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Lichtenstein: The NHL Is Back! Great — Now Fix It!

Ryan Callahan #24 of the New York Rangers controls the puck. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Ryan Callahan #24 of the New York Rangers controls the puck. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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By Steve Lichtenstein
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I rejoiced along with all the hockey fans across the metropolitan area on Sunday when the word got out that the NHL owners and players settled their differences on how to split their $3-plus billion loot derived from our wallets.

Assuming the owners and players sign off on the deal in the next few days, there’ll be no repeat of the lost 2004-05 campaign. Instead, this season will closely model 1995, when that lockout shortened it to 48 games before the Devils took home their first Stanley Cup trophy.

While a similar conclusion in five months would be nice (though I’m not counting in it since star Zach Parise decided over the summer to take his talents to Minnesota), I’d also like to see the NHL follow the protocol from the aftermath of the latter work stoppage.

Back then, in an attempt to lure back disgruntled fans, the NHL formed a Competition Committee, which was comprised of players, general managers and owners. They instituted a bunch of rule changes aimed at making the game more entertaining. The two most prominent examples were the addition of shootouts when games were still tied after five-minute overtimes, and the “zero-tolerance” point of emphasis to the officials on obstruction.

Well, it’s been seven years, and, after an initial spike, we’re just about right back where we started.

Goals per game in both the 2011-12 regular season and playoffs dipped almost all the way to the all-time lows from just prior to the 2004-05 lockout. The “Dead Puck Era” will not go away quietly.

So, while I’m happy to have the NHL back in my life, I also say it’s time to fix the game again.

Hockey fans are vocal and loyal, but we are clearly a minority. Never mind growth, it’s going to be hard enough to maintain our numbers if diehards join others in abandoning the NHL out of disillusionment with its principals and processes. It would be easier to convert those new to the sport if we could point to the thrills it generated before so many coaches started trying to win games, 1-0.

I’ve been a fan for over 40 years, yet I can’t get my two sons interested. They give me the usual gripes about not being able to see the puck. (My 13-year-old son Jack recently said to me, “You can’t even read a menu, but you can see a black dot going around at 100 miles per hour?”)

But mostly they find it boring. They’ll watch a little bit, but are too often treated to one of those scoreless periods with 11 combined shots on goal, all the while begging me to switch to a basketball game. They told me that if they wanted to watch a game where no one scores, or even comes close to scoring, they’d watch soccer.

If the NHL is driving away young Americans raised in a sports-mad household, something’s got to change.

For those traditionalists ready to gag on this, I point to every other major sport. Over the years, the NFL made it illegal to touch receivers downfield or quarterbacks more than a split-second after they throw. The NBA eliminated hand-checking. And baseball has done everything from moving in fences to reducing the strike zone to the size of a thimble (plus looking the other way when their players’ head sizes grew so much from the steroids that every team had to order more extra-large helmets). All so their scoreboards lit up like video games for our ADD society.

In the NHL’s case, there are two areas it has failed to evolve: Size and incentives.

The players are just too big for the 200-by-85 foot standard rink. The most precious commodities for any skater are time and space. Unfortunately, with all the advances in training and coaching, they are as rare as a moderate Republican.

Offensive zone play is mostly limited to dreary cycling along the walls until someone thinks they can find a way to send the puck through the gaggle of players standing in front of the goalie.

It doesn’t get there very often. The stories from the 2012 playoffs were not of highlight-reel goals, but blocked shots. Which team blocked more shots? Was the Rangers 40-goal scorer Marian Gaborik benched because he didn’t block a shot from the point?

The neutral zone is also clogged, with the league’s worst nightmare coming to fruition during a game last year between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. While the Lightning passed on any token forecheck to implement their 1-3-1 trap, the Flyers just stood and held the puck in their own end as seconds ticked away. So much for the “Fastest Game on Ice.”

The NHL must lengthen and widen its rinks. I’d start with the 100-foot Olympic width and the 210-foot length that is common in some European leagues. While teams could still opt to defend in a passive manner, the added time and space will allow for more creativity by the game’s top players, which is what everyone wants to see.

I’d also look to increase the size of the goal nets. Anyone remember the majesty of a Guy LaFleur or Mike Bossy racing down the right wing to unleash and score on a booming slap shot? You can’t see that anymore, at least not until they equip sticks with lasers.

The average NHL goalie stands around 6-foot-2, with oversized pads that allow them to cover almost the entire cage as soon as they drop down. A 90 percent save percentage used to be like hitting .300 in baseball. Now it’s well below the 2011-12 league-wide average of .914, the highest it’s ever been.

How can the NHL seriously think about “growing the game” when it’s lifeblood — goal scoring — the plays that lift every fan out of their seats, is becoming an increasingly rare type?

The other half of the equation involves altering the incentives.

The first change is easy —get rid of that loser’s point. The standings should be simple to read — two points for a regulation or overtime win and one point for a shootout win. That’s it. No more OTLs.

Whenever a game is tied late, I always hear announcers talking about how both teams want to “avoid taking any risks to preserve their precious one point.” How enthralling.

In many cases, that has extended into the overtime. The original intent of the four-on-four overtime period was to open up the ice to encourage teams to go for the win. Well, some teams (like the Devils) would rather take their chances in the shootout. Too many overtimes are played at the pace of tic-tac-toe, with similar results.

Now I’m not suggesting we get rid of the shootout. Most fans love it, and I don’t think it’s a bad idea to declare a winner when almost one in four games in 2011-12 were tied after three periods.

But let’s face it — it’s a gimmick. Baseball doesn’t stop playing extra innings to decide games with a home run derby. Tied basketball games continue with overtimes, not with three-point shooting contests. Only hockey and soccer games can be won with activities outside regular game play. So it’s only fair that the winner take home one less point to separate those games which were won in the natural process. And if it encourages teams to play a more exciting overtime period beforehand, all the better.

I’d also like to see the NHL revert back to the rule allowing for multiple power play goals during a two-minute penalty and disallow icing while killing penalties. Why are we giving benefits to teams that commit a penalty?

The one-goal rule was instituted in 1956 to stick it to stacked Montreal. There’s so much more parity now and, besides, teams are killing penalties at historically high rates. And even if shorthanded teams still chose to ice the puck to clear it from danger, they could not get tired players to the bench on the whistle.

Unfortunately, I’m not confident I’ll ever hear any of these items discussed. Now that the dollars and cents have been divvied up, both the players and the owners assume that not only will the fans eventually come back, but they can also increase their base.

They are mistaken. The NHL will continue to be a niche product, popular in the large northern U.S. Original Six cities and selected others that happen to be winning at the moment. There’s very little national following outside of a team’s hometown.

That can only change if the League allows its stars to breathe. Fans without a rooting interest want to see brilliance, whether it’s LeBron James, Tom Brady or Alex Ovechkin.

Hockey games afford fans the opportunity to see unparalleled speed and coordination. Why on Earth would the League want to keep that hidden?

Instead of merely bean-counting, the NHL’s caretakers should be looking for ways to bring the game back from the muck it’s become.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

Do you think that the NHL needs to make changes to get casual fans more interested in it? If you were Gary Bettman, what would you do to make the game more exciting? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…