Posted: Wednesday July 13, 2005 8:49PM; Updated: Thursday July 14, 2005 1:43AM
But a return to a robust product is hardly assured. The wounds from the 1994 baseball strike lingered at least four years. While the hardy coterie of hockey fans, as blindingly loyal in their way as NASCAR fans are in theirs, might drag themselves back to the arenas more quickly, there is no guarantee. The thing that brought baseball fans back to the park was offense, specifically home runs in that synthetically muscular summer of 1998. The template has been established. The same kind of thing could kickstart the NHL, which is what makes the impending rule changes -- scheduled to be announced next Thursday after both sides ratify the agreement -- so critical.
NHL Senior Vice-President Colin Campbell has been working for months to reshape the game, and it is liable to come back with bells such as the removal of the red line and whistles such as a shootout to forever end the infamous NHL tie. The goalie pads certainly will shrink to 11 inches, which is hardly enough, and goalie gloves and sweaters will be smaller. But without a commitment to a calling the rules against obstruction and preventing the NHL from degenerating into rodeo -- goals per game have dipped to near historic lows but muggings are at all-time highs -- the trumpeting of change is premature. After at least five crackdowns on obstruction in the past decade, fans should view the NHL's coming pledge of A Whole New Game with circumspection.
Indeed, Bettman's greatest failure as commissioner is the deteriorating of the on-ice product on his watch. A new CBA will mean precious little if the NHL does not go far enough in reinventing itself, to allow its star players to showcase their skills. One veteran skill player suggested the only good thing about his season off is that the hiatus did allow the NHL a chance to return with a new approach, something he doubts could have occurred if the league were forced to change on the fly.
Considering ticket prices won't be coming down in a significant way, this is the only good news for fans.