing a letter to Dear Abby... See, I'm stuck in a bad relationship, I love her, but she takes off months, even a year, for no good reason, then comes back and expects that we'll pick up like nothing ever happened...

Her name is the NHL.

Let me say that I am a big hockey fan, I have been since I was about 10 years old. Growing up, my family had season tickets to the New Jersey Devils; I've ridden buses to Montreal to see a game; when I became the Sports Editor of my college newspaper, I quickly claimed the hockey beat for myself, even though my school had only a club-level team and they were, honestly, fairly bad; in short, I love the game. So you would think that I'd be overjoyed by the news that the NHL's latest labor stoppage came to an end late last week, just in time to salvage part of the 2012-2013 season.

But I'm not. Some of it is anger and frustration with the league over its third labor stoppage in 18 years, a largely pointless fight between millionaires and billionaires over how to carve up league revenues that last season topped $3 billion. But in a bigger sense, my lack of enthusiasm comes from the realization that getting back together after a breakout often seems great as an idea, though the reality is usually disappointing.

People are joyful over the idea that the last-minute labor agreement saved the 2012-2013 season. But let's not kid ourselves, the season is already lost.  Sure, the teams will take to the ice in an ersatz 48-game schedule, as they did in 1995, but this season will be looked at as far from legitimate. The New Jersey Devils won their first Stanley Cup following the shortened 1995 season, but the only reason that championship has any validity today is because the Devils went on to make the playoffs every year for the next decade and win two more championships in 2000 and 2003; without them, the Devils 1995 Cup win would be in the record books with a very big asterisk.

Nor am I looking forward to seeing the quality of the product on the ice this year. Getting ready for a full NHL season is usually a month-long affair of training camps and exhibition games; this year that process is being compressed down to a week – players will report to their teams this weekend and begin play on Jan. 19th, not in exhibition games, but to launch the 48 game season.  Some players will be coming to these mini-camps from professional leagues in Europe, others from stints in the minors, others still with no playing time since their seasons ended last April or May. The teams won't gel as cohesive units, injuries are far more likely because of poor physical conditioning; in short, the 2013 season promises to be a sloppy one.

And even more disturbing are some of the moves the league is discussing for the future. Lost in the hubbub of the labor crisis were two proposals floated by the NHL: expanding the playoffs to 20 teams and expanding the league itself to 32; both are awful ideas. A 20-team playoff format will likely add another round to the playoff structure and will stretch the season deeper into June, considering that the 2011-2012 playoffs didn't end until June 11th, another round could push the end of the Stanley Cup finals almost to the official start of summer – kind of silly for a “winter” sport. It also makes the regular season more irrelevant since 20 out of 30 teams, or 2/3 of the league would be guaranteed a spot in the post-season. Expansion is also a terrible idea, especially since part of the reason for this year's labor lockout was the league's contention that roughly 2/3 of the teams were losing money. Seattle and Quebec City have emerged as the frontrunners in the expansion talks, and while both would be fine additions to the NHL, it would make more sense for them to host teams relocated from some of the NHL's weaker cities like Phoenix or Columbus, OH than to add more teams to what many fans consider to be an already bloated league.

The rationale for these moves is money – expansion franchises must pay a fee to the league, which results in a few million dollars being funneled into the coffers of every NHL team, a hallmark of the Gary Bettman era; while more teams in the playoffs will give four more owners a chance to earn a little more revenue by hosting additional home games for their teams. Whether these moves are good for the quality of the league or the sport is irrelevant if there's a quick buck to be made. And that brings me back to my point about being stuck in a bad relationship. The NHL is never going to change, but in terms of hockey, they are the only game in town, and, unfortunately, the NHL knows that too.  
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