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Embrace retro rather than 'roids

3/10/2005

In order for major league baseball to recover from its civil war of a decade
ago, many of its players' steroid-addled heads had to balloon and their
testicles had to shrink. But equally important to the game's recovery was a
conscious effort to embrace and promote its history.

Whenever Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow call a truce ­- or when one has the
other's head on a composite stick ­- the NHL will face a similar struggle
toward a renaissance.

And although both the league and players' union have been loathe to heed any
advice that doesn't originate from outside legal counsel, they could do a
whole lot worse than to follow at least part of the path forged by Bud
Selig's boys.

Of course, the NHL faces a more daunting challenge than baseball did.
Baseball was never so broken, never so stilted and stalled, as hockey's
greatest league is now. Baseball never needed mouth-to-sport resuscitation
the way hockey does.

And so, in certain areas -­ in the league's marketing, in the way its games
are coached and decided, in the direction of its officiating and in its
rulebook-­ a progressive philosophy is the sole solution. But progressing at
the expense of the heroes and hallmarks of hockey's past is as egregious an
error as hiring Tom Barrasso to judge a congeniality pageant.

In other words, a blueprint blending the best of the past, present and
future is the best answer to the NHL's minefield of problems.

Most Screen Shots readers know our progressive side includes shootouts,
mandatory visors, the tag-up offside and no-touch icing rules, and a
once-and-for-all, let-us-never-speak-of-this-again crackdown on obstruction.
But let's spend the rest of this column on the parts of the 78-year-old
wreck that are salvageable.

First, let's talk arenas. Granted, most NHL teams won't be needing a new
home rink for decades, but the ones that will -­ the Pittsburgh Penguins
foremost among them ­- should strive to capture the essence of the
since-demolished ice palaces. Just as baseball turned its back on the
modernity of Toronto's SkyDome in favor of retro-minded parks such as
Baltimore's Camden Yards or Denver's Coors Field, so too should the NHL aim
at reproducing the ear-shattering acoustics of Chicago Stadium and the
on-top-of-the-action seats at either end of Maple Leaf Gardens in their new
buildings.

Now let's talk "entertainment experience." In their rush to mimic the brain
candy the NBA doles out between dribbles, the NHL has become a league of
nauseatingly predictable public address playlists and scoreboard skits so
lame the hand of God couldn't heal them. Anybody with a better memory than a
goldfish knows the sameness emanating from the league's PA systems -­ and
anytime a restaurant has but one item on its menu, it doesn't deserve to
keep cooking for long.

Contrast that with the days where organ music was the soundtrack of the
game. Back then, when your mind wasn't assaulted by rapid-fire images and
sounds during every break in action, it was allowed to process the action
itself. And it heightened the anticipation of what was to come by leaps and
bounds.

Organ music is to the JumboTron as books are to movies: The former allows
the hockey fan's mind to develop an infinitely more rewarding and emotional
experience than the latter, where a single soul's interpretation of fun is
forced upon us.

Figuring out answers to forgettable trivia questions and watching cartoon
Zambonis in phony races isn't going to bring fans back to the NHL's ticket
wicket. What will is the drama inherent in the game, and if the league truly
is confident in the changes it plans to better its product, re-emphasizing
the role of organ music can only help.

Finally, let's talk alumni. Where baseball always has been good at
remembering its retired players, the NHL has, until recently, preferred to
let theirs languish in the shadows. From their pensions ­- which still pale
in comparison to other athletes of similar achievement -- through to their
profile, retired NHLers aren't wrong to feel forgotten by the game they once
ruled. But there are many ways that easily can be changed. How?

Easy: Make an improved pension part of the next labor deal. Fly retired
players into their former communities for PR junkets in schools and
retirement homes. As Slap Shot guru Ken Blake suggested, take the relatively
new tradition of giving every player who won the Stanley Cup a day with the
trophy, and extend it back to those onetime champions who never got the
chance. If players have passed on, give the Cup to their families. Organize
an alumni day, where every team in the league brings back as many former
players as can be contacted. Set up individual Halls of Fame for each team,
and make the induction ceremonies open to the public.

All of these suggestions carry a price tag, but in a cost-certain NHL,
owners should have the cash to invest (a) in the mystique their team already
has accrued, or (b) in the hope of building a mystique around their team.

Moreover, such initiatives, most of which only can take place with the help
of the NHLPA, will go a long way toward proving the much-ballyhooed
"partnership" between players and owners is under way.

But if they ignore them outright, the NHL may eventually turn to the cream
and the clear to improve their game, the way everybody with eyes assumes
Barry Bonds did. And really, do Bettman and Goodenow's heads need to be any
bigger than they already are?

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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