Watching the Koci hit on Green from Tuesday’s (rumored) Avs-Capitals game got me thinking about how the NHL can get this kind of behavior out of the game. Coaches and GMs keep goons like Koci on the team because they think they need them. The only way to get rid of the designated fighter with minimal hockey skill is to change the rules so they are no longer seen as an asset. Once I thought about that, I started thinking about other changes that might make the game better for fans and safer for players. Changes to the rules of a tradition filled game like hockey cannot be taken lightly. There are still “traditionalists” who would like to ditch helmets, re-instate the red line, and eliminate the instigator rule. I’m not one of them. As an introduction, I want to quickly recap why I watch hockey.
1. Speed – Guys with limited padding flying around the ice at 30MPH show some serious courage. The small space in which the game is played forces instant decisions, and creates rapid swings in momentum and opportunity. End-to-end action is fun to watch.
2. Creativity – All (Avalanche) goals are good, but the best are goals with a beautiful setup, or that come from unexpected places. Even a well played breakout has elements of intuition and skill.
3. Teamwork – In combination with Speed and Creativity, Teamwork creates athletic beauty. Hockey is the ultimate team sport. You see it in the movement of the puck, in the rotation of the defense, in the line change. At the NHL level, it is difficult for a single player to dominate a game.
4. Violence – The perfect clean hit – shoulder to shoulder, shoulder to chest, hip to stomach – to separate the opponent from the puck, brings incredible energy to a team and to the arena.
5. The Perfect Shot – Top shelf, watching the water bottle explode. The bomb from the point off the inside of the post (love that sound). Under the crossbar from an impossible angle. Shorthanded on a breakaway, 5-hole.
6. The Players – Hockey is once again a player dominated sport. Unlike football, hockey is not scripted by coaches; there are very few set plays. Opportunities come from the flow of the game, the vision of the players, their strength and skill. Coaches and schemes came to prominence prior to the lockout, and nearly killed the game. The Neutral Zone Trap along with lax enforcement of interference rules nearly took the skill of the individual player out of hockey.
You get the point, I hope. The game today is as good as it has ever been, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be improved, nor will it stay great forever without attention. The NHL needs to act in the interest of hockey to keep what is best about the game, eliminate those things which creep in and threaten it, or no longer belong. Here are the changes I would like to see:
1. Get rid of fighting. No matter what Grapes says, fighting is not hockey. If the NHL wishes to regain its place as a mainstream sport south of the border, fighting has to go. The world has changed since Don Cherry last coached. It’s hypocritical for the NHL to crack down on blows to the head during game play while fighting (i.e., intentional repeated blows to the head) is condoned. A goon whose game sheet reads TOI 4:00, PIM 7:00 is simply taking ice time and/or roster space from a young player looking for an opportunity. Just like any other “intent to injure” penalty, fighting should be Match Penalty. The instigator rule should apply to the Match Penalty; it shouldn’t be a crime to defend yourself. If both players drop gloves together, both are gone.
2. If an illegal hit resulting in injury is ruled as having intent to injure, the penalized player should be suspended without pay as long as the injured player is out, or 1 year, whichever is less. There’s no place for the knee-on-knee hit, slew-footing, or hits from behind at the boards. This must apply to superstars as well as journeymen.
3. Get rid of the trapezoid. A goalie who can handle the puck is a valuable asset and will result in better defense and fewer goals. A goalie who can’t handle the puck is a liability and will result in more goals.
4. Go back to home whites. Today an Avs game is the Burgundy Unipron (or Smurfsuit) against white. Who cares who we’re playing, they all look the same (except the Dead Things in silly red pants). Opponents in full color make each game unique. Flexibility should be given for “third jerseys,” I guess.
5. Players entering the NHL next year must wear full face shields. The face of hockey has been scars and missing teeth for too long now. It’s become a caricature. Close calls on the eyes are far too frequent. And now that fighting is gone, no one will be complaining about eye-shields cutting hands. The NFL has required masks for more than 30 years. The NFL seems to have survived, as has their ability to market their players.
Is there too much contact with goalies right now? Yes, but it doesn’t require a rule change. Like after the lockout with Interference, proper application of current rules could bring an end to it. Similarly I think the trend of going after a player following a clean hard hit can be stopped by enforcing the Instigator penalty. My hope is that the NHL, with these changes, will be able to maintain the excitement of the game without staged goon-on-goon fights, and keep their best players healthier longer.