The NHL is in sturdy shape; still, refinements are on tap

Hockey is back! Maybe better than ever! Maybe!

It seems like only yesterday that the Kings were waltzing off with The Cup, and the day before when the Bruins were departing in a striking mix of rage and confusion. The seasons are tightly packed nowadays and the off-seasons ever shorter.

It’s a strong league that is resuming play, the lingering effects of the last hideous labor dispute two years ago having been finally shed.  Signs affirming the NHL’s resurgent prosperity abound. The league is stable. The game is growing. The international scene is soaring. Quality of play is climbing. TV ratings are surging. Eight more years (at least) of peace are assured. It has been near three decades since all of this could be asserted with real confidence. Let’s see if somehow they can screw it up.   

Rules, mainly of the arcane sort, have been refined with the principal objectives of goosing the scoring and further diminishing the increasingly rare mayhem and purging fakery to make the game safer and healthier.

More offense is needed. Goalies, beefed up and emboldened by all that protective armor they’ve lately been allowed to don, are just too dominant. As in soccer, fans of hockey understand that tight and low-scoring games are more often than not exquisitely played and a joy to observe. But the NHL knows it can’t merely appeal to its cognoscenti. The more casual fans, and those ill-defined multitudes watching on television, love scoring. There needs to be more of it. 

Casual fans also tend to be amused by the occasional thuggery that once spiced the game (sort of). But it’s clearly out of fashion. The rule book this season has been tweaked still more to further discourage the stray Pier-Sixers. Enforcers are nearly extinct and such few as survive are being made to at least pose as genuine players capable of doing more than brawl. With the mounting concern about “behavior” in sports, the NHL is more sensitive to appearances than ever.

One refinement you are going to love has to do with the issue of fakery. They are getting tough on the “divers” who play-act their way into undeserved penalty calls, thus infuriating opponents. The price for getting caught has been stiffened. This is bad news for many aspiring skating thespians, many of whom play for the Montreal Canadiens. And good news for teams that disdain the practice like the Boston Bruins, at the insistence of their coach.   

But at the risk of seeming a Neanderthal, I confess to feeling they’ve gone as far as they should in the campaign to rid the NHL of its random mayhem. If good old-fashioned slugfests break out every blue moon or so for reasons that are reasonably legitimate, they should be tolerated. It was important to eliminate the gratuitous nonsense, and it has been done. And important to rid the game of nut-cakes, and they are long gone. Nobody will miss any of that. But enough is enough, gentlemen. This game will never be Tiddledy Winks.  

It’s the injury issue, however, that is paramount. No other surpasses it. It’s not even close. Concussions are the obsession, and given the amount of playing time lost by quality performers, the costs of extended stints on the disabled list, and the careers that have been curbed, even truncated, by concussions, the matter is deservedly urgent. The NHL needs no more Marc Savard stories.

How do you make this game safer without sacrificing any of its speed, zest, muscle, and oomph? There seems an inherent conflict even in the effort. But the cost of not doing something is mounting. The millions squandered by every team on playing-time lost is impetus enough for the owners. Watch for tougher policing on things like cheap hits, blind-siding, obvious intent to injure, and needless thuggery.

Put it this way: I would not want to be the first meatball to get convicted of steamrolling a defenseless foe and leaving him concussed on the ice, especially if the victim just happens to be a star. The five-game suspensions of yore just could get dialed up to ten or twenty or more. But beyond that, what more can they do? It’s a hard game played by tough critters and it must stay that way. 

Otherwise, it should be business as usual, eh? International hockey is booming, with European teams talking vaguely about closer ties with the NHL. Is the day coming when there will be an NHL division composed of teams stretching from Stockholm and Helsinki down to Prague and across to Great Britain? Could be.

Hockey’s strongest suit is its international reach and appeal. Still on the table is the NHL’s future in international tourneys, especially the Olympics. The league would much prefer to stage its own as once was done back when Alan Eagleson served as their impresario before he was defrocked. Seems like yesterday.  

The biggest off-ice issue, however, should prove to be the decision on where to land the next expansion franchises, and expansion is coming no matter how much various owners and Czar Bettman deny, deflect, or defer the question. You needn’t listen to them. They always lie on these issues.

While the runaway expansion of a generation ago was unwise, it should be okay this time. A league composed of 32 teams, split into two 16-team conferences, and divided further into four eight-team divisions, has a symmetry that makes perfect sense, not always an NHL specialty. It will happen. 

At least four towns are candidates; Seattle, Kansas City, Quebec City, and somewhere in Ontario, probably in or near Hamilton. Quebec is a no-brainer. They have the building and the passion, and the outrageous wrong done to them when the Nordiques were yanked away years ago must be redeemed. If Quebec gets rooked again, there will be hell to pay for the NHL.  Seattle is the likely second pick, although the fancy arena they say they’ll build remains unbuilt.

So drop ze puck, says you. And how will the Bruins do? Prophecy being the least of my skills I try never to go there and when I do I always regret it.

But one fact above all applies to this team. If there’s another Cup to come in this era, it needs to be now. Not that the future is bleak. It’s not an old team, and the system is solid. But time is not on the side of the era’s signature player, Zdeno Chara. A couple of their nicer operatives, including the indispensable Patrice Bergeron, are notably concussion-vulnerable. The off-season problems they’ve had maneuvering around the salary cap are also worrisome. They won’t get easier. Does anyone this side of MIT fully understand the mysteries of the NHL salary cap?

There’s also this interesting concern, which is difficult to raise, let alone argue. In a game fast changing in subtle ways, one wonders whether the Bruins style, with its heavy emphasis on hard, gritty, relentlessly physical play, will begin to suffer at the hands of officials on and off the ice aiming to soften the game if only to appease the critics who see violence even in every hard and clean hit. That’s a complicated point, and this isn’t the place or time to probe it further. But it’s worth noting.   

In the end, the Bruins will do as well as injuries allow. More than ever it’s a war of attrition in today’s NHL. They might have gone all the way last season had they not lost Dennis Seidenberg. With him manning the barricades alongside his pal Chara, they would never have lost to those bloody Canadiens, and that would have saved the season.
Ah, but then you’ve heard this song before. Eh?