Friday, August 19, 2011

"Research and Development Camp" proves the NHL is the Pro-Sports Equivalent of George Lucas

There is nothing that annoys me more than the positive attention currently surrounding the NHL's Research and Development Camp.

To attract a larger audience, Gary Bettman has replaced Zdeno Chara in all video of the 2011 Stanley Cup with a young Anakin Skywalker
For those out of the loop, the NHL spent two days running their top prospects through a series of scrimmages, in which they experimented with a number of proposed rule changes to see if any of them are worthy of being implemented this coming season.

What was the result?

Some things worked well, like adding a verification line to the ice in an attempt to help determine goals, decreasing the depth of nets by 4 inches, adding curved class around he benches to prevent collisions with the stanchions, and changing the overtime format to have 4 minutes of 4-on-4 and 3 of 3-on-3.

Some things didn't work well, like allowing players to put their opponents in bear hugs rather than driving them into the boards to reduce injuries, and god knows how many icing rule variations, proposed in an attempt to increase offence.

Now I'm not afraid of change when it makes sense, but to me these changes reek of desperation. Since Gary Bettman took over as emperor commissioner in 1993 not a year has gone by without something being tweaked in an attempt to boost offence. From increasing the maximum stick length and blade curve while decreasing the maximum goalie pad size, to replacing overtime with the shootout, things have been fiddled-with, changed, changed back, then changed again ad nauseum.

The powers-that-be assume that increased offensive production equals greater success in U.S. markets (and by extension increased revenue).
Maybe it does, but this rubs me the wrong way. It's naive to deny money is the prime motivator of pro-sports, but changes the fundamentals of the game in an attempt to make more money is wrong. Sure, all the changes proposed at the Research and Development camp are minor, but ten years (and ten camps) from now, when all of those minor changes have piled up, how recognizable will the game be?
MLB added a new rule in 2008 (allowing for limited instant replay usage). The last rule change before that was in 1975.  

So where does that leave the NHL?

The answer is frightening.You see, Gary Bettman is pulling a George Lucas, and treating the NHL like his own personal Star Wars. Lucas has spent the last 20 years tweaking his classic films: adding characters, removing characters, adding new effects while removing the original ones, revising the mythology that elevated the series from pulp to legend. 

Jabba the Hutt did not show up in the original trilogy, but George Lucas put him in later using special effects. Roberto Luongo did not show up in the Stanley Cup final, but I've used special effects to replace him with Jabba the Hutt.
By constantly tweaking his films to make them better (read: make more money) Lucas alienated the fan base that made Star Wars more than just movies. Lets face it - prior to the special editions and prequel trilogy and animated Clone Wars tie-in movie and god knows what else, there was a certain mystique and a sense of cool that surrounded Star Wars. Sure, there were the cash grabs of the past (the toys, the Christmas special, the Ewoks) but they weren't as blatant, they seemed to be more genuine (or it was a more innocent time, and people were less likely to see the cash grabs for what they were). As time went on, that changed and suddenly it seemed like Star Wars only goal was to make money.

The same can be said of the NHL. Sure, they had their cash grabs of the past (usually attempts to woo American viewers like the FoxTrax hockey puck) but like Star Wars those earlier experiments are dwarfed by what's happening now.

Long story short, some change in Hockey is good. I'm all for player safety, and I'm all for making changes that ensure the longevity of a great sport. But when you start tinkering with the very fabric of the game then I don't know about you, but I've got a bad feeling about this.

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