With the holiday season fast approaching, I'm trying as hard as ever to demonstrate goodwill toward my fellow men. But the fellows who own and run the NHL are making that task very, very difficult. In fact, the league's combination of subtle regressions and absence of progressions is turning me green with grinchiness.
First, let's get all the qualifications out of the way. There is no question Gary Bettman, Colin Campbell, Stephen Walkom and other league personnel should be commended for taking structural risks with the game, many of which haven't endeared league brass to some hockey fans.
There also is no question the shootout, competition committee and rule changes represent quantum leaps forward for an organization whose ultra-conservative nature played a large role in self-sabotaging it out of the Big Four sports category. And few will argue the decision to promote individual players instead of bloodless, faceless logos was an improper one.
But on and off the ice, the honeymoon phase is over. The same diddling and dawdling that hamstrung the NHL in its pre-lockout days is back Â– and like the crazy old girlfriend you thought you were rid of, its return makes me want to run in the opposite direction with a bottle of moonshine in one hand and one of those Men In Black memory-eraser gadgets in the other.
Start with the crackdown on obstruction. In case you haven't noticed, the cracking is down. Meanwhile, ugly, entertainment-starved games become more prevalent by the day.
Â“The (officiating) standard has moved,Â” Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice told the Toronto Star this week. Â“There's a lot more allowed than there was three, four weeks agoÂ…It just seems there's more free hand stuff available now Â– where, before, as soon as the free hand came off (the stick), they were looking.Â”
In fairness, I don't doubt Walkom et al are sincerely interested in maintaining the level of vigilance they established in 2005-06. But they cannot in good conscience claim this season's games are nearly as enjoyable for fans, players and coaches Â– at least, those who understand what the real name of this high-priced game is.
Denying what most of us can see for ourselves would put the deniers on par with Bettman, whose recent soft-shoe routine about sagging NHL attendance deserved a primetime slot on Comedy Central.
Did you know, for instance, that eight teams haven't been able to average even 15,000 fans a game this year? That's nearly one-third of the teams in what everyone agrees is a gate-driven league.
Not to worry, sayeth the commissioner, because revenues are up! Of course, they're up because ticket prices received a solid jacking in the markets where fans don't stay home in droves Â– but hey, they're up!
Newsflash, fellas: revenues have been growing just about every year the league has been in existence. The short-term focus that was married to those increasing dollars was what landed owners in lockout formation in the first place. And it's happening all over again.
However, the straw that broke the camel's back for me was the Board of Governors' recent decision to leave the current unbalanced schedule as is. Nineteen teams wanted to balance it, but because they couldn't get that all-important two-thirds majority, the shoddy status quo remains.
Funny, when the goal at hand concerned lining their pockets with 46 per cent of league revenues, NHL owners displayed more solidarity than underpaid factory workers in Argentina. But now that fans' money is flowing into the Â“properÂ” pockets, they've returned to their customary menu of self-interest a la carte with a side dish of myopia.
If the owners can't be convinced that they're still all in this together, that they're still only as prosperous as their weakest franchise, that U.S. media coverage and TV ratings are headed for (if not already in) the crapper, then there is a failure of leadership at the highest levels.
You can't throw around phrases such as Â“for the good of the gameÂ” only when it suits your needs. Biting the bullet and losing an entire season was a bitter pill for the owners, but there are more pills they must ingest if the league is to return to prominence.
And if they don't care to swallow those pills, there's another method I've heard of that works just as well.
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