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Friday, February 6, 2004
Our guide to better hockey

By Graham Hays
Page 2 staff

A golf fan, a football fan and a baseball fan walk into a bar showing a playoff hockey game. What happens?

They walk out hockey fans.

Improving the NHL
With the NHL's All-Star Weekend upon us, ESPN.com has a series of stories on how to improve NHL hockey:

  • 10 things we'd change
  • 10 things we love
  • Buccigross: Mr. Fix-it
  • How would you fix the game?
  • Hey, nobody said this was going to be funny.

    Playoff hockey may be humanity's greatest sporting achievement. The fastest sport that doesn't require combustion engines and lots of guys from Alabama becomes the most physical and intense undertaking in athletics when the quest for the Stanley Cup begins. Each game is three hours of unfiltered sport.

    Unfortunately, those three-hour games follow six months of regular-season hockey. And while the owners and players can worry about fixing the game's financial structure with the next collective bargaining agreement, Page 2 thinks the league's biggest problems are in the arenas and on the ice.

    As the hockey world gathers in Minnesota for this weekend's All-Star Game festivities, here are 10 things Page 2 would change about the sport:

    10. Gloves must stay on during fights
    Hockey fight
    Hockey fights are fun -- but wouldn't you love a punch-counter?
    Now don't go thinking we're a bunch of pacifists. This has nothing to do with softening the impact of the blows that pugilistic players rain down on each other. We're all for fighting in hockey. After all, even dentists have kids who need college tuition. But it's about time for hockey fights to move out of the 19th century. Requiring players to keep their gloves firmly attached to their hands during a brawl allows for the implementation of punch-counter sensors in their gladiatorial mitts. Not sure if the hometown kid is really doing any damage with that flurry of haymakers? Now the Jumbotron shows exactly where each blow landed and with what force, and even the fans in the "cheap" seats can see. Plus, here's a whole new set of stats for the math geeks.

    9. Settle overtime ties with Zamboni races
    It seems like the NHL is constantly investigating the possibility of ending regular season ties with shootouts. Mostly, that's because American fans think ties are akin to kissing your sister -- and hockey hasn't caught on yet in the parts of the country where that's encouraged. But if you're going to play 60-plus minutes only to decide winners and losers by the equivalent of a free-throw shooting contest, why not go all the way for the entertainment value? And what's more fun than watching the Zamboni circle the rink between periods? How about making it competitive? Each team selects one player to pilot the behemoth on a complete resurfacing trip, with the home team having the option to go first or second. Quickest time -- after adding in penalties for missed spots -- gets the extra point in the standings. Note: Any players with suspended licenses are excluded from consideration.

    8. Or this ...
    If Zamboni races aren't your style, we've got another suggestion for overtime during the regular season. (Hey, even we're not dumb enough to mess with playoff overtimes.) Keep overtime periods at five minutes, but remove one skater from each side for each passing minute. So after the first minute of the extra session, it's four-on-four. This continues on until you've got two guys playing one-on-one for the final minute. Even if this change doesn't lead to an increase in goals, who wouldn't root for 64 minutes of even scores if it means watching Paul Kariya battle Sergei Fedorov mano a mano. Conversely, we're not opposed to adding a skater for each minute of overtime, leaving the final minute as a frenzied rumble of royal proportions.

    7. Bring back the USSR
    We know, we know, the Russians are our allies now. They're capitalists and they've got Anna Kournikova. Heck, they've even got a good imitation of our mafia. But you've seen the movie, and you know the story. Everyone wants a slice of Lake Placid in 1980. And you know what? Put all the Russians on one team -- we'll give them Pittsburgh -- and it will still be fun to root against them.

    6. No carpets for award presentations
    Ilya Kovalchuk
    All-Star Ilya Kovalchuk could join his fellow Russians, and take on the rest of the league.
    Seriously, if you're going to run the planet's best professional hockey league, you damn well better know how to put on a pair of skates without severing a jugular -- yours or anyone else's. What's stranger than seeing the ice at a Stanley Cup game turned into the sidewalk outside the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, just minutes after guys with month-old beards have been spitting blood and sucking wind? Call it a pet peeve, but we want the red carpets out of the picture. You don't see anyone rolling out the rug when Eric Lindros is laid out on the ice with another concussion. And if the trainers can get out there on their own, the commissioner and his minions can put away their penny loafers for an evening.

    5. National Anthem medley
    Tired of standing through the same old anthems every night? Look, we all love our respective homelands, but that doesn't mean we need to hear the local high school prom queen handle the high "C" in "glare" like Roman Cechmanek handles the puck. The NHL already recognizes the international nature of the game by playing both the American and Canadian anthems. We say take it a step further. Take the anthems of every nation represented by a player in the game and condense them into one catchy medley. As an alternative for games in New York, let a different cab driver sing the national anthem of his or her native country every night. There's no reason going to a hockey game can't be both educational and expensive.

    4. Make the goal bigger
    Did you ever go to Toronto's old Maple Leaf Garden? Can you still walk? Let's just say the knee and back injuries sustained by the poor folks sitting in those cramped seats might have been the greatest threat to the viability of socialized medicine. It's a simple truth, but people used to be smaller -- and not just in the pre-McDonald's, pre-Atkins kind of way. And yet, as athletes have grown bigger and goalie equipment has started to morph into giant sumo costumes, the NHL has steadfastly refused to make the goal bigger. Circus carneys give people more chance to hit a shot than the NHL powers-that-be do. Don't think of this change as pandering to a mostly-American audience that isn't excited until announcers are yelling about goals every four minutes. (All right, think of it that way if you must; but at least think of the size of those bored Americans.) Big people need bigger goals.

    3. Jersey modifications
    Forget the glowing puck and give us some spotlights on the names. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, hockey players move pretty fast sometimes. If you can't read the names or numbers, you might miss them. Hockey players aren't offensive linemen in football. These guys are fluid, graceful and individually skilled ... so we want to know which ones we're watching! If I can catch the broadcast from Buenos Aires by hitting the SAP button on my remote, surely we've got the technology to flip a little computer-generated nametag up under each player while they come on and off the ice every 30 seconds.

    Anthem
    "Oh, Canada ... say can you see ... "
    And while we're at it, can we get some phonetic spellings on those jerseys?

    2. More Canadian beer
    This is not negotiable. If you want people of legal drinking age to show up for a game between Nashville and Phoenix when it's warm enough outside for the golf course to be taking reservations, you can't serve them beer that tastes like it skipped a few steps on that journey from the mountain spring. Put a nice Kokanee tap at the concession stand, and it's going to be a lot easier to settle in for an evening of watching David Legwand battle Ossi Vaananen. While we're at it, let's get some poutine (fries, gravy and cheese), ketchup-flavored chips, "true" Smarties and Tim Horton's donuts down here, eh?

    1. More "Hockey Night in Canada"
    Come to think of it, we need more than Canadian delicacies. We love the work our ESPN comrades do with NHL games; but no matter how well you paint your ceiling, it's never going to be the Sistine Chapel. And since ESPN doesn't show games on Saturday night, we don't feel traitorous asking for the CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" broadcasts to be beamed south of the border. Hockey is never going to be a national obsession in the United States, but "Hockey Night in Canada" offers a weekly perspective on what life is like where it is. From the understated graphics to the "Satellite Hot Stove" feature, it's hockey in the game's pure form. And we need more of it.

    But you can leave Don Cherry at the border.

    Graham Hays writes "Out of the Box" five days a week in--between moonlighting for Page 2. He can be reached at graham.hays@espn3.com.