The NHL entered the 21st century fresh off a seemingly manic round of expansions and relocations during the 1990s; the league’s growing footprint focused south of the 49th parallel and below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Off-ice changes were the hallmark of the 1990s. On-ice changes, not so much. The instigator rule? Minor at best. The in-the-crease rule? Proven to be faulty. Video review? Well worth it, but hardly affects in-game action. The ‘loser point’ (originating in 1999-00)? The bane of many fans’ existences.
Those were the ’90s. During the early part of the ‘aughts,’ the two-referee system was put in place, as were the hurry-up faceoff and line change rules. Again, hardly tangible alterations to the way the game was played. In fact, you had to go all the way back to 1956, when the league decreed only one power play goal could be scored during a two-minute minor penalty, to find any change of note in the tangibility category.
Then the lockout hit. And the NHL had the stones to make major changes.
A new rink configuration; allowing two-line passes; tag-up offside reinstituted; the trapezoid; the shootout; no line changes on icings; reducing goalie equipment; and a reinterpretation of what constitutes a penalty. All were put in place for 2005-06. None were in place during the ’03-04 season.
Offense and excitement were the orders of post-lockout play.
The new rules weren’t perfect. The shootout offered excitement, but remains contentious; it affords more opportunities to earn a loser point. The interpretation of the rules has evolved to be more conservative, but it did so organically and has reached a balance between the spirit of sportsmanship in hockey and the reality of game play. Hockey has never been played with more skill and speed.
And the rules evolution continues with discussions surrounding issues such as head shots, equipment regulations, repealing the trapezoid, expanding the shootout, automatic icing and three points for a regulation win.
The league’s willingness to stand up and address on-ice shortcomings should be commended. For that it deserves some respite when it comes to execution.
Off the ice, the new collective bargaining agreement amounted to a philosophical sea change surrounding competitive balance and team management. It altered the nature of NHL business, redistributing revenues and instituting the salary cap.
But things aren’t as rosy off the ice as on. And everyone knows it.
A failed expansion plan, a bad economy, U.S. interest-lag, whatever the reason, franchises are bleeding, owners are hard to find and the league looks to be fast becoming too unwieldy to be run in the black, if it isn’t already. Sure, teams are bought and sold for prices considered astronomical in the ’90s, but it’s all relative. How much did you buy your house for a few years back?
And that will be the league’s challenge in the 2010s; what many will describe as paying the piper for its footprint transgressions of the ’90s. The on-ice product is pretty good. The off-ice situation is pretty bad.
Relocation, contraction or another entirely new business model look to be the quick fixes. But in the long run, who really knows what’ll work best? The NHL will have to learn from its past and make another stand. Either that or retreat to its stronghold, Canada and the northern United States.
Fight or flight will be the question the league must address during the next decade.
But in the eternal battle between on- and off-ice success, I think the on-ice product is better than ever. So when it comes to the 2000s, I’m taking a glass-half-full stance.
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