For argument’s sake, let’s suppose the NHL comes to its collective senses and decides to play games this season. Millions of hockey fans will be relieved and thrilled to have some semblance of normalcy back to their sports-watching routine – and as players who were around for the 48-game season in 1994 will tell you, the games that were played took on more importance because there were fewer of them.
But while the shortened schedule will magnify the value of each game, period and shift, it also will bring issues that still plague the NHL into sharper focus.
For instance, given that each year’s NHL standings are now closer than a family of inbred hillbillies, each point a team earns – and the manner in which they earn it – will matter this (theoretical) season more than any before it. That means the so-called “loser point” will stand out like Phil Kessel in The Boys Choir of Harlem and that every shootout result will resonate deep in the minds and memories of fans across the league, possibly for years to come. The stink of a strange event – a bad goal allowed in the shootout, or a flubbed shot – will linger on the players and teams involved in a way it hasn’t since the gimmick was implemented in 2005.
But other issues will go under the microscope in a shortened season as well – and arguably the biggest will be the re-focusing on the obstruction standard. League management, coaches, GMs, players and officials all are aware of the NHL’s intent to clean up the sliding standard – to the point coaches are aware that special teams will play a more significant role in deciding games – but when there are fewer games to play, each obstruction call (or non-call) could have a major impact on a team’s fortunes. Consequently, the adjustment period to the re-emphasized standard, not only for players, but for the officials themselves, carries with it far higher stakes than normal.
Then there’s the matter of the NHL’s supplemental discipline program. Last season there was more interest than ever in the punitive measures taken by chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, but each time he chooses to suspend or not suspend over the course of a 48-game campaign, he’ll face greater amounts of scrutiny and emotion from fans, media and self-interested team officials. A decision to remove a player for even a few games could be the difference between that player’s team making or missing the playoffs.
Finally, there is the most serious hockey issue of them all: player safety. With concussion awareness and concern at an all-time high, the strategies the league takes in grappling with a growing problem will be scrutinized the way People Magazine scrutinizes the stomachs of Hollywood starlets for pregnancy watches. In addition, the associated concern of lack of self-reporting on the part of concussed athletes will also grow. If an NHLer sees that his teammates only have a couple of games in which to make up post-season ground, will he be more or less likely to step up and be honest about his health? Many hockey people would expect the answer to be “less likely.” Obviously, that’s a problem that could have incredibly damaging ramifications to individuals and the franchises that employ them.
Don’t get me wrong – given the alternative between a truncated season and no season at all, I’d choose the first option. But let’s not pretend the relief of having NHL hockey again will overshadow the concerns people have with the product. The reality is, compacting the campaign will only underscore them.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.