State of hockey

I have friends who claim they read this weekly diatribe faithfully who tell me that as soon as they realize I’m climbing back onto the soap box to tub-thump again for the game of hockey they move on to the funny pages because they simply just don’t want to hear about it anymore. Well, they can consider themselves to have been properly warned.

While this is a bitter pill for an old rink rat to endure, there’s no choice but to grin and bear it. Hockey’s irrelevance compared with the hallowed stature that the sanctified troika of high-flying, high-rolling American games enjoy is beyond dispute. Nor does it seem to matter that baseball, basketball and football are all laden with scandal, hypocrisy, and controversy while hockey makes no waves, stirs no indignities, excites no rage in any Congress. By the way, the fact that the NHL, as a corporate entity, is the least competent of the sporting industries has nothing to do with this issue. This is not about business.

The problem extends from the top down. Take the national championship recently won by Jerry York’s elegant hockey team at Boston College. The extraordinary achievement got a “nice” reaction over at BC. There was a little party and many applauded. People were happy about it and doubtless it was a hot topic for a couple of days and a few folks might even have recognized that historically -- and especially under Coach York -- this program has been as strong and clean and classy as any program in all of American intercollegiate sport.

Fine! But how might that compare with the reaction on the BC campus that would detonate if the football team ever won the national crown in the bloated BCS thing or the basketball program should one day achieve redemption with an NCAA title after 40 years of bringing so much shame and disgrace to the university. You darn well know the answer to that.

Hockey’s marketing and promotional problems are mystifying. It’s the only game under the sun -- save perhaps for roller derby and wrestling -- that has actually lost clout in the culture over the course of the great sporting boom of the last half-century. Labor problems abetted by incompetent leadership climaxing in the idiotic job action that cost the NHL an entire season was the single biggest blow any game endured in that stretch. But the eclipse was well advanced long before that fiasco. Moreover, the issue runs much deeper than the demeaning feuds over mere money that have soiled every professional league.

One factor that is little noted but seems to be growing in importance is the widespread perception that it is simply not an American game. That’s odd in that back when hockey was fully acknowledged as one of the “Four Majors” there were only a couple of American kids in the entire league and there was at least a season or two, when the stellar Bruins goalie Frankie Brimsek was the only one.

Whereas today’s NHL is truly an international lodge with representatives from a dozen or more nations and as a high a degree of American participation as there has ever been. And yet the American public identifies less with the game and its performers now than it ever has. How do you figure? My sense is that that the great mass of American sports-lovers -- the massive numbers of the masses who beef up the TV ratings, and dominate the conversation, and buy all the products, and drive all the media coverage -- are utterly indifferent to a game’s international stature. In fact such sophistication is more likely to turn them off; a significant majority being, doubtless, xenophobic. They could accept Canadians who are, after all, ‘‘just like us.’’ But Swedes and Slovaks are another matter.

Runaway expansion -- poorly conceived and badly implemented -- was ruinous. Hockey was always a regional game; confined to areas where it had been played, watched, followed, and understood at all levels, from pre-school through post-college. To scatter franchises throughout the Sunbelt in towns that had never had a rink except for roller-skaters in exchange for a quick expansion-fee windfall was pathetically shortsighted. There have been stray successes. Dallas is the best example. And when a given team gets hot for a spell there will be a modest spike in the interest. Anaheim, San Jose and Tampa have demonstrated that. But none of these teams will enjoy the consistent long-term support that strong franchises must have, through thick and thin. The Chicago Blackhawks have won one Cup in the last 72 years. Do you think the ‘‘fans’’ in Nashville, Atlanta and Phoenix would tolerate that?

The ideal NHL in my opinion would have 24 teams. Eight of them would be Canadian -- the present gang of six (Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver) plus Quebec and Hamilton, to be created from disbanded franchises. Eight would be from the Northeast -- Boston, New York, Buffalo, Long Island, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington. And eight would be from points west -- Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, St. Louis, Dallas, Colorado, Los Angeles and San Jose. There’d be exceeding reluctance to hang onto those two California franchises because this winter game doesn’t belong in La La Land. But some geographic balance is needed and it would be tough to purge the Kings after 40 years. Gone would be the five franchises from the old Confederacy, plus one of the California group, plus the deadwood franchises of Phoenix and Columbus.

With a 24-team league, you could have two 12-team conferences each having two, six-team divisions. There would be two Canadian franchises in each division and all four divisions would be constructed along tight geographical lines encouraging intense regional rivalries while reducing travel for most teams which would allow for tighter scheduling and the addition of a half dozen games to the regular season schedule. Such a construction would evoke memories of the “Original Six” with four teams from each division qualifying for the playoffs. The schedule would remain imbalanced and yet would be more logical. In the case of the Bruins, they would meet their division opponents eight times, the six teams in the other division of the eastern conference four times and the 12 teams in the western conference twice.

Much would be accomplished by such sweeping reform. It would restore symmetry to the league. It would be a structure that would make sense and have regional integrity. It would emphasize natural rivalries and allow them to grow. It would guarantee that all teams meet at least twice every season. Familiarity with opponents at both the division and conference levels would increase. Most of all it would return the league’s focus to where it belongs in the cold weather towns of the northeast, upper Midwest, and Canada where there is a tradition for the sport and a feel for its dynamics.

It’s a pipe dream of course. The problems in accomplishing such a sensible de-construction would be insurmountable. Lawsuits would proliferate. The players union would go ballistic. Owners would whine. It would be a mess. The present chaotic arrangement, therefore, will persist guaranteeing that hockey will yet achieve even greater irrelevance.

It’s a bloody shame. At the moment there is a scorching elimination tournament proceeding and the semi-final round matching the artistic young Penguins and the guttersnipe Flyers is about as good as it gets. Talk of your old-time hockey! If it is skill, courage, danger, valor, brawn, violence, class, passion, grit, and sheer desire that you admire as ingredients in the making of a sporting classic this Penguin-Flyer donnybrook is for you.

With luck the final round for Lord Stanley’s Cup will match the Detroit Red Wings against the Pittsburgh Penguins and that will be as smashing a match-up between two superior teams and two great hockey towns as we have had in a long time.

It’s such a pity that so few care much, nor are even aware.