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6 Rule Changes the NHL Should Implement

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A big thank you goes out to Sidepoints contributor Aaron Williams for his insight and major contributions to this article.

Hockey… No word has a more polarizing effect in the American sports landscape.

Especially In cities without NHL teams, but also nationally, listening to sports talk radio means you will be subjected to countless jokes at hockey’s expense. As nearly anyone that has actually attended an NHL game live can tell you, the rampant ignorance and negativity is unwarranted and misplaced. What makes the sport so polarizing is that hockey fans are unlike any their counterparts in other sports. People spend thousands of dollars per season on NBA season tickets and tailgate outside their NFL team’s stadium each Sunday, but that doesn’t compare to the atmosphere inside an NHL arena. So why is there so much anti-NHL venom being spewed? Two main reasons in my opinion: while the game is an incredible experience to attend live, historically it hasn’t translated to television as well as other sports. HD has helped, but the volume of action on an NHL rink is too much for one camera frame to contain. The second reason is the amount of foreign born talent. Americans have always grown up playing baseball, football, and basketball. Hockey is an expensive sport to participate in, and has always been “Canada’s game.” Nowadays youth hockey leagues are popping up more and more, but the middle-aged, middle class thinks of hockey in the same way they view soccer. They don’t know the game, so they mock that which they don’t understand.

NBA games are generally filled with wine and cheese crowds more interested inbrokering business deals than the game itself. The arena takes on a sideshow-like atmosphere with the latest in hip-hop blaring through the speakers while play is going on. Fans are told via Jumbotron how and when they should cheer. Jerseys are common, but I estimate 1 in 5 fans are wearing one. Certainly there are die-hard fans, but more often than not, those are the people priced out of the good seats and forced to the upper levels. Compare that to NHL games where true fans fill the stands from the boards to the nosebleeds. At an NHL game, the action on the ice is all that is needed to fully engage and inspire the knowledgeable crowd. Cheers are started and officiated by the fans themselves; the Jumbotron is used as a scoreboard, not a cheerleader. The NHL is filled with traditions, whether it is chants and cheers, actions inspired by situations, or merely superstition run wild. Whatever the case may be, nearly every fan in the stands fully knows, understands, and embraces them. Hockey sweaters? You’re out of place without one. They range from the stars to the 4th liners. Everyone has one on and probably 3 or 4 more in their closet at home.

One thing that never fails to surprise the hockey haters is the percentage of attendance relative to capacity. NHL teams don’t play in a local college fieldhouse, in many cases they use the exact same arena as NBA teams and fill them to the same extent if not more. When I try to explain this to people, they automatically assume that the tickets are cheap. In actuality tickets are the same price or more costly than their NBA colleagues. Take Boston for example, the Celtics are one of the best teams in the NBA and a historical juggernaut. Ticket prices are astronomical to watch Garnett and the boys. No way can the Bruins charge $200 for a lower section seat to a regular season game, right? Wrong. The Bruins and Celtics have almost the exact same pricing structure… and both average 100% capacity.

Boston is just one example, but to put it another way, 19 of the 32 teams in the NHL have average attendance percentages over 90% with 12 at 100% or higher. The NFL has 26 teams with 90% or more, but only 9 that average a sell out every single home game. The NBA? 14 teams over 90%, 6 at 100% or more. MLB? 5 at 90%+, 3 at 100%+

This isn’t a piece attempting to recruit people to the NHL, in fact most NHL fans are glad that the sport doesn’t have “mainstream appeal.” Hockey is their sport and that’s just the way they like it. Fans fill arenas, buy ungodly amounts of gear, enjoy every second of the experience, and are happy to have “their thing.”

The NHL is also the most progressive thinking of the major professional sporting leagues. While the MLB views any changes in gameplay just short of blasphemy and is stuck in the stone-age with regards to replay, the NHL reads and recognizes rules that have become archaic and at least attempts to fix them. Fans and some players hated ties, so they instituted the shootout. It may be a little hokey and a good percentage of fans may not like it, but it’s a fun and exciting way to determine winners in regular season games.  The NHL realized that the neutral zone trap robs the game of much of its entertainment value, so they legalized the two-line pass. Goalies were becoming like defensemen with immunity, so they instituted a rule where they could only puck-handle in a restricted area.  Attempting to keep the all-star game fresh and exciting they instituted the popular Winter Classic and the NHL is trying their hand at a “fantasy draft” format where two assigned captains pick teams from the 36 available all-star selections. These are just a few of the rules changed within the past 5 years for the betterment of the game and so it keeps up with the modern hockey landscape.  What has been done in MLB in the past 5 years? A weak replay system that still misses calls. The NBA? An admittedly decent replay system, instituting a “clear-path” foul and allowing coaches to call timeouts. The NFL competition committee does a legitimately good job of recognizing problem areas, but little to fix them. The “definition of a catch” is still misunderstood and borderline absurd. It’s been 10 years since Tom Brady’s “tuck rule” and it still hasn’t been fixed. Making matters worse is the fact that the former head of officiating Mike Pereira, who was hired by Fox as their rules analyst, frequently decrees how the officials should rule a play, and the officials rule it entirely different.

