NHL, players can still minimize damage

November 14, 2012, 7:41 pm
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When the NHL returned from a season-long hiatus in 2005, the list of adjustments to the game and givebacks to the fan base was a significant one.

In many markets, ticket prices were reduced across the board, or at least in certain parts of the arena. The hooking and holding that led to monotonous stretches of play was greatly reduced with a stricter enforcement of the rulebook. Shiny new streamlined uniforms were introduced. The league even revealed a sleek new silver and black logo, an update from the Halloween-themed orange and black emblem from yesteryear.

Eight years later, and in the middle of another labor war thats threatening the league as a viable business, its hard to imagine what kind of bone the league and its players can throw to sports most passionate fans when this mess comes to its conclusion. A full season is not an option, as the lockout has reached its 60th day and has again regressed into a staring match between league and union leadership. Drastic rule changes dont seem likely, and wouldnt be a good idea, anyway.

And, ticket prices? The chance theres an across-the-board reduction from any team is on par with Korean rapper PSY releasing a second international hit.

But, there is something they can do.

Rewind to December 5, 2011. On that day, NHL governors ratified a radical new plan to realign the league into four conferences, two of which would have seven teams while the others had eight. The Sharks would join the Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Ducks, Kings, Avalanche and Coyotes in a yet-to-be-named group.

Furthermore and more importantly, for these purposes it was announced that each team in the league would face its non-conference opponents twice a year, ensuring that every club would make at least one annual appearance in every other building.

At the time, the praise for the plan seemed unanimous from both management and players. Joe Pavelski said: I think that, definitely, is good. Some guys play three or four seasons and youre like, I havent even been here yet. It would be nice to see each building once a year.

A little more than a month later, the plan was toast, rejected by the NHLPA. Pavelski cited increased travel and the fact that two conferences had just seven teams as compared to eight in the West Coast-leaning groups. The top four teams from each conference were to qualify for the postseason.

The realignment almost certainly wont happen this season, if there is a season at all. But the portion of the plan that sees every team visit every other team could, and should, still be on the table. Theres still time for a 66-game season that sees each club play its current division opponents four times apiece, and faces every other team in the league twice.

It would be a small but significant token of appreciation in a league that is driven by the hardest of hardcore fans, and would help minimize the damage the two sides have already caused with this asinine game of chicken.

Want to see Zach Parise make his return to New Jersey after departing for greener pastures in Minnesota, Devils fans? No problem. Weve got you covered.

Canucks supporters. Still hoping to get some revenge on the team that broke your hearts in the 2011 Cup Finals? Well, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and the big bad Bruins will be swinging through the Pacific Northwest.

Hoping for a chance to greet Stanley Cup champions Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, Flyers faithful, after your team traded away its young stars in order to sign an unstable goaltender? No problem, the Kings will be visiting the City of Brotherly Love.

And, finally, Sharks supporters youve packed the HP Pavilion full night after night for more than 100 consecutive games. What do you get for putting up with yet another nonsensical work stoppage? Youll get a chance to see East Coast superstars Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Claude Giroux skate in the Bay Area.

Of course, for this scenario to have any chance at occurring, the league and union will have to figure out their numerous differences relatively quickly, including economics and contracting differences. Several prognosticators have marked December 1 as a potential start date for the league, and while that may be a bit ambitious now, a window does exist for the two sides to come to an agreement. In 1994-95, Gary Bettmans first lockout ended on January 11, and a 48-game season ran from January 20 May 3.

Working backwards from that date means the league and union will have to get something done by next Thursday Thanksgiving Day. Probable? No, but not impossible. And, in fact, a 66-game schedule could still be feasible if it includes an early December start.

For now, the clock continues to tick. And with it, a discouraged fan base that drives the business grows more and more apathetic.