Change the Rink, Not the Rules

There has been a lot of talk about NHL officials and referees allowing obstruction and minor holding back into the game to slow down the pace, and therefore reduce the violence of hits. I have no idea if this has been successful, and so far I’m not sure if anyone has really compiled any research on the subject.
Further, Dan Bylsma has come out in support of reinstalling the red line, thus eliminating the two line pass, in an attempt to slow down the game.

As much as I love Coach Disco, I hate both of these ideas. There is no doubt that the league needs to change some things in the interest of player safety. But slowing down the game is not the answer. The reason why the NHL lost the entire 2004-2005 season is because the game had become “unwatchable.” It had become unwatchable because the easiest way to win and be successful was to “trap.” If you clogged the neutral zone and relied on your goalie to move the puck in your own end you could prevent the other team from getting more than a few chances per game. Thus, if you could squeak out two goals a game you were almost guaranteed a victory.
This did make the game boring. If you weren’t a hockey fan this type of hockey definitely was not going to make you one. As a result, viewership on TV and even in the arenas was plummeting. Coming out of the lockout, the NHL made a number of rules changes to improve the quality of the game, and most dramatically, increase the offense in the game.
By and large increasing the offense has helped to restore the NHL. TV viewership is up, and arena attendance has pulled almost even with the NBA (which is impressive given that a basketball court is much smaller than an NHL arena, meaning that typically arenas that are used for both NBA and NHL games can accommodate more NBA seats). For this reason you just can’t mess with the rules that favor offense in the NHL.
But that doesn’t mean that players have to suffer for it. I believe that there are two options which the NHL could choose to do that would improve player safety without sacrificing the quality of the play.
The first is to change regulations on equipment. To this point I have referred to “player safety” and “injuries.” We all know that in reality this is a thinly veiled argument for stopping head injuries. The first thing the NHL has to do to stop head injuries is to improve the quality of hockey helmets. I really don’t care if NHL players end up wearing football helmets, if it protects the head, all professional athletes should wear them.
To me the best thing that the NFL does on a yearly basis is to make improvements in the equipment for the players. Every other year, it seems, you see that the NFL has worked with equipment producers to create a newer safer helmet. Why can’t the NHL do this?
Beyond just helmets, the NHL should create new legislation on pads. The amount and type of material that goes into the construction of new shoulder and elbow pads today is just insane. The pads are too bulky, and the material is too hard. When hockey players collide now, they are protected by “carbon-weave” pads, which is great for protecting your shoulders or elbows, but that type of material leaves a much bigger impact when a shoulder or elbow contacts a thinly protected head. If the NHL were to revert to older, “softer” pads you can almost guarantee that head injuries would go down.
People have been looking at “speed” as a cause of head injuries. But the rules that have made the league faster have been in place for nearly 7 seasons now. Why is it that only in the last season and a half that speed has become a bad thing? This suggests that in the last season and a half something else must have changed. You have to look at the pads – the players are more or less the same, the rules are the same, but the battle armor the players don is different, and we have seen more vicious injuries, particularly concerning the head.
Now, my other idea, why doesn’t the NHL simply change the playing surface to an Olympic-sized rink? I understand that this is much easier said than done. It would be unpleasant to reconfigure seating arrangements, and it would cost every NHL team a bit of revenue in terms of the loss of seating capacity. But that’s it for the downside. The benefits of the larger rink are twofold.
First, checking will decrease. If there is more room on the ice, it is harder to run into one another. This will decrease injuries and increase player safety. Second, it will encourage even more offense. The reason why European players tend to be so good at shooting and skating is because they all play on Olympic rinks. Because checking is less important on such a large surface, they often don’t develop that element of their game to the same level, and there is nothing wrong with that. Again, I know that it would be a logistical nightmare, but if the NHL really wants to improve the game, and improve the safety of its players, this is the most comprehensive step it can take.


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