- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

During a recent Washington Capitals game at MCI Center, two friends got up to buy a beer about five minutes into the second period of a 1-0 game. They chatted about this and that, had virtually no wait for their brews and slowly walked back to their seats.

The game clock showed about seven minutes had elapsed while they were gone, yet nothing had happened. The score was the same, the shot counters were almost the same and the players’ uniforms appeared as if they had just come from the cleaners.

That’s the problem the NHL faces today: Nothing is happening.

“The fastest team sport in the world,” as retired Caps play-by-play man Ron Weber called it at the start of every broadcast, has slowed to a crawl. And the fans, who ultimately pay the bills, don’t like it.

They don’t like the price they’re being asked to pay for the privilege of watching a watered-down, slow-motion version of what they enjoyed a decade ago.

Need proof? Look around the next time you’re at a game — if you still go.

There’s plenty of room to stretch out, not much of a worry about people crawling over you. And if you’re home watching on TV, check out those wide-angle shots that show the stands half full.

In short, hockey is in trouble.

It has looming labor problems that could put the entire NHL on ice for a season or more, the players locked out by owners who are now asking the union for help in policing themselves. It is a league pricing itself out of existence with outlandish payrolls that more and more fans are refusing to fund.

It is a league where offense has become a lost art, overtaken by defensive strategies necessitated by a distinct lack of talent, offensive and defensive.

The problems facing the league and those associated with it:

THE GAME: It stinks. Each ticket should come with NoDoz. In many cases, but not all, the game has became an exercise in watching two teams parry between the hash marks, each swallowed by the other’s strangulation defense through the middle of the rink.

There have been recent instances at MCI Center where a single recordable shot on goal has elicited cheers from the meager crowd.

The defense is known as the neutral-zone trap, a scheme perfected in Montreal 20-odd years ago when the Flying Frenchmen suddenly became average and came from locales other than Quebec. It was a desperation move forced by a lack of talent; there were not enough quick forwards to burn opposing defensemen and not enough hulking defenders to halt opposing forwards. The trap was invented and perfected, forcing the opposition into a rapidly tightening tunnel that usually resulted in a turnover.

Management loved it. Not only was it successful, it reduced the payroll. Megastars with big paychecks were no longer needed; average players who could follow orders fit in quite nicely. Only the players and fans hated it.

Fans in North America love offense, the more the better.

A study done this season shows scoring is down again, from 5.4 goals a game last season to 5.1. Another study using NHL figures shows attendance is flat, growing 0.1 percent a year. Those two figures go hand in hand, which should raise a huge red flag for league officials.

The fix: Outlaw the trap, sort of what the NBA does to certain defenses. Widen the blue lines so players don’t have to tip-toe along a thread of paint or go offside, stopping and slowing the game. Make goalies wear equipment that doesn’t imitate the outfit worn by the Michelin Man.

THE TALENT: Where is it? There was plenty to go around in 1966, when the NHL doubled the size of the Original Six. However, it soon became obvious that the bottom of the barrel was being scraped.

Scouts first scoured the United States, then northern Europe and finally Eastern Europe after the Iron Curtain fell.

One look at virtually any roster today shows players who could not have made an NHL roster 10 years ago. Yet the average salary at the end of last season was $1.79million and scouts were still looking for new sources of talent.

The fix: Trim the number of teams to a realistic number, cutting by more than 20 the number of players needed. If that doesn’t work, cut the number of players per team. For instance, play 4-on-4 hockey, as is done in overtime, instead of the 5-on-5 variety usually employed.

LABOR: The collective bargaining agreement expires in September. There is only one issue, a salary cap of some kind to force fiscal responsibility on all parties. The league is for the cap; the union says there will never be a hard cap.

The problem here is that the union has no way to accurately check a team’s books, and trust doesn’t exist between the parties. The two sides can’t agree on anything, so there is little hope for a quick resolution if there actually is a lockout.

Both sides are using scare tactics, but this much is generally beyond debate: When play resumes (assuming there is a lockout), the league will be smaller than its current 30 teams.

Optimists put the figure at 26 clubs. Others say 24 is a more realistic number, with the Sunbelt franchises (Tampa Bay and/or Florida, Carolina, Nashville and Atlanta) wiped out in addition to Phoenix and at least one Canadian team.

The fix: Lock NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and union president Bob Goodenow in a small room with nothing to listen to but each other and Britney Spears CDs. A quick resolution to the dispute is guaranteed.

TICKET PRICES: Listen to this from Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs: “We recognize we’ve got a problem. I hope the commissioner in the next [collective bargaining agreement] is able to reach an agreement that allows us to stabilize the ticket prices and perhaps even lower them, because I think we are chasing away a lot of our ticket base.”

The fix: If a salary cap is agreed on, mandate that a reduction in ticket prices must follow. A formula could be worked out on a percentage basis, keeping fans out of the poorhouse and owners in the black.


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