I’m willing to consider giving the NHL another chance, and here’s why:
After peaking as a Red Sox fan (October, 2004), Celtics fan (the Bird Era) and Patriots fan (the Brady Era, ongoing), only one hurdle remains: The Stanley Cup. There was a time when I loved the Bruins as much as any other Boston team, but owner Jeremy Jacobs sucked the life out of me. If he didn’t care about the Bruins, why should I? Also, the game was changing, and not for the better — once the Devils rolled out that hideous zone trap in ’95, the NHL should have just outlawed fighting, power-plays and rowdy drunk chicks in hockey jerseys. What a disaster.
And so hockey faded out of my life. In retrospect, I wasn’t alone. After the NHL disappeared last fall — a victim of overexpansion, skyrocketing ticket prices, absurd salaries and comically bad leadership — the silence was deafening. Few people cared. Last winter and spring, when ESPN replaced hockey with random college basketball games (and I mean, really random, like Cadwallader State taking on Kahua Community College), women’s softball, college lacrosse and just about anything else: “Up Close and Personal with the Sklar Brothers,” “The Spelling Bee: Quarterfinal Regionals,” “Budweiser Hot Seat: The Series,” “Stu Yeah!” you name it, the show would top the NHL’s ratings from the previous season.
Clearly, this sport wasn’t just in disarray — it was being dismissed altogether. After 301 days, a canceled season and sweeping indifference, the NHL and its players came to a sobering conclusion: Let’s fix this thing. And it was about damned time.
Without further ado, an Idiot’s Guide to the NHL Lockout:
Q: What was the point? What was gained?
A salary cap. That was the biggie. The owners needed to completely overhaul their system under the premise, “Come on! It’s hockey! You guys would be playing for $20 an hour! Who are you kidding?” Of course, the players’ union was prepared to sit out two full seasons to prevent the cap from happening at least, that was the plan. Once those bills started piling up and public pressure mounted — oh, wait, there wasn’t any public pressure — they folded and accepted a considerably worse deal than they were offered six months ago. You know, the one that could have saved the season.
So to recap: Canceled season, lost wages, angry fans, worst deal possible. Ladies and gentleman, the NHL players’ union!
(In a related story, union head Bob Goodenow resigned Thursday. At least we didn’t find him in his garage with the car running. But seriously, imagine trying to find another job if you’re Bob Goodenow? Can we stick him in a reality-TV house with Scott Layden, Wally Backman, Mike Price, Jim Paxson, Larry Eustachy and Mike Ovitz?)
Q: What was the biggest mistake the players’ union made?
You mean, other than canceling an entire season, then caving? The players’ biggest mistake was trying to protect a salary structure that made no sense in the first place. Look, we all knew hockey players in high school and college — they’re good guys and hard workers, they stink like sweaty hockey equipment, they can drink until the cows come home, they have no problem walking around naked in front of other guys, and they would absolutely be happy playing professionally for $20 an hour. This is a blue-collar sport for blue-collar fans, people who should never have to pay more than $35 to $40 for a ticket. And the players fit right into that. So why pretend that hockey players should be getting $10 million to $12 million per year?
For instance, let’s say you have a favorite diner near your house. What do we love about diners? They’re inexpensive. The food comes out fast. The coffee is always good. The chef in the kitchen has an “I hope these customers didn’t see me on ‘America’s Most Wanted’ look on his face. The gum-snapping waitress is in her 50’s, but there’s still something sexy about her, despite the smoking wrinkles and the missing left index finger. And you can kick back, read your newspaper, enjoy a decent omelet, home fries and some buttered toast, and flirt with a 53-year-old woman who was probably Patient X for Hepatitis B back in 1971. What’s better than that?
Well, imagine if they quadrupled the price at the diner, the food took three times as long, you couldn’t see the chef, all the waitresses looked like Kathy Bates, and they added so many breakfast items to the menu that you almost needed a translator to read the menu? Would you ever go there again? Of course not. And that’s what the NHL never realized until it was too late. It was the breakfast diner of professional sports leagues, nothing more. Unfortunately, it took a 301-day lockout — as well as every cable channel basically saying, “Thanks, but no thanks” — for everyone to realize this.
