Tuesday, January 18, 2005

NHL's last-gasp effort, my own crazy idea

ESPN: It's hoped the absence of Goodenow and Bettman 'will create a spark with different guys in the room, which I think is a good idea,' one team player representative told ESPN.com on Monday.

'Obviously the other way wasn't working,' he said.

There has been the strong perception throughout the dispute that the personalities of both leaders have kept the two sides apart, that this has been about Bettman and Goodenow as much as the issues. Wednesday, that theory will be put to the test.

If this end-run around Bettman and Goodenow rescues the season because the owners cave (i.e. if the lockout has been hurting them more than they let on) then they are going to look awfully bad and will be in need of a scapegoat. Goodenow will be in danger as welll, although he just might keep his job if the players get what they are looking for. On the other hand, nobody is going to come out of this looking good. If nothing else this whoe mess has pointed out some systemic problems in the NHL that need to be addressed if the league is to survive. There has been talk about some issues for a while, particularly about increasing scoring and growing the fan base.

Here's a wild idea: Create a two-tier NHL, along the lines of the English Premiership. The top tier would be composed of elite teams who play each other. Here you would see the likes of the Avalanche, Wings, Canucks, Flyers, Senators, Leafs, Lightning, etc. Maybe 10-12 teams in all. These would play for the Stanley Cup, with the additional revenue from the playoffs paying for those elite players. The 2 or 3 teams that finish at the bottom would be demoted to the second tier for the next season, and the top-finishing 2 or 3 teams in the second tier would be promoted to the elite league. Potential benefits of this arrangement:

- Higher level of play in the elite league. Freewheeling elite teams would not be forced to grind it out and win 2-1 against teams that compensate for lack of talent with clutch-and-grab and the neutral zone trap. Peter Forsberg would not play the game with a third-line opponent draped across his back, which might entice him back from Sweden.

- Stronger connection between performance and profit, as low-cost winning teams would be rewarded with promotion and increased income, and high-cost, chronic underachievers (Hello, Rangers!) would be relegated and be forced to revamp their lineup.

- The survival of the league as a whole would not be tied to the survival of bottom-dwelling expansion clubs that can't turn a profit, which some people think should not have been allowed in the NHL to begin with.

- A possibility of limited play between elite NHL clubs and elite European clubs --a sort of Champions' League-- which would not be practical on a large scale involving all NHL clubs. This could increase the fan base in Europe, where fans seldom if ever get to see the best players in the world, who now play in North America, and perhaps promote an expansion of TV coverage across the pond. These too would increase revenue for everyone involved.

Like I said, it's a crazy idea. But the league needs to rethink things at a basic level, and not get tunnel-visioned like Bettman and Goodenow.