The NHL turned a corner last season in its bid to make its game
more enjoyable to watch. Though the improvement wasn't always
discerned--the fans' attention was too often diverted by mindless
acts of violence, most notoriously Marty McSorley's
stick-to-the-temple assault on Donald Brashear--there was a
heightened flow to the play and an increase in scoring. All in
all, the game was a little better.
The four-on-four overtime championed by commissioner Gary Bettman
was an overwhelming success and the average goals-per-game rose
slightly (from 5.3 in 1998-99 to 5.5), but the league still
hasn't emerged from an age of overcoached, defensive hockey. Most
important, the issue of safety in the workplace--notably the
concussion epidemic--remains unresolved. Plus, no crossover star
has emerged since Wayne Gretzky's retirement in April 1999, and
on the horizon is an Armageddon-in-waiting, the expiration of the
collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players in
SI convened a blue-ribbon panel--broadcaster John Davidson, agent
Don Meehan, New York Rangers president Glen Sather, Detroit Red
Wings All-Star forward Brendan Shanahan and Washington Capitals
coach Ron Wilson--to discuss the issues confronting the league.
SI: Are you happy with the way hockey is being played in the NHL?
MEEHAN: The foremost issue is the violence in the game--the
McSorley incident, the Niedermayer incident [Scott Niedermayer
was suspended for 10 games for striking Peter Worrell in the head
with a stick] and others. There's a real concern in my
constituency. When a player talks to me about his contract, it
isn't so much, "How well can I do? How successful can I be?" Or
"How successful can the team be?" But "I better start looking at
some security because of the way the game is played."
DAVIDSON: At the players' association meeting this summer,
[Buffalo Sabres defenseman] James Patrick talked about the
players' responsibility to each other, and he spoke from his
heart. I've a genuine sense that, for the first time, the players
realize they've got to police what's going on.
SI: Is hockey more dangerous or violent than ever before?
DAVIDSON: Oh, absolutely.
WILSON: I think it's just that the guys are bigger, stronger and
MEEHAN: The players are saying, in effect, that they're concerned
about a lack of respect for each other now.
SI: Did they ever respect each other? Did Wayne Maki and Ted
Green, who engaged in a legendary stick fight in the 1960s,
respect each other? Gordie Howe with his elbows up...
DAVIDSON: When Gordie Howe threw an elbow, you didn't see a guy
out for two weeks with a concussion. The elbow pads the players
wear now are dangerous, and the league has set up a committee to
look into equipment.
SHANAHAN: We have to ask whether players are wearing something
for protection or more to use it as a weapon. I wear the
old-style shoulder pads. I can deliver hits, but I can't run a
guy because I have to protect myself. But some guys are getting
into football-style shoulder pads--these pads are more of a
SATHER: Everybody says violence is a problem that the league or
the governors should deal with. It's never a problem for the
players because the agents don't want to push their clients to
stop the violence. But the players are the ones who inflict the
damage on each other. In the old days guys would put their sticks
up to protect themselves, and you didn't run a guy because you
knew you were going to get a stick in the face. But now players
wear face masks, helmets; they've got armor on their shoulders
and their elbows. When I played, there were things you could get
away with. But there was also respect for each other. Players
don't have that same respect because [with expansion] they don't
see each other as much anymore.
MEEHAN: Hey, Glen, I've often wondered why the league wouldn't
convene a session with the players' association to say, "Hey, we
had 40 suspensions last year, and we've got a problem. So what do
the players think? What about the penalties today? What do you
think about your safety out there?" Let's get something on the
table, develop a consensus. The league is not doing enough.
League representatives should be in every dressing room at the
beginning of the season saying something along the lines of "This
can't continue, for the benefit of everybody."
DAVIDSON: I saw Jeff Beukeboom yesterday at a golf tournament.
He's still hurting from that career-ending concussion [from a
punch thrown by Matt Johnson]. Do you know what happened after
Johnson lost a good chunk of his salary [$95,121, for his 12-game
suspension]? The players on his team took a collection for him.
That's no respect. That's dead wrong.
SI: Are concussions at epidemic levels?
DAVIDSON: We're seeing players who are getting their second,
third, fourth ones, and their careers are on the line.
SI: Would you favor outlawing blows to the head?
SATHER: Why do you ever have to hit a guy on the head? That
started when guys began to wear helmets, when face masks came in.
Twenty years ago guys respected each other, and they were very
careful not to hit each other on the head.
WILSON: Glen, when you played, and when I played, if you had a
concussion, chances were you didn't say anything--or you didn't
know enough to say anything, or the trainers didn't know that you
had a concussion. I remember getting my bell rung playing for the
Leafs in Colorado. I don't remember how I got to the bench, and
[teammate] Tiger Williams said, "You're not missing a shift, are
you? No, you're getting your ass out there the next shift." Now,
if you get your bell rung and you stumble to the bench, you've
got a doctor, the trainers and half the team telling you not to
go out there. That's a good thing.
SHANAHAN: Some guys go into the corner and finish a check at the
head every time. Certain players, because of their size, can hit
you in the head repeatedly. Every shift, [tall players] are going
to finish a check to your face, to your jaw, to your temple, and
there's no penalty.
