Hooray for the New Hockey:

As a few VC readers might have noticed, the National Hockey League is back. After a one year hiatus due to a labor dispute — the owners locked out the players — the NHL has resumed play with a salary cap and new rules to increase scoring. The end result has been quite a success. Games are very exciting under the new rules. Scoring has increased and it is more difficult for teams to sit on leads and run out the clock. Fans must like what they see as well because attendance is up at most arenas. I've already been to two games this year, and hope to attend many more.

On the down side, fewer games are on national television because ESPN has replaced hockey in its line up. Instead, games are broadcast nationally on the Outdoor Life Network. OLN is on fewer cable systems, is airing fewer games overall than used to be seen on ESPN and ESPN2, and (perhaps worst of all) does not do as good a job showing the games. In particular, the cameras zoom in too closely on live play making it difficult to see plays develop. Given that hockey is now a much more wide-open game, this is particularly unfortunate. At least the CBC still knows how to show a game.

UPDATE: At a reader's request, here is a summary of the rule changes that took effect this year. And here is Elisha Cuthbert's hockey blog, just because.

David Schraub (mail) (www):
It's very depressing that Hockey's comeback seems to be stalling, because I agree that the new rule changes have made for an extremely exciting game. I don't get OLN at college, but FSN broadcasts some of the local Wild games and they're a lot of fun. But my family tells me that they just can't get back into the rhythm of watching a game--even though they abstractly want to see the league succeed (of course, that might have something to do with our local team being the Caps).

I'm taking a friend to her first hockey game this month. Hopefully, we can slowly rebuild the ranks and ressurrect this great sport.
12.4.2005 3:11pm
TomFromMD (mail):
I haven't been to a game yet this season. In fact, I haven't even watched a game. Somehow, I just can't get into it after last year's mess. Maybe next year.
12.4.2005 3:17pm
scouser (mail):
As an admirer of well played defense regardless of the sport, I really take issue with the way interference, hooking, etc. is now being called. They've gone beyond simply opening up the ice to in large part nullifying the essential physicality of the game. Part of hockey's appeal is watching the skilled players succeed in a tough environment; we don't need the All Star game repeated 82 times a season but that seems where we're headed.
Also, I wish they would have put a No Bill Wirtz clause into the new labor agreement, but maybe that's just too local an issue.
12.4.2005 3:48pm
Cornellian (mail):
Would be nice to be able to get iPod videos of NHL games through iTunes. Anyone from the NHL reading this - please call Apple.
12.4.2005 4:06pm
SeniorD (mail):
I've been a hockey fan since the Sabres started their first season. While I certainly welcome the post-lockout return, I need to see how the rule changes affect the game. My initial response is to concur with scouser.

At least I don't have to watch Phil Esposito pitch a tent in front of our goalie.
12.4.2005 4:22pm
I hear that a fair number of players don't like the new rules, saying that they lead to WAY too many penalties.
12.4.2005 5:16pm
Jonathan M (mail) (www):
It must be bad being a hockey fan down in the US. Yes, CBC is fantastic, especially with their addition of Jim Hughson on the west coast. But SportsNet is really good. At least in Vancouver, where Jim broadcasts too. There ain't anything like Bob Cole though. It will be sad when he leaves.

The US ought to import a little Bob. Perhaps it would increase interest.
12.4.2005 5:49pm
Michael Dimino (mail) (www):
I fully agree with Jonathan's ode to Bob Cole. It was fantastic to listen to him, Harry Neale, Don Cherry, Ron MacLean, and "the Hockey Night in Canada crew" when I was growing up in Buffalo and could watch Leafs' games on CBLT.

I also agree that the new NHL is awful in its decision to go for NBA-style officating. It used to be fabulous to watch the third period of a game because penalties would not be called; now the game simply isn't fun. (I recognize that others have different judgments about the fun of watching penalty-filled games; perhaps one's preference is unable to be stated in terms of neutral principles.)

The difference in opinion seems to track one's love for pre-ESPN hockey. For people who liked real hockey the new changes are disgusting. But since Bettman took over, the focus has been on attracting the American who previously had not been a hockey fan. So fighting is discouraged, scoring is increased, etc. I wonder if the NHL is courting Harriet Miers-style problems in alienating its base.
12.4.2005 6:41pm
David Mader (mail) (www):
I have to disagree with those who dislike the penalty-calling in the new NHL. The hooking and stickwork of the pre-lockout league made games boring and frustrating to watch. I recognize that there are drawbacks - a player who beats the defense knows that he can go down at the slightest contact to draw a penalty - but the resultant excitement is well worth it, in my opinion. A two- or even three-goal lead can now be overcome - previously an impossibility - if the leading team gets sloppy and complacent.