Q: Was the players’ union happy with how everything unfolded?
Of course not. Here’s what three of the biggest stars said:
Jeremy Roenick: “I still think [it’s] brutal. But we want to play again.”
Brett Hull: “It’s a terrible deal.”
Chris Chelios: “This deal is not good for any of the players and everybody realizes that.”
And I empathize with these guys. Really, I do. If ESPN.com came to me this week and said, “Look, we’re losing money, we need to renegotiate your contract or we’ll have to fold the Web site,” would I be upset about it? Absolutely. But what can you do? So I have to sell one of my houses and a few of my sports cars, and maybe I can’t stay in the Rain Man suite at the Hard Rock anymore. Them’s the breaks.
Q: What’s the coolest part of the deal?
That they installed a cap and completely revamped the salary structure. Eventually, this might even show up in lowered ticket prices (cross your fingers).
The nitty-gritty facts: All remaining contracts were rolled back 24 percent, with teams having an option to then buy out those contracts for two-thirds the total the cap is directly tied to the league’s revenue projection, so higher-end teams can’t spend more than $39 million, and lower-end teams have to spend at least $22 million you can’t spend more than 20 percent of your cap on one player, meaning that no hockey player can make more than $8 million per season and with the bumped-up minimum (from $175,000 to $400,000), it’s nearly impossible for a team to have two or three $8 million guys (so long, competitive advantage for the Wings and ‘Lanche).
Note: Personally, I would have made the high end of the cap $2 million and the low end $1 million, with no player able to make more than $350,000 per season, and the league minimum being the aforementioned $20 an hour with players getting time and a half for overtime games. But that’s just me.)
Q: What’s the second-coolest part of the deal?
One word: Shootouts!
No more ties, no more standings that look like Lotto numbers, no more kissing your sister. Some purists are dead-set against the shootout concept, which is perplexing to me. Why would you be against something that makes the sport more exciting? I’m going to apply my time-proven “Channel Flick Test” introduced last February, when I was arguing the merits of a “Teammate Half-court Shot” at NBA’s All-Star Weekend. Forget about how dumb it would be to watch teammates like Shaq and D-Wade launching as many half-court shots in 90 seconds for a second, desperately trying to top Kobe and Odom’s score of eight. Would you turn the channel? Of course not.
The same goes for shootouts. If I’m flicking channels and stumble across a random hockey game, only four things are going to stop me in my tracks: A penalty shot, a fight, a shootout, or a mullet. And I don’t think I’m alone.
Q: Wait, shootouts? How does this affect gambling on hockey games?
The team that wins the shootout will be credited with one more goal. So if you have the Islanders in a parlay with the over of six, and it’s 3-3 heading into OT, and they win the shootout not only is the final score “4-3 Islanders” but you just covered your bet. See, aren’t you glad I’m here?
Q: What’s the worst part of the deal?
For whatever reason, they didn’t jettison any franchises (even though they overexpanded in the ’90s faster than Krispy Kreme, one of the main reasons we’re in this mess). If I were running the NHL, I would have insisted on dumping our franchises in New Jersey, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Atlanta, Florida, Nashville, Columbus, San Jose, Anaheim, Sacramento, Fresno, Omaha, Ithaca and Anchorage — that’s more than one-third of the current league. Then, I would have given back teams to Quebec and Winnipeg (if Degrassi High can return to Canada, so can the Nordiques and Jets) and added one in Vegas (under the “every league should have a team in Vegas” corollary). That would have given us 24 teams, including eight in Canada (the only country on the planet that cares about hockey). Perfect number.
Q: What’s the second-worst part of the deal?
As the owner of eight hockey fight tapes from the ’70s and ’80s, as well as someone who still regards Stan Jonathan’s beating of Pierre Bouchard as the highlight of my childhood, I was outraged with the new fighting rules. Not only will anyone who instigates a fight in the final five minutes of a game receive a game misconduct and automatic one-game suspension, the length of the suspension doubles for each additional incident. Basically, they’re imploring us to turn the channel with five minutes left if either team is up by three goals.
