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Madden: NHL won't admit its game stinks

Saturday, February 15, 2003

Loving hockey is like being married to a prostitute. You may be in love, but mostly, you're embarrassed and ashamed.

Or maybe you hate hockey because of the Alexei Kovalev deal. Not a bad place to start, but it's a pretty shallow reason compared to those I'm about to give you.

The NHL obstruction crackdown is over -- if, indeed, you believe it started. NHL games contain an average of 9.2 power plays so far this season. At the All-Star break last year, games were averaging 8.5 power plays. Adding a meager seven-tenths of a power play per game is because of coincidence, not crackdown.

But don't trust statistics. Believe your eyes. The scrubs are water-skiing behind the stars. Forecheckers are impeded by the bump-and-run. The refereeing is back to normal -- i.e., lousy.

NHL games are averaging 5.32 goals. Last season at the All-Star break, NHL games were averaging 5.23 goals. What do you mean, you won't buy season tickets in the Igloo section? They're scoring .09 more goals per game this season!

But again, don't believe the stats. If you watch hockey, and especially if you love the game hockey is supposed to be, you know that the caliber of play in the NHL has never been worse and never been executed with less of an eye toward entertainment.

The NHL has been drastically overexpanded. Roughly 30 percent of the NHL's players do not have big-league skills. A too-high percentage of those are named Bouchard, Fata, Lintner or Samuelsson. At any rate, there are about nine teams too many. Thanks to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the demise of effective state-sponsored development programs in those nations, the talent pool is shrinking.

What's more, the proliferation of really bad minor-league hockey has foisted a vastly inferior version of the game on an unsuspecting public and undoubtedly keeps people away from NHL rinks. If someone in Wheeling is first exposed to hockey through the Nailers and hates it -- a likely scenario -- that person might be turned off for good. If, for some twisted reason, he/she likes it, why bother driving to Pittsburgh to pay big money for a seat? It's easier and cheaper to stay home and watch the Nailers.

In the 1980s, when the NHL was enjoying its high-scoring heyday, there were 21 teams. There was an average of 8.03 goals per game in 1981-82. The lowest point total for a scoring champion in the '80s was 137. Calgary's Jarome Iginla did the trick last year with 96.

More goals don't necessarily translate to better hockey. But more goals do mean more entertaining hockey, especially for the casual fan who might not understand the sport's intricacies and traditions but does get excited when the puck goes in the net and the crowd roars.

Enforce the rules consistently? Take out the red line? Limit goalie equipment to a reasonable size?

The NHL treats such legitimate suggestions as blasphemy, even as attendance struggles, television ratings plummet, player salaries go out of control, franchises go into bankruptcy, and the Penguins have yet another fire sale. The NHL's only recent major adjustment was deciding to obstruct the view of half the spectators because of one fluke fan fatality.

NHL hockey stinks. Not only has expansion diluted the level of play, but a too-long schedule has eroded the intensity. You want to see hard-nosed hockey? Watch Division I college. That's about the only place hockey players give 110 percent every night, and it's because they only play twice a week. The spirit is willing when it comes to NHL players. The crowded schedule just beats them up.

Probably the worst part about hockey's trouble is the refusal of NHL administration to admit there's anything wrong, at least not out loud.

The Kovalev debacle should be trumpeted as a microcosm of what's wrong with the NHL's financial structure. Instead, Craig Patrick says the transaction gives the Penguins a shot at the playoffs. In the East Coast Hockey League, maybe. Commissioner Gary Bettman, meanwhile, says nothing.

By taking the fans for fools, Patrick looks foolish. As for Bettman, looking foolish is the most prominent skill on his resume.

ABC and ESPN, however, have things figured. The number of nationally televised games has been cut. Ratings are brutal. Hockey is an afterthought on SportsCenter. Highlights often get shown after fans of (argh) women's basketball drink their fill. When hockey's national television contract comes due after next season, NHL revenues from that deal will be sliced big-time -- if the deal even gets renewed, that is.

That's ironic when you consider the NHL expanded willy-nilly into the West and South to get into more big TV markets. That was designed to increase ratings, then revenue. Didn't work. Darn.

Hockey is a great game. To me, it's the best. But the NHL is a thoroughly backward organization run and refereed by idiots. If you don't watch it, I don't blame you. If Mario Lemieux doesn't play in it, I won't blame him. If the Penguins fold or leave, I'll miss them dearly. But I won't miss the version of hockey the NHL sells.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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