With all of that said, Aaron and I have come up with some additional rule changes that would not only benefit the game as a whole, but improve the quality of the league, which is something the NHL would love.

1. Expand the Ice

Currently the NHL rink is 200ft x 85ft, while the international rink is 200ft x 100 ft. This is a controversial issue, but probably the most likely for the NHL to consider. The controversy arises because a bigger rink makes skill guys more valuable while nearly rendering enforcers obsolete. Another reason for a possible switch in size is that NHL players today are much larger than even twenty years ago. Hockey players are becoming Mack trucks on skates and would benefit from having more room to operate. The NHL hates clutching and grabbing and wants to see snipers score 50 goals a season, this would help, but it would also take away from one of the true beauties of the sport. Hockey teams police themselves. The refs are there to call penalties, but they understand the situations far better than officials in any other sport. They realize that hockey is an ebb and flow. If someone takes a run at your captain, you or one of your teammates will take a run at theirs, legally. Some view fights as barbaric, but in 97% of instances the players agree on the ice to fight. Hardly anyone will ever pursue a fight if the other guy doesn’t want to drop the gloves… and if they do, they will not be treated kindly within their own locker room. So, while there are pluses and minuses to expanding the rink, the added offense would seem to fit with the NHL’s ideal of a great sport. It doesn’t hurt that expanded rinks would mean an increase in front row seats that teams could sell at premium prices.

2. Shrink the Neutral Zone

Instead of expanding the size of the rink, shrinking the neutral zone would be the better option. The Neutral zone is the area on the ice between the blue lines, and it currently takes up 50 feet of space on an NHL rink. Shrinking it down to 40 feet would provide 5 additional feet of space to operate within the offensive zones. The two primary effects of this change would be increased offensive zone control and in turn, more offensive pressure. 5 added feet in the offensive zone would make clearing attempts more difficult, while giving the attacking team more room to operate and better space themselves. The increased puck presence in the offensive zone would make neutral zone puck movement more difficult, resulting in more turnovers and more odd-man rushes. Less space in the neutral zone means less time and space to make long, cross-ice passes, and more chances for opportunistic teams to take a risk in order to generate a quick scoring chance. Games would become more exciting without robbing the sport of the physicality that is so important.

3. Shrink the Size of the Net

Yes really. No, don’t shrink the size of the goal frame from its current size of 4ft by 6ft, but instead adjust the depth of the net. The current depth of the net in the NHL is 44 inches while the diameter of the puck is 3 inches. In order for a goal to be recorded the entire puck must cross the goal line, meaning that some depth is needed, but not 41 extra inches. Currently there is an abundance of excess padding and iron that serves no purpose other than to eliminate space on the ice. Even a nominal decrease depth from 44 inches to 36 inches would create 8 more inches of room behind the net for offensive players to operate. The result would be better passes and passing lanes, more opportunities for wrap-arounds, and quicker and crisper hockey behind the net.

4. Restrict Defensemen’s Ability to Stop With the Puck Behind the Goal Line

Not much grinds a hockey game to a halt like a defenseman camped behind the goalie for 30 seconds setting up a play and allowing teammates to catch a breather. At the very least a restriction should be made to disallow the defensemen’s ability to stop in the restricted area behind the goal. Defensemen do it because it allows them to use the net as a shield in the same way your dog uses the dining room table as a shield when you are chasing him. Quicker play will lead to more turnovers and scoring chances while decreasing unnecessary stoppages. The rule would have to be written in such a way where there is a distinction between a battle for the puck and a deliberate stoppage. Perhaps it could be that if a defenseman with the puck is the only one behind the goal line he must make every attempt to advance the puck from his current position. Without this distinction the NHL would simply become a dump-and-chase league as teams would realize that they have an unfair advantage in behind the net situations.

5. Award Three Points for a Regulation Win

The current point structure in the NHL awards two points for a win, whether it’s in regulation, overtime, or a shootout; one point for a shootout or overtime loss, and zero points for a regulation loss. This proposed system would reward teams for putting away their opponents in three periods. A regulation win should be rewarded as it’s more difficult to do than winning in overtime, and certainly a greater feat than winning via the shootout. This change would translate into exciting, end-to-end hockey as teams would be more willing to continue to pressure for the win instead of being content with overtime to ensure they would receive at least a single point. More urgent hockey means more scoring opportunities, and also more chances for teams to capitalize on mistakes and quickly turn defense into offense.

