Commentary: NHL should take cues from college

By J. Ryan Casey
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, February 22, 2005

So, after Friday's whirlwind of events, it was possible to have an abbreviated season in the No Hockey League, but even if things were to work out after a 6 1/2-hour meeting Saturday (which it didn't), the league would still have been far from fixing its problems.

The league was already struggling to attract fans pre-lockout, and now they have to deal with the issue of re-attracting those who have vowed never to return.

Why can't the NHL attract fans? Pure and simple: Over the past few years, scoring has dwindled. The average hockey fan doesn't know all the rules, and goes to watch two things: scoring and fighting.

Goalies' equipment grew bigger and bigger in the late '90s, making scoring a scarcity. Finally Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, woke up and decided to do something about it. He put in place a rule which was supposed to restrict the sizes of the goalies equipment, and like all new rules, it worked, but only for a few seasons. Once again, goalies are miraculously enlarging, taking up more of the net, taking goals off the scoreboard and taking fans out of the seats.

What can they do to correct the problem? Look to the places with the most wide-open style of play: Europe and colleges. The game in Europe flows like water - it's truly a beautiful sight for any hockey fan to see: Olympic-style hockey all season long. Open ice. That means no hacking, no obstruction and most importantly, more scoring. There is a reason why 381 players had no problem going to Europe during the lockout: It's hockey at its purest.

Next, we can look at college hockey, and while it still has a very physical, North American-type of feel to it, the scoring is up in comparison to the NHL.

Take our hometown Arizona Icecats, and their American Collegiate Hockey Association, for example. The first thing that stands out? Two-line passing is allowed. For the average fan, the two-line passing rule was originally put in place so players wouldn't hang out by the opposing team's blue line and cherry-pick.

It negates long break-out passes, something that truly takes great skill to do, as it means threading the puck through four or five defenders to hit the streaking teammate. Basically, it boils down to more offensive chances and a very fast-paced, offensive style of hockey.

The second rule the ACHA has in place is the so-called "touch-up offsides rule."

In hockey, no player of the attacking team may cross the opponent's blue-line before the puck does. Doing so results in a stoppage of play and a face-off. In the ACHA, players are allowed to go offside, come back to the blue line, "touch-up" and re-enter the play. It's analogous to football, with a defensive lineman being in the neutral zone during the snap, returning back out of the neutral zone during the play and then reengaging the ball.

What do these styles of play have in common? The two rules make for a more exciting style of play. If leagues such as Europe's Swedish Elite League and the Icecats' ACHA can utilize these rules, then why can't the NHL? Imagine the greatest players in the world playing a wide-open hockey game, in which scoring is at its finest.

While the NHL should have taken the initiative by actually having a season (imagine that), if they want the fans to come back, the league needs to be more exciting.

Good news may yet be on the horizon (once the league resumes operation): Traditionally, the NHL has tried out all new rules in the AHL and if they are successful, they get passed onto the NHL. This year, the NHL is having the AHL try a new rule in which the red line is not used to call two-line passing, and if it is successful, it will be utilized in the NHL whenever the next season may be.

A new Gretzky?

The other major problem facing the NHL, as far as attracting the average fan, is the lack of a major Wayne Gretzky-type star. Ever since his retirement in 1999, the league has searched high and low for a replacement, a la the post-Michael Jordan NBA. Yes, the league still has Pittsburgh Penguins player-owner Mario Lemieux, but he will only play for another season or two (if at all). So then, what next? Or better yet, who's next?

What about up-and-coming Atlanta Thrashers star Dany Heatley? During the 2002-03 season, as a 20-year-old rookie, Heatley was one of 24 players selected to participate in the "YoungStars" game, which precedes the annual All-Star game. After scoring one goal and two assists in that game, Heatley was selected to the All-Star game a year later, in 2003. Not only was he selected, but Heatley was also named MVP, as he tied the NHL All-Star record for goals with four. Needless to say, the kid had a bright future.

But, alas, something went wrong. In September of 2003, Heatley drove his Ferrari into at pillar at 80 mph, killing teammate Dan Snyder. Even though he returned to score 25 points in 31 games, Heatley was emotionally devastated, and he also tore many ligaments in his right knee.

So who can the NHL look to next?

Meet 17-year-old Sydney Crosby, who in two years in Quebec's Major-Junior Hockey League has amassed 209 points in only 94 games, a staggering 2.22 points per game. That figure ranks fourth all-time when compared to other former prospects. Who ranks ahead of him? A guy named Lemieux and last year's Conn Smythe Trophy-winner Brad Richards. Wayne Gretzky himself has said that if anyone will be able to break his records, it will be Crosby.

So does the NHL have a bright future? Only if they do in fact get this labor situation resolved before the 2005-06 campaign and tweak some rules to get more fans in the seats. But there is a dark underlying story to the cancellation of this season: no season, no draft. That means Sydney Crosby cannot be drafted until the summer of 2006, something many executives are working hard to prevent.

If the two sides are able to come together before June, enabling Crosby to be drafted, it could provide a bit of sunlight in an otherwise rainy NHL season.