SI: Do certain rinks pose safety problems?
SHANAHAN: Oh, they've got to get rid of the [seamless] glass. I
remember in Calgary getting a very innocent hit into the glass,
but when my head hit the glass it was like hitting a brick wall.
The investment teams make is too huge to not spend the money to
get rid of the [seamless] glass. Great idea as far as viewing the
game, bad idea as far as keeping players healthy.
SATHER: Don, wouldn't it be better for you to get together with
your players and the agents and the players' association and say,
"Here are some of the things that we'd really like to fix: We'd
like to get the glass changed. We'd like to get the equipment
changed, so we can protect players. And we should get together
with the NHL rules committee and Gary Bettman." But the problem
with that plan is the players' association always says, "If
you'll give us $175 a day in meal money, we might consider doing
that." There isn't any flexibility because the players'
association won't cooperate. Would you agree with that, Don?
MEEHAN: You and I wish the relationship between owners and the
players' association was a hell of a lot better.
WILSON: There are no helmet specifications for NHL players, for
SATHER: Remember a few years ago we were trying to get that
fixed? Marty McSorley said that he couldn't wear a certain kind
of helmet because it would screw up his hair. But that was a
negotiating ploy. You know, if you're going to protect the
players, both sides have to get together and solve the problems.
Brendan said the glass is bad. Let's fix the glass.
SHANAHAN: The league can say and do whatever it wants [about
violence], but that all goes out the window unless you've got
capable refs. We've got two referees working each game now. Why
can't they stop by the dressing rooms before every game and say,
"Look, I saw your game last night. Lapointe, you're carrying your
elbows too high. We're going to call that. Shanahan, you were
hooking. Here's what we're going to call tonight. Here's how we
want the game played."
SI: The condition of the ice is a problem in many arenas. The use
of some buildings for many events forces the frequent re-laying
of ice, while the league's expansion to warm-weather sites makes
the surface in those places difficult to maintain. Ron, do you
coach with poor ice conditions in mind?
WILSON: It seems that 95 percent of the time you went into the
third period with a one-goal lead last year, you won the game.
Offensively, it's harder to get things going as the game wears
on. Also, if teams would eliminate promotions between periods on
the ice, get the Zambonis out there as soon as the players are
off, do the ice and let the ice set, that would be better.
SATHER: [By eliminating promotions] you're eliminating a
revenue-creating stream that helps us pay salaries.
SI: When we asked the initial question--Are you happy with the way
hockey is being played?--we thought you would immediately turn to
the pace of the game.
DAVIDSON: Last year was the biggest improvement we've had in
years. Scoring was up, the overtime four-on-four was fabulous. I
am glad the league hasn't changed anything from a year ago.
SI: Ron, are there other improvements that could be made?
WILSON: I'm a proponent of taking out the red line, or
experimenting with taking it out, to see if that would open the
neutral zone and create more speed.
Coaches coach destructive hockey now because of the stakes, and
the players are in the same situation. The stakes are so high,
the players are making so much money, and they figure that if
they don't do some of these things the coach asks, they won't be
here. I've watched tapes of games from the 1970s, and I didn't
see everybody finishing every check. I watched the Flyers play
the Sabres in the '75 Stanley Cup finals. The big, bad Flyers,
forechecking like demons, but they didn't finish a check all
night in the offensive zone. They swung in, curled away. Brendan,
if you dump the puck in and curl back the way players did in the
'70s and '80s, I'm sure you would be hearing it. You'd come to
the bench, and it would be, "Why didn't you finish [the check]?
You had him set up there. Punish him." The way I coach is "Finish
your checks. Get in the way. Grind, grind, grind." The stakes are
so high. If I don't find a way to win, I'm very replaceable.
SATHER: You watch the games without a red line [as in U.S.
college hockey and some international tournaments], there's very
SHANAHAN: The European players I've talked to think getting rid
of the line would slow the game. Like Ron said, we're all
thinking defense. Scoring a goal is great, but mostly you don't
want to get scored against.
SATHER: I have the opposite way of thinking. I don't care if we
get nine goals scored against as long as we score 11. It's more
fun and entertaining. Fans like it, players like it.
SI: How do you change the prevailing mind set that's in favor of
SHANAHAN: When I came into the league, the games were 7-5, 6-5
and everybody asked, "What ever happened to the days of the
Original Six, the 2-1 game?" Now everyone says, "What about the
good old days of 7-5?" Trends happen. It's cyclical. Hockey is
fine the way it is.
SATHER: We've regulated some things and changed to two referees.
There's more flow to the game now. You can't coach the way guys
coached five years ago. You just can't hook and hold and
interfere as much.
DAVIDSON: I don't care if a game is 1-0 or 6-5 as long as it's
intense. My question would be this: The schedule is 82 games plus
the preseason; is that conducive to playing good, passionate
hockey? If you're playing four games in five nights in four
cities, can you guarantee good, intense hockey?
SI: When John played in the Cup finals in 1979, he wore the same
pads goaltenders had worn for decades. Now all the netminders
look like the Michelin Man.