Of course, I'm an Ottawa fan, so the chances that I'd criticize anything about the new league are pretty slim.
12.4.2005 8:26pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
At least Comcast internet subscribers can watch 2 games a day online. The quality is good and I at least get to see some Flyers games while I am studying.
12.4.2005 8:39pm
Mr. P:
The biggest problem is the lack of games in HD. No sport benefits more from HDTV than hockey.*
12.4.2005 9:30pm
Visitor Again:
I've supported Les Canadiens since I landed in Moantreal as an aimmigrant in 1952. The only way hockey will ever recover is by increasing the size of the ice surface to international standards. A big mistake when all those new arenas were built with no plans for accommodating this change. The trap ruined hockey in the Nineties to the point where I could barely stand to watch it. At least the crackdown on clutching and grabbing and the elimination of the red line are rendering that less effective.

I'm 62 and my girlfriend tells me I still talk about the Rocket (Maurice Richard) in my sleep.
12.4.2005 11:31pm
Edward Lee (www):
One of the problems I see is that forwards often are able to waltz into the offensive zone unimpeded. Defensemen are so afraid of being called for interference penalties if they hit an offensive player off a dump-and-chase that they are backing off the blue line. As a result it is too easy for offensive players to create good scoring chances.
12.4.2005 11:49pm
Brian G (mail) (www):

And how exactly is that a problem?
12.5.2005 2:33am
Pooh (www):
I've watched some games on OLN, and it's remarkable how much better the game flows then in past years. It's not just the emphasis on avoiding obstruction, but the new goalie rules as well. Apparently, stoppages are down almost 20% from two years ago, and the long periods of interupted play are the game at its best. It has a ways to go to equal what we saw at the olympics 3+ years ago (which was simply awesome), but it's on its way. Maybe.
12.5.2005 3:30am
U.Va. 1L (mail):
NHL? I'll stick with college hockey. Like college basketball, it's a lot more fun to watch.
12.5.2005 4:22am
Visitor Again:
And how exactly is that a problem?

Obviously there's a gulf between those who like bang 'em up hockey and those who like a free-flowing game that emphasizes skating, passing and artistry in general. Eddie Shore and Wild Bill Ezinicki vs. Howie Morenz and Henri Richard. If I have to choose, give me the last two.

But you could have the best of both worlds--both tough checking and relatively attractive free-flowing hockey--if you had a larger, international-size ice surface. On an NHL-size surface, tight checking and lots of physical contact mean there will be relatively little free-flowing hockey. A larger surface opens up the game, allowing the players more room to skate and pass their way through or around the defense no matter how rugged it is. I love watching hockey on the bigger surface. In the meantime, the new NHL rules are a definite improvement.
12.5.2005 5:32am
Pete Freans (mail):
The new rules have definitely opened up the game and most likely forced many veteran players to retire prematurely. I'm disappointed that goalies are now exiled to a trapezoid. I think when a goalie committed himself to play the puck, it was exciting to see if he would make a mistake and have the puck stripped away.

As for OLN, I refuse to give any more of my money to Comcast than they already have. Hopefully ESPN will resign when OLN's contract expires.
12.5.2005 7:58am
Joshua (mail):
OLN's minimalist NHL coverage strikes me almost as a throwback to the 1980s, when the USA Network was the NHL's cable home and sports coverage in general didn't come with all the bells and whistles we've become accustomed to since then. But, in fairness to OLN, keep in mind that they picked up the NHL contract on very short notice (only about two months before the start of the season), and so probably didn't have enough time to design or build an elaborate production. On the other hand, since their contract is only two years long, I doubt OLN will be very inclined to invest much money or effort into beefing up their coverage for next season.

And of course, in any event, televising an indoor sport like hockey on the Outdoor Life Network is kind of like televising poker tournaments on the Travel Channel. ;)
12.5.2005 10:42am
Dave S. (mail) (www):
I'm delighted to see hockey back and understand the league's interest in changing the new rules to attract more (American?) fans. In my view, the game is faster and more open - definitely positives. From the games I've seen, though, there is seemingly not as much hitting or fighting. In fact, some "tough guys" now find themseles out of a job.

A complaint I have with some television coverage is that certain aspects of the game are not highlighted or brought to the attention of the viewers. For example, a strong open-ice hit (say from Gautier) is usually not repeated during stoppages in play. Or, a long, accurate breakout pass (say from Niedermayer) or a beautiful deke (say from Kovalev). The focus should be on skill (which can manifest itself in a number of ways), even if the hit, pass, or move doesn't result in a goal. TV coverage should help educate viewers in this respect, so they can cheer and appreciate these other aspects of the game, not just when their team scores.

