Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It's time for a change: Part 1

With the success of the 2010 Vancouver Games fresh in the memories of hockey fans, it’s time for the NHL to embrace changes to the format of the professional and international game for the betterment of the sport as a whole. Hockey never looked so good as it did in its glory, as Sidney Crosby, part thespian, part hockey-legend, acted out the final scene of what could be considered an Oscar winning script. In theory you can’t influence the outcomes of professional or international sports, but what the International Ice Hockey Federation and the National Hockey League can do is create further opportunities for this type of storied championship to be authored by re-vamping the current system.
As it currently stands hockey, a considerably more international game than other North American Sports, boasts at its professional level what is arguably the greatest championship format, but continues to be a lame duck internationally. While Baseball, a pre-dominantly North American sport recognized the importance of an international championship when they created the World Baseball Championship,  hockey has continued to let what would be its largest global marketing opportunity fizzle.
As it stands the NHL and IIHF are competing, not working together for the better good of the game. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman continues to call the bluff of the NHL Players Association, and holds NHLPA participation at the 2014 Games in Sochi as a cheap negotiating ploy to help break the NHLPA in upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement Talks. The system of adding players to the roster from NHL teams as they exit the Stanley Cup Playoffs lowers the quality of the play in this tournament to that of a shinny game, and the obscure television times don’t help. And, obviously, the World Championships are held in the spring, during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which not only robs the tournament of top talent but viewers as well.
It’s hard to give props to the IIHF when the only true crowning achievement has been the success of the World Junior Championships, however, it’s obvious that the tournament is only popular in North American hockey hotbeds, and its success is more attributed to TSN than any initiative of a governing board of hockey.
The NHL needs to participate in every Olympics, especially the upcoming Sochi games. They must capitalize on a crop of young Russian talent, and the first player of intrigue on a national and tabloid scale, Alex Ovechkin, who defiantly states he will be playing for Russia regardless of the outcome of the CBA negotiations. The NHL is also undeniably losing top-level talent to the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. Pressure to retain the games major stars, and to negotiate contracts with Unrestricted Free Agents whose price tag is driven up by competition to sign with KHL clubs. The NHL needs to remind Russia (and the world) that it is still the top league. It’s highly likely that the KHL, as mired in contract and safety scandal as you can imagine it to be, will ultimately fail, as the largest of its financial support comes from the rapidly altering fossil fuels industry. They continue to expand, adding a team in Kiev, Ukraine prior to this season.
The NHL undeniably is the highest level of hockey, and it’s not likely that will ever change. NHL players need to play in the Olympics and to do so they need to alter the NHL season, not just in Olympic years, but permanently, so that Stanley Cup Playoffs don’t run half way in to June every year. Now the league can add a second tournament that is close or equal to the level of the Winter Olympics by placing a true World Cup in rotation with the Olympics, so that every two years is a true major tournament. Like the new World Baseball Classic it could take place prior to the season starting so not to conflict with regular off-season training regimens, or exhaust players by coming at the end of a long playoff run.
This is the first change to both the international and professional games.  Part two poses drastic overhauling of the professional game for the betterment of hockey.

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