A new season is dawning and life for the NHL can't get any worse ... or could it?
I'm talking about a league that in three months went from showcasing one of the greatest exhibitions of playoff hockey in decades -- the seven-game Stanley Cup Final between the Red Wings and Penguins -- to dismissing
You want to say it can't possibly sink any lower. Not even the NHL can slide so far so fast, but there is cause to wonder: If all that was what the summer brought, what's on the horizon for fall, winter and spring? Thankfully, there is some good news:
The games are back.
This is a good thing. By all accounts, and despite the NHL's ever-shifting standards, this season should be better than good. It may well be great. The league is peopled with young stars who have moved past the emerging stage and exploded onto the public's consciousness in ways not seen since Gretzky and
Joining Ovechkin at the top are the twin stars of Pittsburgh:
There is strength of size and number in Philadelphia where the complete game of
In the West, the still-potent Red Wings will try to blend the usual mix of veteran stars and emerging talent and reach the Cup final for the third time in as many seasons.
There are many more
There will be an Olympic interlude on North American soil (Hello, Vancouver) in February, but like so many things that surround the NHL, critics argue that what should be a plus is being treated as a problem despite the fact that fans and players love the Games. The NHL isn't likely to participate in the next Winter Olympics, a decision not yet announced but almost a fait accompli given that the 2014 Games are in Russia. On the business side, they don't fit the league's time frame for effective marketing. On the political side, it's Russia. The Russians, with their newly-formed leagues and resistance to a workable player transfer agreement, are fast becoming a business enemy on par with
After building on a startling jump in momentum coming out of the 2004-05 lockout and largely delivering on its promise for a better, faster, more exciting game, the league's momentum, at least regarding public perception, appears to have stalled. One might argue that it has actually crashed.
For starters, rarely has the league office been so preoccupied with "issues" through the offseason. Time usually spent thinking ahead has been spent thinking up reasons to explain why the NHL is still in court with the Coyotes. Just this week, bankruptcy court Judge
Then there's the deteriorating relationship between the NHL and its players, and between the players and their leaders in the NHLPA. There was a quiet coup this summer that saw executive director
A rising tide of anger doesn't bode well, especially when the league, which might have laid claim to the higher ground after the costly lockout brought the owners' much-wanted salary cap, is grieving almost every issue that comes before it, costing the players time and money and building an overriding sense of ill will. As a fan, you might argue that all this shouldn't matter, that these are professionals who are (highly) paid to play. But hockey players are people, too, and the issues that are rocking their usually secure world are taking a toll
There's also concern regarding the players' health and safety on the ice. With absolutely no input from their ranks, the league scaled back its enforcement of heavy hits, especially from behind and blows to the head. Many players were hoping for more of an advocate's voice from their executive director, and Kelly seemed to respond in kind, but with him gone there's a concern that the vexing problem of head injuries will simply get worse.
Toss in another change at the top of the always-fluid NHL officiating department --
In what has become an eternal quest to find a TV provider other than ESPN, the league's current U.S. cable provider, Versus, is in a snit fight with satellite distributor DirecTV. The dispute has scuttled some 14 million viewers. It's a problem that may yet be resolved, but it smacks of the kind the league had with Madison Square Garden over internet rights, and it seems to open the door for MSG or some other regional network to cut a deal separate of league partners and concentrate on serving places where hockey draws an audience without trying to air games in areas where people simply refuse to watch.
Of course, those people will be missing some good stuff on the ice. So, yes, let us hope for the best -- especially that things don't get worse.