WILSON: The pads were 10 inches [in width] in the 1970s and the
'80s, and then they began sneaking up to 12. The pads should go
back to 10. That wouldn't hurt the goaltenders. When's the last
time you saw a goalie really hurt because of a shot?
SATHER: Goaltenders have no fear anymore. You can't run them, you
can't touch them.
WILSON: I'm so glad they fixed the crease rule. That was
retarded. [Beginning in 1999-2000, goals weren't waved off
because an offensive player was in the crease, as long as that
player didn't interfere with the goalie.]
SHANAHAN: If you were near your own net, you'd try to bump a guy
[from the other team] into the crease without looking like you
dragged him in. Bumping him was great. While he was standing in
there, you would block his way out. It's like, go ahead, shoot.
Score. We could use the face-off.
SI: The best player in the world is the Pittsburgh Penguins'
Jaromir Jagr, a Czech. Can a European draw new fans to the game
in North America?
WILSON: If the guy is good, it doesn't matter. Golf, a
predominantly white sport, is hitching its wagon to a black,
Tiger Woods. Tiger is that great. Golf didn't change the rules to
allow Tiger to win three majors this year. That hockey player
will come, and he'll just be there, whether he's black, white,
American, Canadian, Russian.
SHANAHAN: We have a tradition in hockey in which the greatest
players in the game are expected to be humble, to be team guys.
We're not going to have a Dennis Rodman. We won't allow it.
That's something that is great about our game, that our stars are
also expected to be team players.
SI: Glen, how many franchises will be left in Canada five years
SATHER: Maybe one, maybe two.
SI: Toronto and what other city?
SATHER: Maybe Montreal. The reality is, the Canadian teams can't
compete because they don't create enough revenue in American
dollars, and that's because of the exchange problem. [The
Canadian dollar is worth about 68 cents U.S.] O.K., maybe you can
compete, but you can't win.
MEEHAN: If you want to talk about the difference between American
and Canadian teams, check out the deal [Predators owner] Craig
Leipold has in Nashville. He's got municipal funding. The
government virtually bought the arena for them. It built the
practice facility for them. He got naming rights. Leipold has
walked into the biggest score of the century. I mean, so now you
SATHER: But that's free enterprise.
MEEHAN: It is. But we're talking about a business that has to
work for 30 teams, and you've just raised an issue about
franchises. What are [the Predators] doing for their partners in
SATHER: No, that's not true, Don. They're in the Canadian
Assistance plan, the same as the rest of the teams. They're
contributing money to the Canadian teams. What teams have to do
is control their spending, and for five years they haven't done
that. Expenses are killing them.
We used to say the best scenario for management is to get to the
final game in the Stanley Cup and lose 2-1 in overtime. Then you
don't have to talk to these agents [who say], "My guy's a
champion." You don't have to pay for the rings. You don't have to
take the team trip to Hawaii. You'd have to give out all the
players bonuses. It costs you a lot of money to win.
SI: Is it worthwhile for the NHL to continue its association with
SHANAHAN: Great experience, and also the most disappointing for
the players who weren't successful there. I think 2002 will be a
SI: Why were most reviews of the NHL's participation in Nagano so
SHANAHAN: Canada's game against the Czechs was considered a major
disappointment. If either Canada or the U.S. had won, the
Olympics would have been called a roaring success.
I don't think there's any way of doing this in the NHL, but I
wonder if we offered the intensity and excitement of those
Olympic single-game eliminations, we would make up in future TV
revenues what we would lose in arena revenue and ticket sales
over a longer series.
SI: Are you proposing a one-game Stanley Cup final?
SHANAHAN: Nothing is more exciting than a seventh game, and if
every game were a seventh game, what an event that would be.
SI: The expiration of the collective bargaining agreement is
looming. Are you all planning long vacations that year?
DAVIDSON: I don't know. I'm telling you, there's a lot of fear
out there. I hope everybody just finds a way. I get nervous
because I keep hearing owners, in Calgary and Edmonton in
particular, say that they're going to hang in there until 2004.
In other words they expect a serious change in the agreement.
SATHER: Some change is going to be good for both sides, and
they'll find a way to modify the agreement so it will work for
SI: What would ownership want out of the new agreement?
SATHER: We need ways of controlling costs and equalizing
competitiveness. I don't think we'll want to try and regulate
salaries or completely share expenses. But there are some
inequities among teams.
SI: What changes, Don, do players want?
MEEHAN: I'm comfortable with the agreement now. It works well for
SHANAHAN: Gary Bettman and [NHLPA executive director] Bob
Goodenow have done a great job. Now they're getting paid to talk.
This is the one hurdle that they have to work on together. That's
it. The players pay Bob a good salary, and Gary gets paid a good
salary. Their job is to avoid a work stoppage. If there is one,
Gary and Bob failed.
SI's NHL preview, which will have in-depth reports on all 30
teams, will appear in next week's issue.
a lack of respect for each other now."
players are in the same situation."
That's something that's great about our game."
score 11. It's more fun and entertaining. Fans like it."
that conducive to playing good hockey?"