I had a chance to chat with NHLer Darby Hendrickson on Monday. He was very candid about his thoughts regarding the lockout and the future of the NHL. Until I talked to Darby, the fact that we haven't seen the NHL since last June hadn't really hit me. I'm not going to say I wasn't missing it, because I certainly do miss it, but I think it's a very bad sign how eminently replaceable the NHL has been, even for someone who is a pretty big hockey fan. Right now, we should be rolling through the conference finals. Last year saw Calgary beat San Jose and Tampa Bay beat Philadelphia in two very entertaining series. I found myself staying up late to watch the Flames complete their magical run to the Finals. This year, the arenas are empty, except for the occasional American Idol reunion or Velvet Revolver show. There's no hockey to be found, and Gary Bettman's worst nightmare has come true - no one cares.
In a way, this is good for the NHL. If there is a professional sports league that could quickly rebound from a cancelled season, it's one that barely has a pulse to begin with. The 1994 baseball strike took years for the sport to recover from, and to this day, there are people who continue to swear off the sport because of that strike. There will be people that swear off hockey because of it being the first major North American professional sport to lose an entire season to a labor dispute. But the sport has such a small fanbase, that they still can only go up from here, even after they lose a percentage of their fans.
Hockey fans are a loyal bunch. Those who follow the NHL love the sport, and they probably follow it at the lower levels (juniors, college, high school, youth). Personally, I can't get enough hockey. I am a Minnesota-Duluth season-ticket holder, and I follow college hockey and watch it whenever I can, no matter who is playing. When the NHL was active, I enjoyed watching games on occasion during the regular season, closely following the Minnesota Wild, and I watched as many playoff games as I was able to. To top it off, we have high school hockey in Minnesota that's as good as any in the country, and Wisconsin's high school hockey is vastly improved in recent years.
Those who follow the sport will continue to do so, and most that have at least casually followed the NHL will probably continue to do so when the league comes back. The true test for the NHL comes with the proposed rules changes. The league needs to make enough of the right rules changes to inspire fans to sample the game. Once the lockout ends, the NHL has to work in its abysmal television ratings, because no one will watch hockey in this country as long as they think it's boring.
I'm not a fan of some of the proposed changes, such as the wider blue lines, the removal of the red line (two-line pass rule), and the provision that would allow for penalties to goaltenders that wander out to play the puck. But I think the league should make the goalie pads smaller, make wandering goalies subject to physical contact, and they should also move the nets back closer to the endwalls.
European leagues allow two-line passes. While the skill level isn't as high as the NHL, there are many out there who don't believe the European game is significantly more wide-open than the "Americanized" version of hockey. I don't know that the two-line pass rule has a great impact on the overall flow of the game. If the NHL could somehow mandate that all teams go to the 200X100 ice sheets (Olympic-size), that would probably have a greater impact on the game than removing the two-line pass rule would. And we all know that the chances of the NHL mandating that owners sacrifice their most expensive seats and take a short-term financial hit, even if it's for the good of the game and would probably help everyone long-term, are pretty minimal, if they exist at all.
I know many are against the idea of wandering goalies being fair game. After all, if the NFL can over-protect quarterbacks, why can't hockey over-protect goaltenders? There are some big differences. Quarterbacks are allowed to be hit as long as they're in bounds, they have the football, and the play is on progress. They aren't protected by any special rules. It's just that the existing rules are enforced much more diligently when a hit involves a quarterback. There is no rule in the NHL that a player who is pursuing or possessing the puck can't be hit, and goalies shouldn't be an exception to this rule when they leave the crease. The crease was designed to protect the goalies. They aren't to be intentionally hit in the crease. Skaters are supposed to stay out of the crease unless the puck is in the crease. It is a restricted area. To me, it stands to reason that when a goalie leaves the "restricted area", they should be fair game.
Look at it as a "Leave at your own risk" principle. If you leave the "restricted area" (an area I am fully in favor of expanding in exchange for this rule), you are doing so with the full knowledge that you can be hit (within reasonable context of the game). It's a similar rule that is in place for kickers and punters in the NFL. If someone goes out of their way to light up a kicker, they will get a penalty. If you block the kicker with a hard hit while the kicker is in the general area of the ballcarrier, you will get away with it.
It requires the officials to make the judgment call on whether a hit is "unnecessary" or "excessive", but I think it also serves as a deterrent to the constant wandering of goaltenders who can't be touched. It's a scenario that almost shuts down any aggressive forecheck, because players can't go barrelling in after the puck when the goalie goes out after it.