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Screen Shots: Putting an end to the pointless pre-season

Scott Walker of the Carolina Hurricanes celebrates with teammates after scoring against Manny Legace. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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Scott Walker of the Carolina Hurricanes celebrates with teammates after scoring against Manny Legace. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

For the tally-challenged, here’s what the 2009-10 NHL pre-season has amounted to: 581 goals. Five shutouts. Three suspensions. And a handful of concussions.

And for what?

For 10 tons of pfffft and 60 schlubs a-shrugging. For nothing.

That’s what the pre-season is good for.

The NHL doesn’t even bother to post pre-season individual statistics on the league’s website, for (hockey) gods’ sake – though they do post leaders of the main categories. Because to the league, the only stats that truly count prior to the regular season and playoffs are the number of dollars pre-season games pull into team tills.

Now, some people – other than NHL team accountants – also believe the pre-season has value. They’re correct, but only when it comes to two very narrow groups: prospective NHLers at the beginning of their careers trying to earn a job and veteran NHLers at the end of their careers trying to hold onto their jobs.

For almost everybody else involved, the entire exercise is one either of feigned intensity or fanatical nitpicking.

And, unfortunately, the prolonged ruse that is the pre-season seems to be metastasizing.

Did you know the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks played nine pre-season games last month? Yes, that’s “nine” – not the “nein” that would be far more humane in this case – and yes, nine pre-season games in a single month (let alone a calendar year) should be a crime punishable if not by lengthy prison term, then certainly by no less than a decade of mandatory prison dancing participation.

Look what that type of irresponsible ownership behavior has done to poor Leafs fans: after just one amazing save in a pre-season game, rookie Jonas Gustavsson is being talked about with the same hushed reverence normally reserved for unscheduled Janet Jackson upper anatomy disclosures and Johnny Bower appearances.

Contrast that money-grubbing approach to the one undertaken by the Carolina Hurricanes.

As THN senior writer Ken Campbell chronicled, the Canes played just four pre-season games this fall – and that’s their idea.

“We’re hoping it will keep our players more rested and healthier,” Rutherford told THN.com. “I thought about this for a while and we’ll probably have a few guys on Olympic teams. Our veteran players really like it.”

Rutherford (and everybody else in hockey) is familiar with the many reasons why there ought to be a drastic reduction in pre-season games – for example, the prime physical condition players keep themselves in all year long; and the need to claw back the regular season schedule in order to prevent us from watching Stanley Cup final games a day or two before unrestricted free agency begins in July – so it’s no surprise the guys on his roster were elated to see their GM ostensibly call b.s. on the league’s fluff fetish.

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But those facts won’t be enough to convince the NHL to do the right thing and do away with pre-season games altogether. They’ll fall back on other arguments, such as “pre-season hockey allows us to take the game to non-NHL cities,” to keep the sideshow running.

That particular argument has some merit, yet isn’t impossible to refute or address. I mean, I’m all for bringing NHL hockey to cities that don’t get to regularly see games, but that can be done in the regular season, can’t it? At least that way the people in those non-NHL cities would get to watch genuine competition – and, given the attendance in some of the league’s markets, such a plan might be extremely beneficial to certain franchises’ bottom lines.

Besides, after the summer-long debacle in Phoenix, I think the NHL owes it to the likes of Winnipeg and Quebec City to give each of those towns their own version of a “Winter Classic” game every season until they both have full-time franchises in their midst once again.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for the league to completely abolish pre-season games. However, I am praying that, one day, all 30 NHL teams will follow the Hurricanes’ lead and limit their tune-up time to a maximum of four games.

Spending the equivalent of close to five percent of the regular season on games that few will remember is bad enough.

But it’s definitely preferable to the ponderous, piled-on, “I can-believe-it’s-not-NHL-hockey!” slop some organizations are foisting upon unsuspecting fans.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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