Tondar's Daily Rant

Prepare yourself for the writings of Tondar the Destroyer, Baron of Atlanta, Rightful Heir to the Throne of Spain, from whom all babies come. As his will be blogged, so let it be done.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

WTF ON ICE

James raises an interesting question about hockey and the NHL that Seth takes the time to answer...

Fucking shit, what the hell happened to Hockey? It used to be my favorite sport. Can I blame this all on the South and the state of California?


James, blame can go around, but mostly it's the computer industry.

It started when L.A. traded for Gretzky. Before the Great One filled seats for the Kings, nobody believed non-hockey cities could support a hockey team. But at this point, the league was still swallowing its last expansion, including a failed stint in Atlanta, and the eye was still turned northwards.

But then, computers sparked the 1990s boom, moving a number of young professionals from northern cities to places like San Jose, Calif., Raleigh, N.C., Tampa, Fla., Miami, Atlanta, Nashville, Anaheim, Calif., Denver, Dallas, and Phoenix. And the NHL's new commisioner, who saw this, built the NHL from a league beloved by 60 percent of sports fans in 16 smallish northern cities, to a business supported by 15 percent of sports fans in 30 major metropolitan areas.

The '90s boom also made the U.S. dollar strong against the Canadian dollar, which meant Canadian cities needed to earn more money than American teams in order to pay their players a comparable salary. Increasingly, as the USD moved further from the CND, small-market Canadian teams were suffering. The first sign was Edmonton having to sell off Gretzky to L.A. Owners were worried about competitive advantage. They saw the NBA had survived rising salaries and thrived. So they hired an NBA guy.

In the early '90s, Gary Bettman, who had helped engineer the successful expansion of the NBA into these growing Sun Belt cities, was brought in to do the same with the NHL. He came with the NBA formula for rejuvenating franchises: invite over half the league to the playoffs, and for the rest, use a rigged draft lottery to give the down-and-out team a rookie superstar and make it all about him. Bettman okayed a 10-year-old plan to put a team back in Ottawa, but only if the owners would approve of a team in Tampa Bay as well.

By now Bettman was focused on going south. He helped teams leave hockey-mad places like Minneapolis, Quebec, Winnipeg and Hartford without giving the cities an opportunity to keep their franchises. He expanded into San Jose, Anaheim, Tampa Bay, Miami, Nashville, and Atlanta, as well as Columbus and another team in Minneapolis. He also focused on getting the small-market teams a huge advantage in access to the best young players.

With all of this expansion, the talent pool was remarkably diluted.

Also at this time, the Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche, formerly the Quebec Nordiques, were rising toward the top of the league. During the massive expansion, the advantage in the NHL went to good GMs with deep pockets, who could keep four lines of NHL talent on the ice. Remember, this league was only a few decades removed from having just six teams! The talent was made up for, in part, by an influx of Europeans. The Red Wings specifically used this pipeline to stay competitive (along with oodles of cash).

But Colorado and New Jersey stole a tactic out of junior hockey: the trap. Now, everyone already knew the trap. Everyone had played the trap. The trap wasn't some wildly new scheme. The thing is, to defeat the trap, you need a strong-skating defender who can move the puck. When you were playing Bobby Orr one out of six games, this tactic was useless. When the league slowed down, and half of each teams' rosters were filled with slow skaters with hands of stone, it suddenly became very useful.

What New Jersey and Colorado did (along with oodles of cash) was to use the trap with interference. Clutching and grabbing became a lifestyle in the NHL. It was the great equalizer -- no longer did you need three strong skaters like Draper/Maltby/McCarty to slow down a team's top line. You just needed big, pugilistic huggers. In response, forwards got bigger too, and the age of Gretzky and Yzerman gave way to Brendan Shanahan, Eric Lindros and Petr Forsberg.

The Avalanche of this era were responsible for two other noticeable changes. Patrick Roy, a great goalie in his own right, learned to push the limits each year on goalie equipment size, snow piles, and any other trick he could learn to take away shooting lanes. Big-ass goalies because another big equalizer, which Bettman needed to make sure his gazillion young franchises could stay competitive.

The Avs also had Claude Lemieux. Now, the sport had had its fair share of wankers, but Lemieux was special not just for being the cheapest, grabbiest, head-hunting, soulless bitch ever on skates, but because he showed up just when the game was changing so as to make his style of play work for him. Before, a guy like Lemieux would get Darren McCartyied one week into his career, and hospitalized by the end of his rookie season. But with such a quick expansion, there were a lot of (young) new faces, and teaching them the unwritten rules of the game (e.g. guys like Lemieux get their nuts fed to them) was secondary to the more technical aspects of modern hockey, namely angles to the goal.

The Devils were experts on angles, helped by their angle-fanatic goalie Martin Brodeur. It wasn't talent but smarts and size they coveted -- a guy who can block and get in peoples' way.

So the goalies became so big that a position (butterfly) became a style, and teams without a lot of hockey talent could win by cutting off angles that a slow goalie couldn't get to, covering the rest of the goal with massive pads, and playing a trap defense with a dump and chase offense that maximized size and minimized speed and skill.

This was paying off, except the a few really big-money teams were still competing with skill by acquiring a ridiculous amount of it, thanks to the ridiculous rise in salaries. This was horrible for Bettman's plan -- even though the big guys were getting upset with regularity by dump-and-chase small teams, those who didn't make the playoffs were so bad their fans lost faith that they'd ever be competitive. A bad team in Detroit or Toronto or Montreal can survive, but a joke in Anaheim or Nashville would be disasterous.

So Bettman used the renewal of the NHL's contract with the players to institute a true salary cap. The players were absolutely against it, leading to the locked out season.

In the end, though, Bettman got what he wanted. The NHL had been effectively taken away from the areas where a majority of sports fans care about hockey, and moved into much larger cities. With over half the league in the postseason, and a huge advantage in talent acquisition for bad teams, it became virtually impossible to miss the playoffs for any significant length of time. Player salaries had been brought under control, and because there's virtually no difference between the talent level of a sixth defenseman and a minor leaguer in the vastly diffused talent pool of the NHL, teams could get by paying over half of their teams near the league minimum. However, the effects of the lockout, general disinterest in most of the new NHL towns, the loss of the unwritten hockey code, and years and years of league-sanctioned cheating -- if you think it's over, look at Stanley Cup Winning goalie J.S. Giguere's goalie pads -- have all combine to elicit a "fucking shit, what the hell happened to Hockey," from his erstwhile favorite sport.

All because you couldn't use a typewriter.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home