Imagine That—Exciting NHL Playoff Action Without Fighting

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIJune 14, 2009

WASHINGTON - MAY 13:  Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals skates against Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinal  Round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on May 13, 2009 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

As some of you know, I am not a big hockey fan; hence, I tend not to write about it.  But, this year’s playoffs, for several reasons, were the most intriguing in years in the NHL, and I actually watched some of them. 

While I do not think it will ever be a hugely popular sport, nor will it ever be a very good TV sport, admittedly, I found some of the games to be exciting. And I was happy to have witnessed only one fight, which was totally unnecessary (there may have been more that I did not see).

And if the NHL were smart (which they aren’t), they would capitalize off of this year’s intriguing playoffs and eliminate fighting altogether in an effort to win some new fans and draw some old fans back.

Now, I will give the NHL credit because of what they did in 2005 to clean up the cluttered game of NHL hockey. They announced a new standard of enforcement of the existing rules i.e., zero tolerance for hooking, holding, tripping, slashing, cross checking, and interference, in an effort to put an end to the grappling, wrestling, and bear-hugging that sucks the speed, excitement, and skill from the game. 

I did not see much of a difference the first year (admittedly I only watch some of the playoffs and that’s it for hockey and baseball for me), but each year seems to have gotten better.

And now hockey is more like the hockey that I remember when I first starting watching hockey around 1969. Unfortunately, goons on the Philadelphia Flyers (soon imitated by most of the rest of the league) ruined NHL hockey for me five years later and I never came back as a fan (interestingly, while I grew up in Rochester, New York, I have lived in Philly since 1994).  

For the next 30 years, the NHL stupidly did not allow great stick handlers such as Jaromir Jagr, great goal scorers like Mario Lemieux, and great passers like Wayne Gretzky to excite us often enough because of the goon-like tactics that existed in the league.  But, now, it seems hockey seems to have partially (see rink size below) solved one of its problems.

However, to me, hockey still has some problems—some fixable—some probably not. I already wrote a whole article on the totally unnecessary and barbaric fighting that exists in the NHL, so I will just say that it does not belong and I will no longer debate this illogical and ridiculous concept. 

In January in Toronto, a player died during a fight in the minor leagues—it seems that the NHL has been lucky to have avoided this catastrophe. Sadly, that might be what it takes to eliminate fighting in the NHL.

The other problem with hockey is that is difficult to follow the puck, especially when it goes into the net. There is nothing wrong with my vision and over half of the times I cannot see the puck enter the net when a goal is scored. This is disheartening and I have no solution; nor, apparently, does anyone else, since they have not come up with one yet.

NHL hockey would also improve if they made the rinks larger so that they are the same size as International Hockey (NHL: 200 feet by 85 feet; International: 200 feet by 98 feet). I realize that this will take some doing, but if the NHL had worked towards this goal once it became obvious that hockey is more exciting with a bigger rink (I plead ignorance as to when this occurred), they might have larger rinks by now. This is another example of the NHL, like MLB, to value tradition too much and reacting too slowly in improving the sport.

Hockey has some built in good points that the NHL has never fully exploited because of its problems. It has almost non-stop action with few commercials during the periods.  And it also has something that the NBA does not have (which two of my friends will say is the most exciting thing in any sport’s playoffs)its overtime is sudden death. I will admitit is hard not to find sudden death very exciting.

This year’s NHL playoffs had its two best players, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin (and you thought that I did not know hockey lol), going head-to-head in an exciting seven game series. Game Two, (which I happened to watch) was particularly memorable, as both stars scored hat tricks as they answered back and forth like two boxers in a ring (minus the fighting, thanks heavens). 

With the exception of the seventh game blowout, the NHL could not have written a better script for this series (given that it was not in the finals). I do not know for sure who is better player (my guess is Crosby), but I found Crosby to be more likeable and the better passer, while I found Ovechkin to be more exciting and to have the best shot since Lemieux.

The finals were a rematch between the young and talented (including Crosby and Finals MVP Evgeni Malkin) Pittsburgh Penguins and the veteran dynasty called the Detroit Red Wings. While not all the games were close, the Penguins made the series exciting by surprising most of the experts (but not mesince I picked them to winand you thought that I did not know hockey) and coming back from a 2-0 game deficit to win four of the last five games and the Stanley Cup. 

The last seven minutes of Game Seven were very exciting as the favored Red Wings tried to tie the game and force overtime. And the season ended with a bang—two huge and breathtaking saves in the final seconds by Penguins’ goalie, Marc-Andre Fluery.

Now, if the NHL would be smart for once and capitalize on its intriguing playoffs and future (especially Crosby vs. Ovechkin), by eliminating fighting altogether, working on a game plan to increase the size of their rinks, and hiring some genius to make the puck more visible, NHL hockey might win some more new fans or bring back old fans (like me) and become a true major team sport.