You must spawn fewer Overlords and sell more jerseys.

“… The contrast was day and night…. One so-called evening baseball game took four and a half hours, and that was just a run-up to the horrible tedium of the World Series. Which once again is overstaying its welcome. The season should be trimmed back to about 110 games, which would give it a whole new back-to-school DEMOGRAPHIC that would have the baseball season officially over by Labor Day.

Why not? Baseball is a summertime game, in most all-American towns, and Football is not. The seasonal confusion is only a factor of human Greed. It has that good old familiar odor, the stench of Mendacity, More games = more money. More money = more teams. More teams mean more NFL T-shirts sold and a dark new wave of public lewdness and promiscuity among innocent teenage girls.” – Hunter S. Thompson, The NFL: We Will March on a Road of Bones. OCT, 2002.

There’s something about installing Starcraft, diving into some classic Turret Defense maps, being sneered at and drinking Arizona Iced Tea that makes me feel nostalgic. There’s no better feeling than that of digging up something that was a mainstay during your youth and finding that it still holds up to the memory. Combine that with the NHL playoffs and Jack is one happy boy. These are exciting blends of new and old.

Gary Bettman promised changes when the new CBA was signed and sealed in 2005. The game would be opened up and every team would have a chance to compete night in and night out. The proof is in the playoff races that occurred down the stretch after the trade deadline. In the East you needed 93 points by the end of the season to qualify for the playoffs. The West, 91. It took until the last day of the regular season for the playoff seeding to be set and some teams weren’t even eliminated from playoff contention until other team’s last game was completed (Montreal/Florida). This has been fairly consistent since the 2005 lockout, maybe three or four teams per season don’t have a decent shot at a top 8 finish. You could debate that this makes for good hockey and why wouldn’t it? Extra pressure and excitement of watching your favourite team trying to clinch a playoff spot during the stretch. It’s the perfect prelude to the playoffs by generating that excitement a little early.

Even teams that couldn’t – shouldn’t – wouldn’t – compete for those spots, are now coming dangerously close to knocking off older more experienced teams for those coveted playoff births. Sure there are still teams that finish well every season, but they’re consistently having to check behind them for the next big up and comer who was fortunate enough to draft a fast developing top prospect a season or two earlier.

That’s the point. The ‘new’ NHL aims is to lessen the time it takes for a team to complete the rebuilding cycle. A prime example of this is The Chicago Blackhawks. The age a player qualifies for Unrestricted Free Agent status – when a player’s contract is up they can sign with any team, as opposed to having their rights owned by the team they’re presently playing for – was dropped to 27, allowing several younger-than-normal-RFAs to hit the open market. One such UFA was Brian Campbell, who was 28 at the time he signed a seven year contract with the Hawks. Not to say he’s been the lynchpin of their success this season, but if they couldn’t sign him until he was 30, I bet their series with the Flames wouldn’t be as close as it is. Their young developing core would have needed at least two more seasons of development in the old NHL to compete the way they’re competing right now.

This logjam of talent wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t obviously meant to cater to the bandwagon crowd, the types of swine who will cheer for and blindly spend on any team so long as they’re winning and blast any team that actually needs to do poorly to ensure a solid future. Yes, it’s a bit of a paradox, there is a good reason to lose hockey games and finish poorly, we hockey enthusiasts call it “Building a Team”.

But a team that toils at the bottom of the league sells less merchandise and typically encounters attendance problems. If every team is perpetually two seasons away from ‘making a run’ – which can be said for about half the teams in the league who aren’t consistently good or in an official rebuilding phase – fans are going to flock in droves to watch a team that can be perpetually described as ‘up and coming’ if only for the bragging rights of getting there first. Of course we don’t have that problem in Canada, we spawned the sport and have it entrenched in our culture, we will go to games because we love the sport. It’s a US problem, hell we probably have WHL or AHL teams that are better attended than some of the games in Phoenix. But the thought of the Coyotes being sold as the team of the future might be enough incentive to plant a few more seats in the stands, despite having the same financial problems that spelled the doom for the Nordiques and Jets over a decade ago.

