Creativity is the key to success

Originally Published: March 8, 2005
By John Buccigross | Special to ESPN.com

The NHL's 30 general managers will meet in Detroit April 7-8 to discuss the league and its future.

One of the items on the agenda is rules changes.

The league intends to implement several new rules when it eventually resumes business, so the GMs will spend some time examining how the American Hockey League has fared with some of its own this season, which included limiting the goalie's ability to play the puck behind the net, wider blue lines, tag-up offside and shootouts.

Hopefully, the GMs will be open-minded and creative. Hopefully, they'll look at the game as if an NHL never even existed. It is my belief that if the NHL relies solely on GMs to shape the "new" NHL, we will see little change in how the game looks and feels. These are the same men who largely have driven the game into the ground with overspending, shortsightedness and a lack of vigilance and diligence on how the game is called and how it has evolved over the years.

The NHL itself also is culpable of not keeping the game slippery and fast, by expanding too quickly, getting clutched and grabbed by Bob Goodenow on every conceivable issue, and not paying enough attention to the product on the ice. The toxic relationship between the NHL and the NHLPA has dragged the game along like a car with its emergency brake on.

The NHL's new lines don't need to be orange, just wider.

Certainly, there are some GMs who should be a big part of any committee overseeing the league's relaunch, but the NHL should look outside for all and any ideas. I'm sure they are doing that as we speak.

Here would be my 10 recommendations to the NHL on how to give the game a much-needed tune-up and Hakkan lube job.

1. Bigger nets
This is the ONLY way to increase scoring. While the AHL's rules changes appear to be good ones, scoring has not risen appreciably. Player equipment – goalies and skaters – is too big and too effective. Also, the goalies are too good. In 1968, when Bob Gibson led Major League Baseball with a 1.12 ERA, Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title by hitting a paltry .301 and Glenn Beckert led the major leagues with a measly 98 runs. The next season, MLB lowered the pitcher's mound from 15 inches to 10 to increase offense. The NFL continually tweaks its rules to give the offense the advantage – from pass coverage rules, blocking allowances, moving the kickoff yard line back and, to a lesser degree, introducing the two-point conversion. The NBA, like the NHL, has become bogged down with too much grabby, clogging, defense.

Flow and legal contact is the most important attraction of a well-played hockey game. But to sell the NHL game and grow the fan base – as well as to keep it stimulating and theatrical – there has to be more goal scoring. We need more long slapshot goals from streaking, Cam Neely-like power wingers and more come-from-behind victories. Too many times we hear the stat, "The Stars are 196-2-4 in their last 202 games when leading after two periods." This robs the game of the two most important words in the NHL language: hope and stimulation. The offense always needs to have the advantage in the marketplace of which the NHL is a part. I think the same goes for college right now.

2. No skater interference
This is probably No. 1, but I wanted to get your attention with the bigger nets. The rule should be very clear and along the lines of NFL passing-game rules, NBA fast-break rules and soccer rules. If an opponent is in front you, has position on you, you simply cannot touch that player. The practice of tugging on a skater's shoulder, hip or hands from behind with one's stick or gloves is absurd. The ruling, most applicably in the neutral zone, should be that you can't impede a player's progress by intentionally blocking his path, or by reaching out and slowing down a player with or without the puck. In the attacking zones, the rule should be like soccer, once the defender has position he can play the man and the puck at the same time with more force and contact. Those battles of will are the essence of athletics. But skaters need the freedom to generate speed in the neutral zone, and the freedom to use their strength and lateral movement in the attacking zones to create highlight goals and exhilarating plays.

Frank Zappa once said, "The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced." You could replace United States with the NHL.

3. Penalty deterrents
Enforcing the rules above would result in numerous penalties, especially early in their implementation. I would attempt to offset that by having all minor penalties served for a full two minutes. Additionally, I would eject a player after four minors in a game. (I could be talked down into three minors, as well.) Maybe this is implausible and/or silly, but the point is to create a culture in which infractions, especially involving obstruction, are penalized consistently and with substance. The point is not to have a lot of power plays; the point is to implement penalty deterrents so we have fast and fluid hockey, few penalties and players who respect each other and the game.

