How to increase excitement in the NHL

Watching the National Football League play-offs has made me wonder: what if the National Hockey League adopted the same idea, with single-game elimination rather than a full seven-game series? I know that my idea is increasingly idealistic, but I have my reasons.First of all, the way this would work is that the NHL would still have 16 teams in the play-offs. Many may not agree with me, but because only a little over half the NHL teams get to participate in the play-offs, regular season games have a little more meaning. While I was in Florida, a writer for the Fort Myers Sun-Sentinel had refuted the claim that regular season games are meaningless, and put forth some early season games of last year as proof. One of which was a Vancouver Canucks victory over the Phoenix Coyotes in October (I’m not sure, but I think it was in overtime) that, he says, allowed Vancouver to get into the play-offs because they had more wins, and if Phoenix had won that game, the Coyotes might have squeaked into the play-offs ahead of Vancouver. I read it and I believed him: the only unfortunate part that, until now, no one in the hockey world could hear what he said, since there are barely any hockey fans (if at all) in Fort Myers, which is on the other side of Florida as Miami. Because of this, the NHL can keep the play-offs at 16 competitors, which seems to be the right amount for the play-offs.

Now, take the idea further: in a single-game elimination, the higher seed gets to play the game at home. All it would take is one win to move on, which is easier said than done, and because they don’t get a second chance as in a seven-game set, the game becomes the most crucial game of the season for both teams. Now, instead of teams competing for the play-offs, they’d now be competing to finish first in their conference, since they’d now have the ability to stage all the crucial play-off games in their home rink. In a seven-game set, this doesn’t happen, since four out of seven games at home doesn’t feel too much like an advantage, at least to me, because both teams have a considerable amount of games at home to bounce back in the series. I’ve often argued that Game 1 is the most meaningless game in a series because winning it only gives the team a little advantage, one that can easily be off-set by the opposition, and winning one game is pointless unless you can win one or two more later to establish dominance.

Next will be the Stanley Cup Final: it shouldn’t be held in the arena of higher seeded conference winner but it should be held, like the Super Bowl, in a city chosen by the NHL, like the All-Star Game and the NHL Entry Draft. This would allow it to become a much-anticipated event like the Super Bowl, because it is the game of the NHL season, perhaps giving the NHL the ad competition only the Super Bowl can generate (which makes for some great T.V.) For example, the Cup Final could be held this year in Columbus or Minnesota to give those hockey-crazed fans a chance to see play-off hockey as the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets clearly are not going to be there, and give the city’s fans something to talk about come play-off time since they’ll get The Big Game. Perhaps, too, the NHL could go even further: the city of the President’s Trophy winner gets to host the Cup Final. Now, NHL teams have extra incentive to finish first overall in the standings, because they’d be able to get the most important game of the season- the Cup Final- in their home city. That would put more emphasis on the President’s Trophy, as the Trophy now doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Still, if the NHL gave the Final as judiciously as it does for the Entry Draft and All-Star Game, it will give cities like Minnesota and Columbus the ability to get play-off hockey when their teams may not be able to get there.

Of course, there are problems with this idea: first of all, the owners would be told to lose the potential of 12-13 home play-off dates (depending on the location of the Cup Final). However, if the NHL put in revenue sharing, that won’t be a problem, and the increased importance of the games might raise the quality to such a point that T.V. stations will reward the NHL with more money than it has ever seen, thus off-setting the loss of play-off revenue. Second, the potential for a missed or bad call by the referee determining the outcome of a game is a real and dangerous possibility. Just yesterday, the New England Patriots were allowed to continue a drive that should have stalled when Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady fumbled the football to the Oakland Raiders. However, the referees somehow declared it an incomplete pass, allowing the Patriots to drive in for the tying field goal and eventually win the game in overtime. If that happened in hockey the uproar would be tremendous: imagine, Colorado Avalanche centre Joe Sakic going on a breakaway only for Detroit Red Wing defenceman Niklas Lidstrom, who was bearing on him all the way, blatantly swinging at Sakic’s legs and thus tripping him, allowing the Wings to hold on to a slim third-period lead in the Conference Final in Denver. Colorado head coach Bob Hartley complains bitterly that Sakic was tripped, amidst a vociferously booing Avalanche crowd. The refs uphold the call, saying Sakic slipped, even though it was obvious that Lidstrom tripped him. The Wings then go on to win the Cup but will always have the Sakic incident keeping the victory from being completely satisfying, since it was tainted. Now, you could put in any players and any teams: I just picked on rivals Colorado and Detroit and used Lidstrom as I’d figure he’d probably be the only one on Detroit able to keep up and satisfactorily play against Sakic, but the point of blown calls are still the same. Since the NHL still has a terrible problem with this, I’d hate to see the reaction if a call was blown in this situation.

Still, I think those are necessary evils for the NHL to endure. If the NHL officiating can at least become consistent and improve along the way, the blown calls won’t be that much of an issue. The fact of the matter is that the NFL has been using this format for over 30 years and has reaped the benefits of the system, with billions of dollars to split every year amongst it’s teams, whereas the NHL doesn’t get half as much to distribute. I know that hockey needs to remain hockey and should stay away from other sports as much as possible, but sometimes other sports provide a model, like the NFL, that other leagues would be foolish not to follow. I’m still saying that the NHL should keep the hockey game as intact as much as possible: it’s just that the NHL might be better off if it found a way to make the play-offs more eventful, as this format does.