In any case, I highly recommend Comcast's hockey package, which includes a number of games (including those on "Hockey Night in Canada").

Speaking of CBC, I completely agree with the comments regarding their exceptional coverage. One of my greatest memories was meeting Dick Irvin during the intermission of a Caps-Canadiens game.

Go Habs Go!
12.5.2005 11:23am
B. B.:
I miss CBC coverage -- we had it in Ann Arbor, but no longer now that I am in Chicago. Much less hockey on TV for me, when you consider the Blackhawks refuse to televise home games.

I too would support a "No Bill Wirtz" rule. Similar to how college football is better all-around when the big names are good, or interest in baseball is higher when the Yankees or the Cubs or the Dodgers are good, hockey is better when the Original Six are in good shape. And the Blackhawks and Bruins are really pathetic right now. Wirtz ruined the team in the 90's. I can understand letting Hall of Fame goalie #1 go (Hasek) given their situation at that time, but letting Hall of Fame goalie #2 (Belfour) go, who was starting ahead of Hasek and was the reason you traded Hasek... And the last straw for me was trading Chicago native and hall of famer Chelios for basically a box of pucks, to the FREAKING RED WINGS. Yes he was old, but he was still the best defenseman they had, and you just can't trade your most popular player and really the only fan favorite left to your long-time archrival.

The new rules do make it more fun to watch though. And not surprisingly, the Sens and the Wings are still really good -- even their tough guys were skilled players already before the rule changes.
12.5.2005 11:42am
KeithK (mail):
I have no problem with them calling penalties according to the rulebook, which would penalize a lot of the stuff that players used to get away with. But the NHL has taken it to an extreme this year - even the most minimal contact is called. Watching the Sharks/Leafs game this weekend I saw a guy get called for interference when he hit a guy who had just dumped the puck into the zone. As I understand the rule you can always hit the puck carrier and a player is considered to be the puck carrier until someone else takes possesion. Calling a game like that is ridiculous.

Re: North American vs. International ice sizes. It's not going to happen. Larger ice would mean massive renovation of existing facilities and fewer seats. Personally I like the smaller rink size so I'm happy.

UVA 1L has it right - college hockey is a better show anyway (and there are no work stoppages!) Go Red!
12.5.2005 1:40pm
Edward Lee (www):
And how exactly is that a problem?

Well, this is a question of personal values, but I prefer that the rules require offensive players exert actual talent and effort to get a good scoring chance — outskating a defender, stickhandling past a defender, making a good pass to a streaking teammate, etc. As it is, on many offensive rushes the puck carrier can skate into the high slot area and fire off a good shot uncontested, because the rules force the defensemen to back off.
12.5.2005 2:13pm
Dave S. (mail) (www):
On the subject of rule changes, today's edition of the Montreal Gazette has an interesting article on the use of visors, a topic Don Cherry has talked about numerous times on the "Coach's Corner." The article quotes Habs assistant captain Craig Rivet as saying that some players do not use visors because of image ("If you want the truth, it's the macho thing"), while Alex Kovalev claims he doesn't wear one because of comfort reasons.

It seems as though visors may be treated like helmets were - mandatory for incoming players and optional for current players. I was wondering what the hockey fans of VC thought about visors: let the players decide individually? let the players decide with a league-wide vote? players are foolish for not wearing visors (esp. in light of the injuries to Berard and Sundin)? a genuinely "tough" player should not wear a visor?
12.5.2005 2:37pm
Dave S.
I vote for "players are foolish for not wearing visors," but think they ought to do as they please. Equipment can be a pretty personal thing. Plus I'll always be a Craig MacTavish fan, who, I like to think, didn't wear a cup either.
12.5.2005 4:51pm
Cory Olson (mail):
Exactly what prompted this post? I mean, hockey has been back for a month.

Have you heard about the Lindbergh baby?

Glad you brought attention to the much improved league though.
12.5.2005 6:03pm
jgshapiro (mail):
Why don't they just adopt the international (i.e., Olympic) rules? Less fighting, more passing, etc.

I've never been a big hockey fan, but I saw quite a few games at the SLC Olympics in 2002 and was favorably impressed. Then I went to watch a handful of NHL games and remembered that Olympic hockey and NHL hockey are two different animals, unfortunately.

BTW, I wasn't really paying attention, but who won the player-owner standoff that killed hockey for a year? Seems like the owners won handily from a cursory glance (e.g., the salary cap), but I might be missing something.
12.7.2005 4:01am