Like a lot of other people, I rolled my eyes at some of the potential rule changes that were given a test run at the NHL’s research and development camp last week. The same goes for some of the topics that will be dissected at the World Hockey Summit in Toronto that begins Monday.
For example, I can’t understand why so-called hockey people seem so maniacally obsessed with changing the rules to minimize serious collisions and injuries when it comes to icing, while conveniently ignoring the fact that far more players are hurt in hockey fights. Chasing down a loose puck that could lead to a legitimate scoring chance and continue the flow of play is fully within the context of the game and there are bound to be times when full-impact collisions and accidents are going to occur. Hockey fights are both outside the rulebook and the context of the game and have almost no effect on the outcome. (Unless, of course, you subscribe to the theory that one team’s knuckledragger beating up the other team’s knuckledragger somehow can change the momentum of the game.)
Those same hockey people who are so quick to question the manliness of those who oppose hockey fights now think the answer to avoiding these infrequent, but sometimes very serious, collisions is to avoid them entirely by either having a hybrid icing rule or instituting no-touch icing.
Boy, that’s really tough. Why not throw skirts on them and have them play 4-on-4 ringette?
But that wasn’t all. It simply boggled the mind that the NHL had Dave King and Ken Hitchcock running a camp that featured the top prospects for the 2011 NHL draft and whose mandate was “challenging the prospects with strategies which emphasize offensive play and creating scoring chances,” according to the news release put out by the NHL prior to the event.
What?! You’re holding a camp that challenges the best young players in the world to create scoring chances and you have them being directed by King and Hitchcock? Now if you wanted them to play a mind-numbingly boring game that ends 0-0 and is attended by nobody, King is your man. As for Hitchcock, his junior teams were some of the most prolific offensive machines of all-time, but that was a long time ago, long before he became a prophet for defense over offense.
As far as the World Hockey Summit, it’s a case of an event that has so much potential it probably won’t deliver much of it. Let’s take women’s hockey, for example. It is in real danger of Olympic extinction because of the fact the playing surface is tilted so ridiculously in favor of the Canadians and Americans, but the nations that are bringing the game down on the world level are nowhere to be seen at the summit.
Piling on when it comes to the competitive disparity in women’s hockey is a rather popular trend these days, but people conveniently forget it was precisely that way – in fact it was worse – in the men’s game until the Soviet Union started taking the sport seriously in the 1950s.
The fact is, women’s hockey isn’t going to be strengthened by reshuffling the homegrown talent with a Canadian Women’s League draft in which no more than a half-dozen European players are selected. It is only going to be done when the women’s hockey organizers open the domestic game up to a greater number of players from other countries and expose the best players in Europe to competition here. It will take money and sacrifice and the realization that you might be helping your opponents beat you in the future, but it must be done. And the women’s game will only flourish once the NHL adopts the WNBA model, which gave women’s basketball a huge boost by the NBA absorbing the start-up costs of the professional league and continues to underwrite the losses, even those of the privately-owned franchises. For a league that generates more than $2 billion in revenues each year, that’s not too much to ask.
But that doesn’t mean the R&D camp and the World Hockey Summit are a waste of time – far from it. Contrary to popular belief, the NHL is not constantly tinkering with its rules, at least not any more than most other leagues. The NFL makes tweaks to its rules almost every year and it is the most successful professional sports league in the world.
And just because the league is trying out new and sometimes radical concepts, doesn’t mean it will necessarily implement them. What leading corporation doesn’t have an ongoing R&D program? Even if your product is the best in the world, as is the case with the NHL, you can bet the companies that aim to keep it that way are constantly testing potentially better ways of doing things.
The same goes for the summit. It may not result in anything tangible this time around, but when you get that many hockey minds in the same room, there’s bound to be some meaningful dialogue. Who knows, it might come up at the lobby bar over a few cocktails instead of in a formal setting, but that’s often how the best ideas get their start.
So, even though some of it is pointless and not everyone is going to agree, the best thing hockey can do is keep testing and talking.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.