6. Take the helmets off for shootouts.

Some hockey purists want NHL players to rid themselves of helmets altogether. This is absurd in my opinion, but taking the helmets off for shootouts would provide the NHL with a marketing opportunity that it could sorely use. Safety isn’t an issue, unless you are Steven Stamkos who unceremoniously lost an edge, fell, and hilariously slid into the boards taking a penalty shot earlier this season. Helmet-less shootouts would give fans a face to face look at the league’s stars. Facial recognition provides marketing opportunities and increases the NHL’s presence. Love him or hate him, Sidney Crosby is the NHL’s most marketable superstar in the past fifteen years. He is young, insanely talented, a good guy, and has the look that would appeal to the female fans as well. If you ask any casual or non-hockey fans who the best hockey player of all time is, you will almost always receive the name Wayne Gretzky as the response. While I happen to disagree, Gretzky was an incredible talent, but what made him a marketing machine was his move to the Los Angeles Kings. Gretzky quickly became a recognizable face and cemented hockey’s place in the western United States. If the NHL could etch the faces of their stars in the brains of sports fans, interest in hockey would increase and revenues would undoubtedly rise.

There is definitely a market for the NHL in America, but commissioner Gary Bettman has to realize it and take advantage of it. His first order of business should be working out an HB0 mini-series deal in the form of the NFL’s Hard Knocks. The NHL hyped this year’s Winter Classic with a brief mini-series in the 24/7 franchise. The result was some of the most riveting sports television that I’ve seen in a number of years. It showed truly how great the game is and how likable the players are. The addition of a permanent series along with the rule changes above would go a long way to fully establishing hockey as a legitimate major sport from coast to coast. With possible work stoppages looming in the NFL and NBA, now is the time for the NHL to take advantage of the fragile sports landscape and gain the market share that they rightfully deserve.


5 Responses to “6 Rule Changes the NHL Should Implement”

  1. Those are all good starts, but just watching the “Skills” competition a bit on Saturday night, had me feeling like I was watching something from another country…and that, sir, is why Hockey will always play 4th string.

    Oh yeah, it’s a fun game to watch…heck any non-casual fan can watch at any given point, any given teams and usually find some enjoyment. The game is fast-paced, violent, and usually the die-hard fans make up 75% of the crowd.

    But, until the NHL is loaded with home grown, American talent, it will always be viewed as “Soccer’s Big Brother”. Is that comparison fair? There are tons of thousands of more hockey fans in the US than Soccer fans, sure…but both games, despite their US locations, are so heavily influenced by foreign players, there exists a disconnect.

    How, then, is a game like baseball, which is greatly made up of non-traditional “Americans”, not in thsi category. I think there are several factors there, History, current percentages, etc…, but my point is simply this.

    Hockey will always be #4, and those of us invested in three sports as it is, will likely never make room for a 4th.

    What does this have to do with your article? Very little, other than it’s what I observed during the 30min of Hockey I forced myself to be exposed to Saturday evening.

    Posted by Bobby Digital | January 31, 2011, 12:27 pm
  2. For people into Hockey, those 6 changes may be good for the game, for the fans that it currently has, but i fail to see how that would bring in more fans.
    Convince Me.

    Posted by Bobby Digital | January 31, 2011, 12:32 pm
  3. Fair points you make on your own personal level, and maybe the changes wouldn’t necessarily bring you into the game right now because you had little/no reason to ever be into it. Cleveland hasn’t had an NHL team in your lifetime, your parents weren’t into it which means growing up you weren’t really exposed to it on that level. I got big into hockey because it was a bond between me and my dad. I’m sure you have similar feelings with the major sports in Cleveland. So, while shrinking the neutral zone may not bring you personally into the game, maybe the extra media attention and marketing that has led to the increased presence of youth hockey will inspire your Godson to play, or maybe down the road, your son or Ry-dog’s son. Then it will be a great experience to go to Columbus/Pittsburgh/Detroit to see a game with them. As of now, you may be a “lost cause” but if the game grows itself and becomes a legitimate option in the eyes of the youth, you may get sucked in by proxy… and when you do, the changes above would make your experience that much better.

    Posted by Jason Marlo | January 31, 2011, 12:59 pm
  4. Because I do not follow it closely enough (are the JETS still in Winipeg?), those changes would not bring me in, nor effect me, and my viewing of the game.

    I like the game, and would watch if it was not sharing the season with Pro/College hoops, and DVR did not exist.

    I guess my question, is would those 6 points/suggested changes impact the game enough for the Die Hards and the players, to make it a better all around game? If so, then the field they already control would benefit, but for those of us on the fence, or not yet committed, those changes don’t impact the game enough to pull us in off the street.

    Also, I have only watched matches on the TV, never live. I have heard nothign but good things, and would be willing to try sometime, but other than yourself, no one I know cares enough to go to a game….so if you want to go to a game, I’d say I’d be willing to try it out sometime.

    Posted by Bobby Digital | February 1, 2011, 1:14 pm
  5. Also, for the record, my idea about the new rule if a player loses his helmet on the football field, during a play, and the other team picks it up, then the player must go to the sideline for the rest of the game (or another predetermine period of time) has been forwarded on to the NFL…expect implementation in time for the Super Bowl!

    Posted by Bobby Digital | February 1, 2011, 1:17 pm

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