Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The grades are in...
The NHL's mid-season report card

Mr. Lee from Red and Black Hockey has asked for hockey blogdom to hand out mid-season report cards, and since I don’t follow one particular team, I’m going to tackle the league in general. It’ll be just like heading back to high school, with eight core subjects and a chance to skip class as you please.

Math (the numbers) —— B-
Goal scoring is up 26 per cent, which according to most is a good thing. Ties have been eliminated, which, also according to most, is a good thing. 12 teams are on pace for 100 points this season, thereby obliterating the standard of the century mark as that of a top club.

League-wide attendance is up 3.4 per cent, something that I know is tied to an attendance directive that came from up top, one that was based on foisting tickets on anyone who would take them in the markets that would be most harmed after the nuclear winter the NHL is coming out of.

The Canadian markets are more than holding up their end of things attendance-wise, filling their six buildings to capacity or above in every city aside from Edmonton. On the flipside, there are markets that are performing well in the standings but falling short at the gate. With one of the best records to this point, the Nashville Predators should be averaging far more butts in the seats than 13,982. A handful of teams are still precariously close to relocating in the next two or three seasons.

The league set an extremely low projected revenue total of $1.9-billion, one that reports in December said the NHL was set to exceed. Anything short of 2003-04 revenues, however, should be considered a step back for the league, despite the spin.

Science (the officiating) —— C
The officials run under the science heading as somewhat of a laugher. In trying to convert the job of an NHL referee into that of an unthinking robo-ref, a being who calls each infraction no matter what the circumstance, it has taken something away from the flow of a large portion of NHL games.

Want to tighten up on how games are called? That’s fine. Just don’t attempt to graft the principles of an exact science onto a field that has always been anything but.

English (the media) —— C+
Granted, it’s a tough category for myself to weigh in on, but as NHL coverage is not my domain (aside from this little corner), I feel reasonably comfortable in doing so. To this point, there has been little in the way of groundbreaking coverage of hockey’s return — few features that have captivated me, few portraits of the ‘changed’ game that have gone beyond the glossy surface and few critical looks at what’s not working through 40 or so games.

There has been far too much ‘oh goody, it’s back’ sentiment from everyone — the league, the fans and, yes, in the media coverage — and that’s not ultimately going to benefit anyone, other than those behind the business aspects of the game. There are problems with Gary Bettman’s ‘new’ NHL, ones that will surely be much more on display when the postseason begins. Just as people were willing to live with the absurd crease rule for two years because they love the game, too many have remained silent as the warts of an impossible-to-enforce zero tolerance system define this regular season.

Yes, there’s a lot to be happy with this season, but that can’t mean the awful aspects of many games should be forgotten.

History (maintaining tradition) —— C+
Traditionalists took a hit this year with the implementation of the shootout and the removal of the centre-ice red line, but it certainly could have been worse considering bigger nets received a long look in the summer.

Social Studies (public relations) —— C
As Eric McErlain pointed out last week, the NHL has really dropped the ball on getting information on the league’s new salary cap out to its fans. It’s an inexcusable oversight (if that’s what it can be called) that team-by-team salary data is only available to team and media sources in the inaugural season of the new system.

Of course, the measure isn’t an oversight at all and follows along the same reasoning as to why the full text of the CBA has yet to be made widely available. The league is treating its fan base as a herd of sheep — a braying, unintelligent mass of ticket buyers that are unable to comprehend the more complicated workings of the league’s new system.

The league has said it wants to keep the emphasis on the on-ice play, but considering an entire season was lost to address the business aspects of the game, that’s inexcusable.

Physical Education (athleticism) —— B+
I do think some of the tweaks to the game have allowed players to showcase some of their talents, and the infusion of youth the NHL has received from the likes of Sid Crosby and Sasha Ovechkin have really paid dividends on highlight reels.

I like, in particular, what we’ve seen from goaltenders playing with smaller equipment, as those with genuine talents are staying on top as others struggle to even stay in the league.

Art (presentation) —— C
Halfway through the season, OLN’s NHL broadcasts are still some of the worst-looking hockey broadcasts I’ve seen in a lifetime of watching hockey. It’s bush league and it’s not acceptable.

Sticking with the theme of television coverage, the trend of Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver to move more games to the pay-per-view circuit is also unfortunate. One can see, in the not-so-distant future, a time when all Maple Leafs games — aside from Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts — will be shown on the specialty channel Leafs TV. As average fans have been priced out of the rink, soon, in this city at least, will they be unable to watch all games on television.

Foreign Languages (European influence) —— B+
The integration of North American and European players has become so accepted that it scantly registers any more, but for those who didn’t notice, my picks for the Hart, Norris, Vezina and Calder trophies were all from across the pond. This, my friends, has never happened.

In summation
That there is a solid 2.5 grade-point average, putting the league in solid graduating territory but without the hassles of talking to the guidance counselor about life after high school. Given the NHL’s newfound obsession with stick fouls, perhaps a trade is in order — say, woodworking?



At 10:40 a.m., January 11, 2006, Blogger Jeff J said...

"One can see, in the not-so-distant future, a time when all Maple Leafs games — aside from Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts — will be shown on the specialty channel Leafs TV.

Yikes. And I thought Bill Wirtz was shortsighted. If MLSE pulls this stunt, the NHL is taking another step down the road to irrelevence. Just look at pro boxing over the last 20 years.

Leaf fans may be hardcore enough to make it a lucrative option now, but what about 20 years from now?

At 3:11 p.m., January 11, 2006, Blogger ninja said...

Mr.M, that was refreshing. Thanks for that. Here's hoping you could maintain such a candid voice if given a mainstream stage.


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