King Kaufman's Sports Daily

A simple plan for the NHL to regain fans. First: Stop screwing up already.

Published July 21, 2005 7:36PM (EDT)

The NHL Players Association was expected to ratify the new six-year collective-bargaining agreement Thursday afternoon, and the NHL will be back on the ice in October. The league's Board of Governors will vote Friday, but that's even more of a formality than the players' vote.

Here are some things the NHL has to do to reverse its long slide, overtake lawn darts, tiddlywinks, dog grooming and arena golf, and get back to being one of the top half-dozen sports on the North American landscape.

Stop screwing up. Now. It sounds so simple, but apparently, it's not.

Obviously, the long labor war was a screwup. The lockout was a screwup. Letting the lockout wipe out a whole season: screwup. And of course the owners were in a position where they felt they had no other choice because they'd spent years screwing up by busting their budgets on player contracts.

This is to say nothing of the long, slow screwup of standing by while the game itself degenerated into a sluggish, boring, low-scoring defensive struggle ruled by clutching, grabbing goons. Kids, ask your parents: Hockey players used to do this crazy thing. They did it all the time and it was fun to watch. It was called skating.

So you might think the end of the lockout and a return to the ice mark an end to our long continental screwup. You'd be wrong.

After about two years of nonstop bad publicity, the first thing the NHL did upon coming to a tentative agreement on the CBA was to announce that the draft lottery would be held in secret.

That's the spirit! Secrecy! Fans love that, and so does the media.

Commissioner Gary Bettman used to work for David Stern over at the NBA, so it can't have escaped his notice that that league makes a big ol' TV show out of its draft lottery. It's not exactly the Super Bowl, but hardcore basketball fans dig it.

The NHL's draft lottery doesn't have the same kind of overall star power because college and junior hockey players aren't as famous as college and high school basketball players, but this draft does have Sidney Crosby, who's been anointed the next superstar.

Hockey fans have been waiting for quite a while to find out where he's going, and one of the teams with the best chances in the weighted lottery is a little bunch called the New York Rangers, who play in a noted population center.

And besides, fans have been clamoring for months, more than a year, for anything. Just give us something, they're saying. Anything! Let us drink a damn beer and talk about the game, for crying out loud.

I'll give you something, came Bettman's reply: A closed door.

A genius move. Not only does it shut out the fans, it gives credibility to conspiracy theorists if Crosby ends up going to the Rangers rather than, say, the Columbus Blue Jackets. All for no good reason. There's nothing to be gained from secrecy.

Bettman relented in the face of criticism and put the lottery on TV. It'll be on ESPNews and TSN Friday. So, a good sign, but the screwups continue.

Not only will the draft lottery be held Friday, so will Bettman's press conference announcing the relaunching of the league and some much-anticipated rules changes designed to open up the game and encourage offense.

Nothing like making big announcements on a Friday afternoon in the dead of summer if you want them to be underplayed. Bettman's news will be all over the Web Friday evening as you shut down your computer, all over the Friday night newscasts you want watch, duly reported in the Saturday newspaper you don't read.

Still waiting for the NHL to stop screwing up and get something right.

Apologize. Profusely: This won't happen. The league and the union will want to put a positive spin on everything, not dwell on the past or assign blame, just talk about the good things that are going to be happening. Seeing the players back on the ice, that's all the fans care about, they'll say.

Wrong. The fans deserve an apology. A big one. Here's a script for Bettman:

"The first thing I want to say, before I talk about the new rules or anything else, is how sorry we all are. I'm sure I speak for every owner and every player when I offer my deepest apologies to the loyal fans of this game for what we've put you through in the last two years. You deserve better.

"We had a problem, a serious problem, and we chose to solve it using the absolute worst method available to us, a year of bickering followed by a work stoppage that wiped out a season. We're sorry. We absolutely screwed up.

"We're vowing today to work hard to make sure this never happens again. The owners and players have come to realize that we're mere caretakers of this game that's really owned by the fans, to whom it means so much, especially in Canada, where I'm told people really like it.

"We vow to begin working together as partners, and to ensure that not only will our fans never again be deprived of the game, but the game itself will be better and the experience more fan-friendly."

And then it's free Bubble Up and rainbow stew for everyone.

Slash ticket prices: Oh, I don't just mean cut 'em. I mean dynamite 'em.

Some teams have announced modest drops in ticket prices. Ten percent seems to be about the going rate, but the Penguins are cutting some tickets by as much as 45 percent. This is an area where the league should mandate that teams go overboard. How about half-price night, every night, in every building? For a year.

Hockey owners claim they've been taking a bath on operating revenues for years, and of course last season there were no revenues. So what's one more year? Lose money on ticket revenue, but consider it an investment.

Think of what it would mean to have every game, all 1,230 of them, played in front of a packed house. Prices should be cut to the point where that's all but guaranteed. With liberalized rules theoretically making the game faster and higher-scoring, the atmosphere should be fun and exciting just about every night.

With full houses come extra concession and merchandise sales and parking revenue. With fun and excitement come return customers. Make it clear that the entire 2005-06 season is being offered at sale prices, and there shouldn't be too much resentment when prices are brought back up to market rates next year.

But teams should think long term then too. Charging the maximum price that someone will pay for every seat is certainly one way to go. But pricing ordinary working families -- which is to say most families -- out of the building is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Tomorrow's fans have to come from somewhere, and the best way to make fans is to get kids at the games. Kids' tickets should be dirt-cheap. They'll pay off.

Get more fan-friendly: Slashing ticket prices is about 90 percent of this, but it wouldn't hurt for players to be more available to fans, to have more fanfests or other fan-centered events, that kind of thing. It's called public relations, NHL. Look into it.

Rules changes: These are coming. The speculation has centered around eliminating the two-line pass, reinstituting the tag-up offside rule -- which allows offside players to get back onside to prevent a whistle -- and reducing the maximum size of the enormous pads goalies wear.

These are all good things and I hope they all happen. It also appears likely that ties will be settled with a shootout, which the purist in me blanches at, but which I suspect I'll come to like.

And then there's the clutching and grabbing, which somehow are different things. I'm not sure what the difference is between clutching and grabbing, but the problem is never just clutching or grabbing, it's always clutching and grabbing.

The NHL acts like the solution to this problem is as elusive as the Grand Unified Theory. Every year there's a new initiative to cut down on the clutching and grabbing -- shouldn't it at least be grabbing and clutching? Don't you grab, then clutch? -- and every year the grabbing hands grab all they can.

Here's the solution: Enforce the stinkin' rules! Don't just say you're going to enforce interference and obstruction and all those other perfectly good rules that essentially add up to mean: You can't impede the progress of a guy who doesn't have the puck. Do it.

What you'll get is games awash with penalties. For a few weeks. And even those games, though they'll take forever, might be fairly entertaining, with lots of power plays and 4-on-4 or 4-on-3 hockey. And then the players and coaches will adjust. And eventually, the players whose sole purpose for being in the NHL is to serve as clutchers and grabbers will start losing their jobs.

They might even lose them to guys who can do something that, kids, you're not going to believe until you see it. It's called skating.

Previous column: The famous athlete scam

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