4. Adopt all AHL rules changes from this season
Move the nets back to as close as the boards as possible. Make the lines as thick as possible and paint pictures of Carmen Electra on them. Restrict the goaltenders from going in the corners to foil the forecheck. Bring back the tag-up offside rule to create more flow and keep tired players on the ice to create more time and space. And yes, bring on the regular-season shootout after a 10-minute period of 4-on-4. The fewer shootouts the better, because the more rare, the more special. No more ties. We need to simplify the standings and always have a winner as we launch and market this game anew. Shootouts televise well and they're sexy to the untrained eye. No shootouts in the playoffs, but I wouldn't be averse to having them after three overtimes. I'm concerned about the health consequences and subsequent medical costs of eating arena hotdogs and nacho cheese for four uninterrupted hours. Let's try it. If it's offensive, we shelf it. But let's give it a shot.

The Buckeyes joined the Wolverines in fashioning their hockey helmets after their football team's.

5. Paint the helmets
I want hockey helmets to look cool, to be the topper of these world-class athletes who train so hard and play so hard. I want helmets like Michigan's hockey helmet, or the ones Ohio State wore against Michigan. Bold paint jobs and logos. The hockey helmet should join the ranks of cool memorabilia items and not just a smelly piece of equipment to cover Tie Domi's huge noggin'.

6. Mandatory player and referee microphones
Every game one player from each team and one on-ice official should wear a microphone. Players are funny, emotional and, in some cases, smart. We need to showcase them and put on an entertaining television show. What the NFL realized a long time ago that most NHL GMs and PR people don't is that televised games are TV shows. A TV show won't get good ratings unless it is creative and compelling. I don't want to turn this into "Real World Raleigh," but the NHL should have the full authority to tell teams what to do in terms of cooperation with its national TV partners, whether it's ESPN, NBC or CBC. Individual NHL PR departments, as well as coaches and GMs who sometimes veto the moves, have too much authority. Bain Capital Partners LLC and Game Plan International's leveraged buyout of the NHL would be positive in a lot of ways. Most importantly, the NHL would have one owner and thus decisions would be made, like better TV production methods, for the good of the league as opposed to individual teams.

7. No music before faceoffs
No one loves music more than me, but I don't want to hear music, especially bad music, cranked up while I'm watching a game. I want to talk about the game with the people around me. When I go to a Wilco concert, they don't play hockey play-by-play over the PA in between songs. So why do I have to hear Guns N' Roses played full blast during a stoppage in play of a hockey game? At least play some Ween, and in the words of Dr. Evil, "TURN IT DOWWWN A NOTCH." I want the fans to be proactive, not reactive. While in Florida in January, I went to a Miami Heat game because the ticket was free and I sat with an old college buddy, Mike Torres. When it was all over I barely felt like a basketball game had just occurred. The NHL and NBA have too much stuff going on and their arenas are too big. There isn't enough intimacy and there's too much noise. It appears the next new NHL arena will be built in Newark for the Devils. Please, Lou Lamoriello, oversee this structure and make it intimate. Keep it in that 15,000-17,000 capacity range. Put the seats on top of the ice, and conveniently forget to put speakers, a video screen and speakers on the Jumbotron. It would be nice to see the eyes in the stands looking down on the ice and not up at a gigantic TV set.

8. Take out the red line
I'm convinced this would create some space. The skill and talent of the NHL player would take advantage of this more so than the college or international player who simply isn't as talented. No rule against a two-line pass. The fewer rules the better.