(It’s almost like they’re openly taunting Vince McMahon to start the XHL at this point. I know I’ve written this a million times, but if the XHL goes head-to-head against the NHL on Tuesday nights well, which league would you watch? I know where I would be.)
Q. How will the quality of play be different?
Nearly every rule change was made to speed up games, encourage more scoring chances and prevent 2-1 games and scoring champions with 79 points for the entire season. For instance
• They extended the blue lines and decreased the neutral zones, making it easier to maintain control of the puck onsides, and allowing more room to operate on power plays (just nod and pretend you know what I’m talking about).
• Two-line passes are now legal, which makes it easier for good passers and forwards to sneak away from their own end for potential breakaways. At least that’s the plan. Just remember, when R. Kelly was telling his music company, “So I want to make a series of videos based on these songs from the new album, and the actors in the videos will actually pretend to say the words to the songs,” that sounded like a good plan, too.
• Not only will goalies draw penalties for freezing the puck unnecessarily, but anyone who intentionally flips the puck into the crowd gets a penalty. (Note: I’m against this rule because it means less pucks for the fans.) Also, defenders won’t be allowed to interfere/hook/hold/obstruct anymore (although they say this every year). And if you cowardly ice the puck, you can’t change lines (but the other team can). I like that last rule — the thought of a worn-out team accidentally icing the puck eight times in a row, then players slowly beginning to collapse on the ice sounds tremendous.
Q: If you’re an NHL goalie, should you be frightened right now?
Absolutely. Every one of those aforementioned wrinkles was designed to increase scoring and make your life a living hell. Plus, remember the era of the giant goalie pads? Gone. Now their equipment will be reduced by 10 to 15 percent, with any violations triggering a two-game suspension for the goalie, a $25,000 fine for the team and even a $1,000 fine for the equipment manager (who’s probably thinking to himself, “Wait, how did I get dragged into this?”).
One more thing: They moved the nets closer to the boards and changed it so goalies can only play the puck within a 28-foot, trapezoidal area behind the net that extends 6 feet from either goal post. If you skate beyond that area, it’s an automatic two-minute penalty, which will be fun if only to hear what they call the penalty. Two minutes for trapezoidal desertion?
(Confused? So am I. They should have gone with Plan B — tying the goalie to the net with a 10-foot chain, almost like how you would tie up your pet rottweiler outside. Wouldn’t that be fun to see goalies occasionally forgetting about the chain, skating towards an errant puck, then cruelly getting yanked backward when the chain extends too far? Plus, they could potentially get caught up in the chain, or use it to trip other players really, I see no downside here. Although it will be loads of fun to hear Barry Melrose pronounce the word “Trapezoid.”)
Q: What’s the Claude Lemieux Rule?
The name I bestowed on the following new rule: if an offensive player clearly dives to get a call, not only will he receive a two-minute penalty during the game, but the league’s office will review game tapes and dole out after-the-fact fines to any scumbags — err, players who embellish a fall or fake an injury. Wait, it gets better. The first offense gets a warning letter. The second and third offenses draw $1,000 and $2,000 fines. The fourth offense results in a game suspension. And with the fifth offense, you get sent to Shawshank and Warden Norton casts you down with the sodomites.
Q: What are the new drug testing rules?
Best described like this: “Um, we don’t really have a drug problem in hockey — these guys are too hungover to do drugs. Please don’t bring this up again.”
Q: What will happen to the unpopular Jeremy Roenick and the wildly unpopular Todd Bertuzzi?
I think they should fight to the death to kick off the season, but that’s probably not happening. Anyway, it looks like Bertuzzi will be suspended for 20 more games while Roenick assumes the mantle of “most vilified player in every opposing arena.” And if this leads to JR’s own SportsCentury episode in which I get to remember what it was like to play him in “NHL ’94” back in the day, I’m all for it.
