Thursday, July 13, 2006

As promised, the NHL Improvement Manifesto

We will discuss this tonight on, specifically Northcoast Hockey Tonight. It is our long-promised NHL Improvement Manifesto. Enjoy!

We at help produce the program NORTHCOAST HOCKEY TONIGHT (Thursdays, 7-8 PM). Show host Paul Teeple and myself cover the entire world of hockey, but we focus largely on the NHL.

On the July 13, 2006 episode of NORTHCOAST HOCKEY TONIGHT, we promised that we would be bringing forth the NHL Improvement Manifesto, a plan to help the NHL build on the successes of the first post-lockout season and help to minimize any of the problems which have continued to plague the game. Many of these moves would need to be collectively bargained, but the league and the players have worked increasingly well together since the lockout and the change in leadership at the top of the players’ union. Our manifesto is not based on near-term gain for the league, because short-term thinking has choked off progress for decades. All aspects of the program are aimed towards medium-term and long-term gain. Here is the plan:

1. Shorten the season to 70 games – and conduct the World Cup of Hockey tournament every season to help compensate for lost revenue. It is still possible that some adjustments might need to be made to the salary cap, however, but since many players are of the opinion that the season is too long and grueling, this move could be successfully collectively bargained.

2. Adjust the schedule as follows: Each team should play 6 games in division and 3 games against other teams in the same conference. Teams would alternate who would host the extra home game each year. Teams should play 16 games against the opposing conference. For 15 of those games, each team would play every team in the opposing conference and rotate the home-and-home games on an annual basis. The extra game would be a home-and-home affair between two designated teams in different conferences. In order to maximize games between Original Six teams, and to build rivalries in other top hockey markets, four teams in the East and four teams in the West would rotate playing the home-and-home game on an annual basis, with all other teams sharing the same home-and-home opponents each year. The four teams in the East would be Toronto, Boston, the New York Rangers and Montreal. The four teams in the West would be Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and Minnesota. A more uniform slate would erase the huge discrepancies which now exist in strength of schedule, as well as exposing the top stars of the NHL to fans on a more equal basis.

3. Playoff seeding should be changed. In order to more accurately reflect the actual strength of teams heading into the playoffs, teams should be arranged on a different basis. Keep the 70-game schedule for purposes of awarding the three division champions and the five wild cards in each conference – but utilize only the last 30 games for awarding the 1-8 seeds in each conference. Combined with the more uniform strength of schedule across the league, seeds will once again mean something in the playoffs instead of meaning very little as they do now.

4. Utilize YouTube and other new media means to get must-see videos in front of the public. The NHL, of course, has to work within the parameters of their deal with Comcast regarding the rights to video distribution. But the league has the right to disseminate certain streaming feeds for free and should seize every opportunity to do so, even when no money is guaranteed for doing so. Actively submitting video feeds to rapidly growing Internet outlets such as YouTube and Google Video will tap into a younger market more receptive to the speed and skill that the sport showcases.

5. Make the task of obtaining sponsorship opportunities for top stars the predominant goal of the league marketing department – and expand that department with outside talent if need be. As the franchise player of the Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes, and as the leading edge of what could become the First Family of 21st Century hockey, Eric Staal should be presented with numerous opportunities to appear in advertisements this summer. Likewise, Sidney Crosby, Cam Ward, and other stars seizing the baton from the previous generation should be out front as much as possible. The goal of pushing these players to the American public would not be the enrichment of the individual stars, but rather the familiarization by the American public with the players taking this sport forward. Additionally, efforts should be made wherever possible to market Jarome Iginla to urban communities to boost the NHL fanbase in an area where it lags badly.

6. Begin exploring options now for the next TV contract. The league is locked in with Comcast and NBC agreements for foreseeable future, but progress is being held back by the cable deal in particular with the network being in few homes overall and locked out of entire markets. The damage from the cash grab decision that the league made last year cannot be erased overnight, but through careful consideration now, the NHL can be better prepared to make a better choice in the future.

7. Swallow the pride and play up comparisons to football – in America, at least. Such a move would go over poorly up North to say the least, but it would be profoundly unnecessary in a country that relates to it on such a supreme level. But in America, where the game remains misunderstood by such a large segment of the population, the league could benefit immensely by a campaign to draw comparisons to the real national pastime, football. From the proportionality of the scoring systems being similar (i.e. a touchdown is roughly equivalent to a goal), to the physical, gritty play that each sport features, to the similarity of a goal-line stand to a penalty kill, the sports have a great deal in common. Indeed, it can be said with little degree of exaggeration that hockey is football at 100 miles per hour. NBC, which now televises both the NHL and the NFL, should be a willing partner in helping hockey to benefit from football’s popularity.

8. Play more games outdoors. Rumors about the NHL staging a Rangers-Islanders game in Yankee Stadium on January 1 were ill-founded, but the league desperately needs to stage more outdoor games like the one in Edmonton almost three years ago. The curiosity factor and resulting publicity would benefit the league greatly, especially if the majority of said games take place in America. The NHL needs to aim for at least two games a year under the stars.


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