9. Play-in games
After the last day of the regular season, which I would make a Saturday, I would have the eighth- and ninth-place teams in each conference play a game that decides who gets the last spot in the playoffs. Regular-season ticket prices, the eighth-place team gets the home game, teams and players split the gate. The games would be part of a double-header that Monday night. At the start of the first game, I would have the arena completely dark after player introductions on the blue lines. I'd bring up powerful music, mix in some Stanley Cup playoff play-by-play calls, but keep the arena dark. Then, after a minute, I'd have a spotlight on the Stanley Cup, sitting alone on the center-ice faceoff dot. All the players and fans in attendance, and those watching on ESPN2, would be staring at the Stanley Cup, the richest artifact in sports. Every player and fan would have an image in their minds all their own. That's what great artwork does. What a way to start the playoff season. It would be Opening Day of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

10. Congressional hearings on NHL and NHLPA leadership
Can we really expect or entrust Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow to be the stewards of the game? Can we expect this poisonous relationship between the NHL and the NHLPA to heal with the current leadership in place? Stranger things have happened: Barry Melrose played in the NHL and Milli Vanilli won a Grammy in 1990, but can we envision these sandpaper personalities working together and in harmony for the good of the game? This is a bad marriage. It has wrought lower ratings and a diminishing on-ice product. It has been the lack of leadership from the heads of state that, in the end, must shoulder most of the blame. Someone should lean in and take one for the team. Step aside as the NHL moves forward. Goodenow woefully has misread the landscape and cost his players hundreds of millions. Bettman and the owners should have fought this fight in 1995, but the persistence of Goodenow surprised them. Didn't they realize that expansion increased players' options and thus salaries would explode with individual market interests and no salary cap? How can we trust this group of owners and its hired help to move forward in this very important rehabilitation if they are so emotional and lack so much foresight?

John,
I couldn't agree more with your last article. I sit here today emotionally drained and exhausted. My stepson's Bantam AAA team wrapped up their playoffs last night – three straight overtime games in four nights. They faced elimination in all three games, managing to win them all. For overtime, they play two minutes of 4-on-4. Then two minutes of 3-on-3. Then 2-on-2 until someone scores. I cannot begin to explain the emotions felt during four minutes of 2-on-2 sudden-death overtime. It took 15 minutes after the game before my wife could walk down the bleacher stairs. Here, at the local rink, is where you will see the passion for the game – on the faces of the players, coaches and parents. The unbridled joy of winning and the look of utter devastation on the faces of the losing team. Kids playing for the love of the game, giving everything they have and digging deeper to find more.

The players and owners need to visit a local rink this time of year – the players to remember they are playing a game they love and are a privileged few to be able to make a living doing so, the owners to see the fan base they need to embrace.

I need to get some sleep, as tomorrow is a six-hour road trip to a tournament in Saskatoon, where it starts again.

Michael Lewicki
Calgary, Alberta

Congratulations to all the champions who have been crowned so far this month and to those who have yet to be crowned. My son Brett's Pee Wee A team lost in the semifinals last weekend. To see the courage, effort, persistence and passion of these 11- and 12-year-olds was truly inspirational and entertaining. It made you forget all about the empty suits on both sides of the NHL fight.


John --
In your recent column, "The month that matters most," you wrote a nice piece on hockey but ruined it with some ridiculous, wrongheaded answers in the letters section that followed. The people who are being more greedy in this childish spat are the players, because they are being totally unrealistic about the poor economic conditions of the NHL. The players are NOT the "show," the SPORT OF HOCKEY is the show!! You know damn well that at least 2/3 of the fans, if not even higher, support the owners in this battle. They know that the economics of the NHL are poor and need a drastic fix.

You have to quit listening to guys like Ray Ferraro and start listening to the FANS.

