Embrace retro rather than 'roids

Updated: March 10, 2005, 4:18 PM ET
By Adam Proteau | The Hockey News

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.

The Hockey News
Subscribe at thehockeynews.com
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.

The Hockey News Material from The Hockey News.
To subscribe, visit The Hockey News web site at: http://www.thehockeynews.com