Friday, November 27, 2009

A Season Too Long and a Sensible Solution

I've been thinking about all the back-to-back series Montreal will face on the schedule this year, so I'd like to throw out an idea about how we can make the NHL a more entertaining league to watch with a simple adjustment to the length of the NHL season.

Hockey has never been a harder sport than it is today, despite what dinosaurs like Mike Milbury and the rest of his kind might have you think. Yes they wear helmets and far better protective padding these days, but the NHL players have conditioned themselves to play with as little as 5% total body fat, replacing that with far more muscle, they skate faster than ever before with new equipment and training. The speed and strength of your NHL player is far superior to any other point in the sport's history. Therein lies your problem when the NHL schedule is 82 games long.

The human body can take a finite amount of damage, the human skeleton has a breaking point on every bone, muscles still tear no matter how much conditioning one puts themselves through. Despite various advances in sports medicine, knees are rarely restored to what they were when serious damage occurs and the brain can't be fixed no matter what they do when serious damage occurs. The game's gotten harder and tougher, the league doesn't do nearly enough to protect their players in terms of supplementary discipline for illegal hitting and while there is talk of new helmets to protect the head and rules on redesigning the padding to prevent the use of the shoulder pad as an offensive weapon, there will still be significant problems.

I won't go over the whole injury list of who hass lost who, just look up on any injury list you care to browse, like this one for example. That's just the latest course of injuries, many have returned as well in this time to their teams.

Solutions? Well besides cracking down on headshots, no more padding that is more weaponry than protection would be a good place to start. While the NHL is taking care of this, it would not harm anything to institute rules about players having to securely strap on their helmets and the visor being mandatory for all players.

I propose a solution that will cut down on the risk of injury, allow more recovery time between games and simply stated, improve the overall quality of the game. the back-to-back game is a bad development of an NHL schedule that is too long and it cuts down on what we see each night. these back-to-back incidents happen. Unless both teams are coming off a game the night before, the game more often is irritating than not for the viewers rooting for the team doing their second game in two days.

The NHL season currently stands at 82 games and we are facing a compressed schedule to accommodate the Winter Olympics. I do not really mind this on the whole, seeing the NHL's finest compete for the Gold Medal in Hockey in what will probably be one of the best contests in international hockey history looking at the talent pools for the major nations involved in the sport.

Here's one of the problems with this compressed schedule though, Montreal last year faced 8 back-to-back series, this year they are facing fifteen of them. The season could definitely have used a good reduction in the Olympic year in the interest of keeping the players healthy long enough to play for their home countries. However, I would like to see 14 games taken off the NHL schedule permanently in the simple interest of the average hockey game being more entertaining. Think about, it every team having at least one day of rest before their next hockey game, more time to prepare for their next game, less stress on the players and fewer games for them to risk injury and fewer minor injuries aggravated into major ones. Fewer players would push themselves to return too early from injury as the schedule would be more relaxed, allowing more recovery time.

One could argue these are professional athletes and should be able to handle two games in two days and they can, but if the opposing team has not had to play the previous night, there is a marked difference in performance. The other team is completely fresh with no weariness from a hard-fought win or loss the night before if they haven't played the day before and if there is no game the next day for them, they feel free to push themselves more and expend all their reserves in that third-period battle to ensure victory in a game. The team on their second game in two nights is always more weary and it always shows especially in the third period, they're not at full strength and the fresh team has an easy advantage if they are well prepared. Montreal lost to Pittsburgh 3-1 after playing Columbus the night before in an offensively powered 5-3 victory. The results were telling of how back-to-back games can affect a team. Montreal themselves could thank their victory over Columbus in part on the Jackets having played in New York the night before in a 7-4 loss, allowing them to enjoy a dominant third-period offence that recorded 3 goals.

Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec have largely paced Montreal's offence in the last stretch of games, but having come off a 5-3 victory the night before, they had endured a hard match, an overnight flight and discovered their linemate Andrei Kostitsyn was out of the lineup. They couldn't win the game though, you could see it in Mike Cammalleri towards the end of the game, he was tired and Plekanec's speed wasn't quite what it was the night before as well and against a fresh Pittsburgh Penguins tea, it wasn't enough. When you have a team which has faced two sets of back-to-back games in the last 5 days and injury troubles, it was hardly a quality product on ice compared to what could have been seen with that schedule spread out more. Had those four games been spread out over eight days instead of five, the quality would have been above what you generally watch during these contests.

Montreal would play Washington and then Detroit in two nights before playing Columbus with a two-day break in between, the schedule had not helped the quality of those games prior to the Columbus and Pittsburgh games. On that Saturday, Detroit had played the night before as well while Montreal was coming off their 3-2 win over Washington, a very hard-fought win, Detroit had lost in overtime to the Panthers. At the same time, the Capitals played in Toronto the same night as well, not having a respite from having played Montreal. Does anyone honestly believe those games would not have better than what was seen had Montreal, Detroit and Washington had a day's rest before these matches? The same goes for Montreal's game against Colombus had the Jackets had a night off first and then Montreal could have enjoyed a day's rest before playing the Penguins.

I would like to watch a good hockey game every time I sit down, quality over sheer quantity of games played would be preferential in my opinion. Does it really do anything for the game when you have a tired team play two games in two nights except probably give their second opponent a good chance at two points if they haven't played the night before? Better rested teams, more coaching time, more recovery time and just plain better hockey would result.

I doubt this will happen, the players would be loathe to see a 17% drop in their salaries as the season would be reduced this much, but I honestly believe it would be the best thing to happen to the NHL in terms of making each hockey game a better one to watch. The owners don't want to see seven fewer games played in their arenas giving them seven less chances to sell 8$ watered down beer, 6$ dollar hot dogs, 350$ authentic game-worn jerseys and fill anywhere between 16,000 to 23,000 seats and large numbers of luxury boxes. That's not even counting the television rights attached to 14 games in a league that's fought like mad to try and get any kind of television revenue when they are the No. 4 sport in the United States in popularity.

I'm against both the players and owners on this but why should that matter, the fans should have their say in what they want from the sport since they pay for it. Would it not be a better game? The star players would be injured less often and more recovery time would allow more teams to be intact on a regular basis. The home teams wouldn't come home from long road trips and have to face a top team in their conference as soon as they get off the plane, give the hometown crowd a disappointing show that they paid a lot of money to see.

This would also be a good move as it could encourage the reduction of the major junior hockey season as well, something that concerns me as well. A shorter NHL season would allow for a shorter season in the major junior leagues, as the leagues would not be expected to turn out youngsters prepared to play 70 or more games a season by having them close to 70 games in their own junior hockey seasons. A fifty-game season sounds about right to me, cuts down on the injury risk to these young kids, the majority of which will never make the NHL and have to find other things to do in their life. Think about the risks in hockey, crushed knees, brain damage, severed tendons, broken bones and other long-term ailments that can follow them around for life. It seems a bit of a steep price for playing what was supposed to be just a fun game in their youth or even just time spent chasing their dream that didn't pan out, should chasing that dream haunt them for life with a bad injury from it? Yes, they might not play as often and take longer to develop but what is the harm in that? The game could remain more of a game for the kids and that's not a terrible idea.

The AHL isn't a death sentence for those who play in it especially if they have the talent and work ethic that has scouts saying they are naturals for the NHL. It would improve the quality of the games in the AHL as more quality NHL-bound players would spend time there developing before joining their NHL clubs. You would also also receive a better on-ice product when rookies started in their NHL careers.

The NHL with the star players healthy more often, teams closer to full strength on a more regular basis, rested and ready for each game. The AHL with a better crop of talent and more entertaining games for those who see them and the Major Junior leagues being a far lesser grind on thousands of young hockey players trying to make the NHL their life.

Now what's so crazy about that? Nothing at all really, it gives the fans a better product, better health to the players and the games would be better on all levels of hockey. It will never happen of course, but would it not be a better game? I believe it would.

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