Name Withheld

There is no doubt that the players misread the economic situation, resolve and net worth of the owners, and gave Bob Goodenow too must trust, but in no way can I call them greedy. They offered 24 percent of their salaries back. They weren't asking for more of anything. And the players ARE the show. I understand people root for laundry and logos, but the NHL has the fastest, strongest and most mobile hockey players in the world. You can't compare any other league in the world to the history and level of play. The NHL knew there would be no hockey this year because they knew how Goodenow would negotiate. No media guides were even published. The players were in error when they trusted Goodenow. They should have accepted the salary cap in the summer and negotiated from there. That was their mistake. This whole thing is like bad meat loaf. I'm trying to keep my cool and not add to the venom. The excitement over the arrival of Sidney Crosby helps define the value and importance of the NHL player to the NHL.


John,
So the NHL doesn't want the $6,000 that I used to spend every year on tickets? OK, I saw this lockout coming years ago, and I prepared for it: I started playing the game. As tough as it is for this 40+ year-old to pick up, I am LOVING IT. The $85 per ticket I used to spend on lower-bowl seats at Staples Center? Now that money goes toward top-flight coaching, stick time, pickup games and hockey camps. When I really get a jones to watch good hockey, I go to see our two outstanding local midget major teams (AAA, 18 and under): the No. 25 ranked L.A. Junior Kings and the No. 2 ranked L.A. Selects. Their skills and energy can entertain any hockey fan. By the way, when (or if) the NHL decides to play again, I shall be locking them out of my wallet for a period of time equal to that which they deprived us of their product. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Gary and Bob.

Bill Lenihan
Redondo Beach, Calif.


John,
I cannot wait for the 2005-06 season to start (on time with whatever players – replacement or "real"). I love hockey and just want to see high-level organized hockey – period. If replacement players are the answer, so be it, just lower my ticket prices accordingly so I can eat more nachos and plastic popcorn. In fact, they should have tryouts so us local fans can take a shot at playing for our favorite team. They wouldn't have to pay me a nickel (just pay for the hospital bill when I get killed skating with my head down).
Thanks!

Scott O'Rourke

There is no upside to replacement players. It is a bad idea that should be shelved and ignored immediately. The NHL should hold a news conference and say it will not happen.


John,
I wonder how much of a percentage fans giving up on the NHL/game truly is. Personally, I cannot fathom the idea of giving up on hockey. Hockey is a part of my life now. It has been for 15 years. I love it. If or when the new CBA is settled, I'll be back – I have to. Call me an idealist, but I believe in a purity to the game that transcends all this CBA ugliness.
Sincerely,

Michael Fedor


John,
I have three boys  6, 8 and 10. We, as a family, drive 250 miles round trip to all of Nashville's home games. That time spent together is and was our greatest family times and memories. We have nothing to focus our interests and conversations on now in the same way we did with the NHL season. As young boys have a short attention span, their hockey interest is waning. I am doing everything I can to keep it up, but it is hard when games, highlights, and media coverage is not there. The idols whose every move they used to imitate are becoming distant memories.

Brian Smith
Chattanooga, Tenn.

Tell both sides that story, Brian. Here is the NHL's feedback link. Here is the NHLPA's feedback link.


John,
Since I won't be in an arena this spring listening to blaring, "pump-up" music, I need a mix that I can play and almost feel the energy you can feel at an NHL playoff game (especially late May/early June).

Chris
New Jersey

My dream job for a day would be the guy who picks the songs to play pregame, between periods and during TV timeouts. As stated above, there should be no music for non-TV timeout stoppages in play – only organ music or James Earl Jones reading the phonebook. If I had a list of 10 songs to play at this precise moment during pregame, TV timeouts and intermissions. I would choose these:

"Mr. Brightside," The Killers
"Ocean Breathes Salty," Modest Mouse
"City of Blinding Lights," U2
"Common People," William Shatner
"That's What I Love About Sunday," Craig Morgan
"Brown Eyed Girl," Everclear
"Going Away to College," Blink 182
"Midnight Blue," Lou Gramm
"Learning to Fly," Pink Floyd
"Neighborhood #3," The Arcade Fire

John Buccigross' e-mail address – for questions, comments or cross-checks – is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.

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