Bye, bye Bettman and 11 other ways to improve the NHL


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You can expect NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will do his very best on Saturday to downplay any problems happening under his watch as he speaks with media prior to the NHL All-Star game in sunny Florida.

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You can expect NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will do his very best on Saturday to downplay any problems happening under his watch as he speaks with media prior to the NHL All-Star game in sunny Florida.

Never let ‘em see you sweat, right?

Except there’s no denying the league has fires burning on multiple fronts right now, not the least of which is a five-alarm drop in ratings south of the border. The Sports Business Journal reports a 22 per cent year-over-year decrease in viewership on ESPN and TNT.

The seven-year partnership, which only began last season, was supposed to expand the reach of hockey. Instead, the opposite appears to be happening.

There are numerous explanations — or excuses, if you will — for the apparent cause. Among them are an expanded slate of games, media blackouts, increased fragmentation across multiple platforms and even the struggles of squads in major U.S. markets such as Chicago and Philadelphia.

Fair enough. It would be foolish, however, to simply chalk it all up to “issues beyond our control” and believe that brighter days are on the horizon. The fact is, the NHL could be doing so much more to improve the product and make it more appealing to both existing fans and those on the fringe they’re hoping to attract.

Fortunately, I’m not just here to whine and complain today, but rather to offer some solutions. Here’s my 12-point puck plan, offered free of charge to the powers that be.

• Limit gambling advertisements: What first began as a trickle has now turned into a flood, to the point broadcasts are starting to feel like gambling shows with a little bit of hockey mixed in. It’s completely obnoxious, especially with once-reputable hosts such as Ron MacLean and even greats such as Wayne Gretzky and Connor McDavid selling their souls for these services. I’ve got nothing against sports betting. I just don’t need it shoved down my throat. And based on the number of people I’ve heard from on this front, I’m not alone.

• All head contact is a major: A no-brainer, pardon the pun. Given all we know about concussions and the long-term impact of CTE, it’s well past the time to eliminate the grey area that exists. Bottom line: if you make contact with an opponent’s head, regardless of whether it’s intentional or not, a major penalty is issued and your night is done. No ifs, ands or buts. This would include fighting, by the way. Drop the mitts? Hit the showers.

• Every game is worth three points: It is ridiculous that some games carry more value than others. A regulation victory should get you all three, while an overtime or shootout win gives you two, with your opponent getting the other. This would give a much more accurate reflection of the true contenders versus pretenders than what we get in the current system while properly rewarding clubs that get the job done on time. It would also up the excitement in the waning minutes of a tie game, where both sides routinely play it safe.

• Expand overtime: If I’m watching a game on TV, the moment three-on-three overtime ends is when I reach for the remote and flip to something else. I have no use for the shootout gimmick. Fortunately, it sounds like a growing number of NHL players agree. “The three-on-three overtime as a whole is great for this sport,” Anaheim forward Troy Terry told the Associated Press this week. “It’s fun for us. It feels more like hockey than going to the shootout.” The easy fix here is to expand three-on-three play to 10 minutes. Just do it. If it still can’t be decided by that point, then fine. Have your stupid breakaway contest. We’d probably only be talking about a handful of games over the course of a year, if that.

• Limit the use of offside challenges: They would not be allowed if one of two things occurs prior to a goal. 1) The team that gets scored against controlled the puck at any time after the illegal entry. In essence, if they had a chance to clear the zone (and failed), then the goal is on them, not the inch or two their opponent came into their zone. 2) If more than 10 seconds passes between the missed offside and the goal. Again, that’s plenty of time to right the so-called wrong, and it would get rid of all those absurd ticky-tack reversals that had absolutely no impact on the outcome. Also, I would impose a 30-second time limit on a coach to decide whether he wants to challenge. No more of the referee standing by the bench, waiting forever while the suits look at every angle in super slow-mo.

• Allow players to kick pucks in the net: Distinct kicking motion? Who cares. That’s a good goal. It’s still a highly skilled play, and I’m always in favour of more scoring, not less. If a player has the wherewithal to direct a puck across the line using his feet, so be it.

• Get rid of the ridiculous digital board displays: Bettman claims viewers don’t mind it. He’s lying. It’s a massive distraction, one that has brought all kinds of snafus to the broadcasts — including players who fully or partially disappear. It’s bush league, and no amount of additional revenue can justify keeping this monstrosity.

• Make referees available post-game to answer questions from the media: It would go a long way towards transparency and accountability. Players and coaches are required to face the music, so why shouldn’t the guys in stripes, especially after a key call (or missed call)? Have I mentioned that gambling has become such a major part of the sport? It’s absurd that explanations surrounding something that had a direct on the outcome are shrouded in secrecy.

• Stagger start times: There were three NHL games on Monday night. All three started at 6 p.m. CT. There were two games on Tuesday. Both began at 6:30 p.m. CT. This is a regular occurrence for the NHL, and it cuts into the game-surfing fans might want to do. When every game is on intermission at the same time, that’s a problem. There’s got to be a better way, even if it means starting games at odd times such as quarter-past the hour. At least try to spread it out a bit.

• Home teams wear white: OK, this one is probably falling into the category of being overly picky, but it makes too much sense. Rather than watch the Jets in their home blues for 41 games, and having 41 opponents come to town in their whites, wouldn’t be it more fun to get to see the much more dynamic darks on display for all those rivals? Montreal and Detroit’s iconic reds. Boston and Pittsburgh’s black and yellows. Philadelphia’s orange and blacks. You get the picture. Plus, it would eliminate the issue that might just come around again this spring — a Winnipeg “whiteout” in which the crowd is wearing the colours of the playoff opponent at Canada Life Centre.

• Major playoff makeover: Forgot about these fake divisional rivalries, which often mean having two of the best teams in the NHL meet in the first or second rounds. Allow the cream to truly rise to the top by having 1 vs 16, 2 vs 15, 3 vs 14, 4 vs 13, 5 vs 12, 6 vs 11, 7 vs 10 and 8 vs 9 in the opening round, then go from there. I don’t care if it means having two teams from the same division, or same conference, meet in the Stanley Cup Final. Best on best should be the ultimate goal.

• Bye, bye Bettman: Look, he’s done a lot of great things for the league since taking the reins on Feb. 1, 1993, but it’s time for a new leader. The 70-year-old Bettman remains stuck in the dark ages on many issues, including recent ones we’ve seen pop up in New York and Philadelphia regarding Pride night celebrations. The NHL, especially at the highest level, remains an old boys club. A new, more modern approach is badly needed.

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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