SUN Hockey Pool

NHL needs radical change

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:28 AM ET

Harry Neale, in the kind of moment only he seems capable of, once described the frustrations of a young player this way:

"He can't play better if he doesn't play more," Neale said, "and he can't play more if he doesn't play better."

It is in that strange vacuum that hockey finds itself now in this season without NHL games. It is not playing and yet it is trying to fix its problems. It can't get better if it doesn't play more and it can't play more if it doesn't play at all.

So instead we debate. They debate. Everyone debates. Damn, it gets annoying after a while.

And the real problem -- putting the despicable labour nonsense aside -- may be just like the dilemma Neale eloquently outlined in the young player. The difficulty of fixing hockey, in making it more fan-friendly, in changing the game from defence to offence is this: To accomplish what needs to be truly accomplished, the game as we know it has to be blown up.

And to tinker with this rule change or that rule change -- as is constantly being discussed -- will do little to solve the big-picture problems with the NHL game.

This week it is larger nets. Last week it was shootouts. The week before, the icing rules. The week before that, the red line. The week before that, tag-up offsides. Three years ago, obstruction.

Name a day, a week, a month and the talks go on and the game never seems to change.

It doesn't change because it can't change. This is a Pandora's Box. The more you look at it in detail, the more problems you find.

And as hockey has diminished as an entertainment product, three factors inexplicably have altered the game for the worse -- and in at least two of those cases, nothing can be done to legislate against it.

Three years ago, after he retired as coach of the Detroit Red Wings, I asked Scotty Bowman what he thought about the NHL game and his answer was telling. "The better coaching has become, the worse the game has become."

So how now do you legislate against quality coaching? And how now do you ask coaches, who are hired and fired by their records, to dispense with defensive systems that have kept them respectable and employed?

If you can't legislate against defensive hockey, how do you open up the game?

The better coaching has become, the shorter the players' shifts have become. It speeds up the game and ironically slows down the opportunities.

At precisely the time of the coaching explosion in hockey, goaltending changed forever. Never mind the size of equipment: That can be controlled by the league to a point, although almost every goalie is aware of how to cheat within reason.

BUTTERFLY STYLE EFFICIENT

Coaching played a part here again in making hockey a lesser game to watch. The butterfly style of goaltending -- now taught to virtually every goalie in the game -- is the most efficient approach to stopping the puck.

It is no coincidence that as more goalies began to butterfly, with larger equipment, fewer goals were being scored.

Which is why the NHL is now looking at bastardizing its game -- tampering with its own history and records -- by increasing the size of the nets. Because even if it shrinks goalie pads and gloves, the athletic style of the new goalies still makes scoring next to impossible.

But what choice does hockey have?

It can play, as it always has, with the tinkering of a rule here, a little movement there, but nothing really changes in the big picture. The game essentially drones on.

Only radical change can open up the NHL game again.

And don't bet on that happening. These have never been radical thinkers.


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