Friday, July 07, 2006

Der Commissionar's in town

Well, commissioner for a day, as the article puts it. Four of the writers decide to do top-ten lists for each of the four majors; four others decide to become the grand viziers of golf, tennis, and college football and baseball.

I like this sort of column idea, because it taps into the impulse of every fan at a bar to fix the things that annoy most, especially in sports we really love. And I especially love the idea of installing some executive oversight in the college sports AS individual sports, since the byzantine NCAA and their endless UN-style mismanagement leaves nearly everything to be desired. And last but not least, I get plenty of guilty pleasure looking at the picture of Bud Selig in the universal NO circle-and-slash.

These guys will probably be hammering at the Tom Verducci baseball article, so I'll save my reaction to it for a later date. (Like, oh, Saturday. Who am I kidding here?) But first, the NHL - primarily because Gary Bettman deserves more than the universal NO. He helped to engineer the dot-com-esque expansion bubble, the loss of franchises in Canada, and the near-ruinous dilution in the quality of play. The huge spike in pricing drove off much of the sport's blue-collar fan base. Then he used the inevitable fiscal disaster that he caused as an excuse to close the whole league for a year. I can't fire the stooge enough. (Fire him, fire AT him, fire him AT things - pick a preposition.) It's a great sport: graceful, powerful, and fast, but too few watch it because its highest league is run horribly.

Farber's ten changes are here. In general, they're pretty good. I can get behind putting a team back in Winnipeg. (Phoenix, even with Wayne Gretzky running the team, is just not a suitable place for a club.) His other strong suggestion - ditch the current TV deal with OLN for a contract with a network that actually reaches more than 10% of the country - is an absolute. Especially with HD and newer rules helping return speed and skill to the game, it's important to get the games seen as widely as possible.

In all, I keep those two above and a third: putting the All-Star Game in Europe every few years will keep building the sport in countries that increasingly supply the NHL with talent, as baseball does with exhibitions in Japan.

But my very first edict as Emperor of Hockey is to dump the "pity point." I've explained it before. It is an idiot, self-contradictory system that will eventually land a team in the playoffs ahead of a team that has a better record. (And then they'll probably "fix" that with an equally-dumb idea.)

I would just bring back the tie. One point for splitting a tough game is a valid reward. It's not popular, primarily because teams were finishing with 20 ties a season, so to keep ties down, I would ironically borrow one of soccer's ideas and award three points for a win. Teams trying to make up ground in the standings will gladly risk the one point for a full three. (Simple math - a team taking chances and going 1-1 in OT will come out ahead of a team that plays it safe and takes two draws.) Further, I would make OT ten minutes long to encourage a result during actual play.

And as exciting as the shootout is, it's NOT hockey - akin to deciding a basketball game with a game of HORSE at the end. I'd keep it, lest my reign end in tears (mostly mine), but I'd limit it to five shooters.

It's not perfect, but it replaces a much worse situation: one that rewards failure and resolves games with a skills competition - and then changes those rules for the playoffs. No wonder people's eyes glaze over contemplating the NHL.

So that, plus the other three I kept, make four. Quickly now (since most of my visitors are snoooozing) -

5. Rescheduling. I like Farber's schedule idea - in 82 games there's room for visits to every other arena in the league. But I'd go a little further. I'd set a regular schedule for the nationally-broadcast games and marquee matchups. With so many shared NHL/NBA venues, this is a lot more ambitious but I think it could be done. Not that basketball wouldn't also have its Saturday matinee games or holiday broadcasts as well, but it would give the casual fan or the interested party a much better chance of finding a good hockey game - "Hey, it's Thursday; Detroit-Colorado is on!" Think about the football heirarchy: HS on Fridays, college on Saturdays (whoa, nellie!), NFL on Sundays, and Monday Night Football, which really cemented the NFL as the premier sports league of the US.

6. Gear. I agree with Farber that illegal equipment has to be curtailed, but not so much on what needs to be mandatory. He wants visors to be mandatory, as helmets became in the early 80's. Defensible, especially as the players have gotten larger, but a lot of injuries are caused because people are careless, and use their superior gear as weapons against other players. I'd take a bit of an opposite approach. Shoulder and elbow pads would have to be padded on the outside surface. They could still have a hard plastic shell, but that would have to be interior. As it stands now they're more like clubs and even a clean check carries a higher risk of injuring one's opponent, to say nothing of a thrown elbow.

7. Relocation. Concentrating the skill a bit would increase the quality of the play and thus the number of people watching. There are 30 teams now. To me, 28 is better, four seven-team divisions. It doesn't sound like much, but that's about two players per remaining team. Besides, there's some question to whether certain cities can sustain NHL hockey. Atlanta already lost its first expansion team (the Flames), so why give them another? Relocate or go away. Columbus? Buh-bye. Tampa and/or Florida? Tougher, both have made the Finals and the Lightning won the Cup in '04. But two of those four are definitely out, and if Phoenix' team weren't already going back to Winnipeg, they'd be goners.

8. Endless Playoffs. This is where I really hesitate - in the West this year, all four bottom seeds avanced to the second round, and the eighth seed pushed all the way into the Stanley Cup finals and forced Game Seven. Top seeds get upset enough to make me think that the current system (16 of 30 in the playoffs) is exciting and that the quality of play is high. But the Nightfly Hockey League only has 28 teams, and four rounds of best-of-seven is an awful long haul. This needs some correction. Unfortunately I can see significant flaws in most of the ideas:

A. Drop four teams. This gives the top two seeds first-round byes. Two big problems: first, these teams would get rusty sitting around for ten or twelve days between games, putting them at significant disadvantage. Again, we don't want to punish success and reward failure. Second, the teams with byes would lose significant revenue from those now-nonexistent playoff games. Since the league has the smallest pie of the four majors, it doesn't really make sense to limit revenue streams.

B. Make the first round best-of-five. As recently as 1979, it was best of three; the best-of-seven opening round didn't debut until 1987. This avoids the two flaws above, but only by shaving a couple of games from the schedule - in other words, it doesn't go very far in solving the original problem.

(Oddly, the league used to combine the two systems - the best of three playoffs AND the first round bye - from '75-'79. The layoffs weren't all that long because of the short series, and it wasn't thought of as lost revenue since the league had just gone from 8 to 12 playoff teams. Those eight remaining teams were still playing the same number of rounds as otherwise.)

C. Make the first TWO rounds best-of-five. Compress twice, save about a week and a half. It's never been done and likely would be poorly-received. Don Cherry would probably shout himself to death about it. But it would work.

D. Make teams play back-to-back games. Games 1 and 2, Tuesday and Wednesday. Travel Thursday. Prep Friday. Games 3 and 4, Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening. Game 5-7, if needed: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Repeat. Last two rounds will be done in under a month, and it adheres to Edict #5 above - big games on consistent days (the game 6 would be the only oddball). The drawback is that true consistency means no games at all on some days, and too many games on the others, unless you stagger things. (Another objection is, why not just use the simpler every-other-day system? The answer is that, if teams sweep, they're done sooner this way.)

Anyway, I saved the long one for last to be nice. Next up, baseball - Verducci didn't do poorly, but there a couple of major fixes that he didn't touch. I have no such reservations.

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