Earlier today I had to head downtown to pick up a copy of Starcraft, it was warm and the Bruins had just won their series against Montreal. I have – hanging in my closet – a slightly-ratty mid 90’s Ray Bourque Bruins jersey, unlike many people, I’ll beat up my jerseys by actually wearing them while – guess what – playing hockey. So I dawn the jersey, still fits, funny that I am still about the same size I was in the late 90’s, and head off to the mall.

I’m used to the sneers that come with wearing non-home team colours, but one incident stuck out. I was briskly walking through the City Center Mall and what do I spy walking out of a Sportcheck and turning towards me? Another Bruins jersey! “Sweet, another fan.” I told myself, getting closer to the young lady, who was in one of those fancy new Reebok vintage looking jerseys. I met her eye to eye with a ‘happy to see another person in the yellow and black’ look on my face and she sneered at me with a ‘who the fuck do you think you are, wearing a beaten up Bruins jersey and looking at me like that’ glare.

If I hadn’t been on my way to pick up a factory sealed copy of one of my all time favourite games, I might have been compelled to follow her and attack her with a whiffle bat. Where I’d get the bat from, I don’t know, or care, items like that just seem to show up when they’re needed.

I opted for up picking up another old favourite, Arizona Iced Tea, to calm my nerves. Headed home and ended up being overrun by the Zerg in my first game against the computer. In retrospect, I should have built more cannons instead of focusing on power based research.

But then I got thinking. “This is exactly what the NHL wanted when they went through incredible lengths even the game out.” I wish the example would have been better, if she was wearing a Blue Jackets jersey, but I have to work with what I’m given and the point is there. People want to stick with the winners, eventually in the playoffs, there is one darling who wins it all and the financial mind behind the NHL has to keep asking themselves “Why can’t every hockey fan wear that teams jersey?” It’s already been proven three times over that a team that wins the Stanley Cup experiences no attendance issues the following season or for years to come. Before the Cup was brought to the non-hockey markets of Anaheim, Carolina and Tampa Bay, no one much cared for the sport and there were reports of attendance problems. That is especially true for Carolina.

Maybe that girl is a long time Bruins fan and waited for the right moment to buy a new jersey. Maybe she’s an Oilers’ fan who has been reformed by the incredible play of Boston and will be reformed next season by another team and reformed again the season after that. She could see me as the bandwagon jumper who picked up a jersey at the pawnshop.

Then again, maybe the sneer was a look of, ‘not interested in what you’re selling’ – I wasn’t selling anything – ‘go away you ugly fuck.’

The problem is, when every team in the NHL is marketed as a bonafide contender (San Jose, Boston, Detroit, Vancouver) or two years from making an amazing run (everyone else) the fans begin to demand crazy things, like a Stanley Cup and with every team given the chance to compete night in and night out, you see the death of the dominating franchise.

The days of teams dominating for a decade are going to be over the year the Red Wings miss the playoffs and are forced to enter a rebuilding phase, Ken Holland has to retire sometime, they are the last of a long standing line of memorable franchises; The Oilers before them, The Islanders before that, Montreal in the 70’s, Boston in the 70’s and so on and so forth backwards in time.

You could debate that with such young talent the Penguins are going to be the next dominating franchise, but they have a few newer rules working against them. The salary cap is going to mean that the immense talent – results of toiling at the bottom of the league in a pre-CBA world – is going to have to check their egos come contract renewal time to fit under the cap. With the UFA age being lowered to 27, there’s a shorter window of domination before players who haven’t been signed to long term contracts can opt to move around to the league.

The new NHL is geared towards equality for all teams and shorter rebuilding phases. Fast forward ten years and if the Penguins are lucky, they’ll get two championships before the core of their current roster has to be broken up. But hey, by that time, lots of jersey’s will be sold and the masses will move on to focus on a new team. Or they’ll shatter and skater around the league to cheer for their favourite franchises until playoff time and if they don’t make it, they can bitterly sneer, “We’re only two seasons out.”



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