Q: What happened to the NHL Draft?
Well, they skipped the one, but they get to make up for it with Saturday’s “we haven’t had a draft in a while, so this baby is especially loaded with talented players you’ve never heard of!” belated draft, which will be highlighted by Sidney Crosby (billed as the best prospect since Mario Lemieux, which seems interesting because apparently, we all agreed to agree that the Eric Lindros Era never happened, only I never got the memo) going first to the Penguins and moody singer/guitarist Jack Johnson going second to Anaheim.
(And yes, the Penguins landed the No. 1 pick after an emergency drawing last week in which Gary Bettman proved that he was so inept, he couldn’t even rig a lottery to make sure Crosby ended up in a major market. Like anyone would have cared. Shouldn’t WNBA rules have applied here? “Um, Crosby has an aunt who lives in Winnetka that means we have decided to award him to the Chicago Blackhawks!” No offense to the good people of the ‘Burgh, but hasn’t that franchise been on the ropes for about 15 years? Hell, Mark Cuban hails from Pittsburgh and even he won’t buy them. And this is a guy who once gave Raef LaFrentz a $60 million contract extension. Now we’re sending the future of the league there? I’m concerned.)
Q: Did they forget to do anything with the lockout agreement?
Other than dumping the entire regular season for an eight-month playoff format? I think they missed three things. First, I would have shortened the penalty boxes so that, if there were ever more than three players in there, somebody would have had to sit on someone else’s lap. Second, I would have hired a manager for every enforcer (like in pro wrestling) so that the between-period interviews would have been more fun. And third, to steal a joke from reader Jason in San Francisco, I would have forced ESPN’s Bill Clement to speak and act like Ron Burgundy at all times, even if it meant he had to say “I will punch you in the ovaries” to Gary Thorne at the end of every telecast.
Q: Anything else we forgot to mention?
Nothing major. You can’t become a free agent until you turn 31, although that will eventually drop to 27. There’s something called two-way arbitration (don’t ask). They’re shutting down operations next February for the Winter Olympics, as a way of showcasing the game’s top stars which would have been an interesting idea if it didn’t completely fail four years ago. They’re making the game more accessible — miked players, cameras in the locker room, maybe even cameras on the referees and players. Oh, and every NHL team needs to sign between 15-20 players apiece. Thank God Chad Ford doesn’t cover the NHL — he would have had a nervous breakdown by now.
(They still don’t have a TV contract (except for the last 5 games of the Finals on NBC), which is funny because even the Tour de France has a TV contract at this point. And there you see Armstrong he’s the guy in the pack of 20 bikers and, um, they’re riding and, um, Armstrong just drank some water and this heat means absolutely nothing because there are like 75 stages to this thing, so as long as he doesn’t fall down, he’s going to win again and, um, we’re going uphill now You’re telling me that competitive cycling has a TV deal and professional ice hockey doesn’t? What’s happening to this country?)
Q: All right, let’s test you and see if you’re genuine about following hockey again — what moves are the Bruins planning to make this summer?
Ahhhhhh, yes. You want to see if I’m paying attention again. Well, we only had three guys under contract when the dust cleared, so it has basically been a free-for-all. The big dilemma has been figuring out a way to keep Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov while having enough cap flexibility to sign everyone else. It’s almost like watching a fantasy draft unfold online — the possibilities are limitless. Plus, we have a guy named Sully coaching the team, as well as an honest chance to compete now that the cap prevents big market teams from outspending our cheapskate owner. I’m cautiously optimistic. Not optimistic enough to splurge for the “Center Ice” package, but cautiously optimistic.
Because here’s the thing: Hockey should work. You couldn’t draw up a better HDTV sport. It’s impossible. You can see the numbers, see the faces under the helmets, see the puck, even see the faces in the crowd. It’s perfect. Throw in the inevitable scoring surge, have shootouts deciding games and a Bruins team with a genuine chance to compete for a Cup and you know what? I just might start following hockey again.
(On second thought nahhhhhhhh.)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.