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Scoring is as American as Apple Pie

NHL's Chief Operating Officer John Collins resigned on Tuesday to pursue a business opportunity at a time when the league's product on the ice is sagging to levels not seen since the pre-lockout days.

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Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

On Thanksgiving eve, those left in the NHL offices were probably doing a little more cheering for the red light going off behind goalies than usual as the league wants to avoid a number so ugly, it should scare anyone collecting a paycheck.

5.27

5.27 is a number that represents more than just the NHL's current combined goals per game through the first 316 games this season. It is basically a cheap way to measure the investment viability of the NHL and it is falling harder than a forward blocking a Shea Weber slap shot.

Oh wait, silly me, that forward was already into his Olympic dive.

Greg Louganis would have been so proud.

Pride in the NHL is a trait that has basically fueled the stagnation of the sport.

Since 1975...

Hockey has evolved since Canada's Bobby Clarke chopped the ankle of Russian superstar Valeri Kharlamov in the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and Russia.

I'd like to think karma has stained the Philadelphia franchise after winning the Stanley Cup in 1974-75 because of the "Broad Street Bullies" act.

Reality is, fighting is down this season and the game isn't any better.

The easy excuse is Commissioner Gary Bettman is an NBA guy used by owners as their front guy for their union-busting agenda. One that doesn't care about the sport on the ice as long as money is coming into their bank accounts.

It isn't that simple nor accurate to place the sole blame on Bettman.

To understand the present, we need to go back to the start of Bettman's reign as the NHL's first commissioner.

Bettman took over as the first commissioner of the NHL on February 1, 1993 taking over for Gilbert Stein, who was the league's fifth and final President.

Stein was basically an interim hire after the unforgettable 15-year tenure of John Zeigler ended in 1992 due to owners being unhappy with a deal he had struck to end the NHLPA's ten day player strike with then NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow.

Upon the hiring of Bettman, Joe Lapointe wrote for the New York Times:

"When Bettman was hired to put a stop to labor unrest; sell the product in television's mainstream marketplace; change the violent image of the game; curb salary inflation; force enlightened self-interest on reluctant, old-fashioned owners; expand contacts with European developmental leagues and markets; settle the divisive issue of possible Olympic involvement, and help launch several new expansion teams."

Results:

Labor: Three work stoppages during Bettman's tenure (94-95 lockout, 04-05 lockout/cancellation, and 12-13 lockout)

Television: NHL games barely get played on NBC and their deal with NBC Sports falls significantly below the NFL, MLB and NBA

Violence: Fighting is only now decreasing, Lemieux on Draper, McSorley on Brashear, Simon on Ruutu, Long Island Masssacre.. shall I go on?

Salary inflation: Salary cap exists only after killing a season and having to break the union but fiscal insanity among General Managers runs rampant

Old Guard Owners: Two names... Ed Snider and Jeremy Jacobs.

Europe: The game has shifted from a dominant North American game to now having plenty of Europeans on every team

Olympics: NHL players are particpating in the Olympics but at what benefit for the league? It still lacks in coverage and T.J. Oshie's shootout sensation faded.

Expansion: Before taking over, Florida and Anaheim were all but selected as expansion teams but since then he's guided the league in expanding to Nashville (1998), Atlanta (1999), Minnesota (2000) and Columbus (2000).

The hope by owners was that if Bettman could be successful with their agenda, franchise stability would become to a reality.

As a result of Bettman's stewardship, he's not going to be awarded a franchise stability trophy as the league has had too many issues as the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993, Quebec to Colorado in 1995, Winnipeg to Phoenix in 1996, Hartford to Carolina in 1997 and one of his own picks as Atlanta moved to Winnipeg in 2011.

And this is to say nothing about teams in Pittsburgh, Nashville, Phoenix, Florida, Carolina, Long Island, New Jersey, and Buffalo that have had or having problems off the ice.

Lapointe further wrote:

When someone noted that NBC showed the Super Bowl on Sunday without promoting the N.H.L.'s All-Star game, which it will carry Saturday afternoon from Montreal, Bettman didn't directly comment, but said: "Obviously, I was envious of the attention the Super Bowl got. We're going to have to improve the way we are perceived, the way we are followed, the way we look. We can be worthy of attention. The goal is attention so that NBC would love to promote us during the Super Bowl the way it did the N.B.A, for example."

Result: An undeniable failure for the NHL's relationship with NBC as the network has done little as possible to promote the sport, especially when it has televised the Super Bowl. While the NHL is NBC/NBCSN's second sport behind the NFL, the league better be weary of the soccer giant that is the English Premier League. The EPL has a strong fanatical following much as what can be described about the hardcore fans following hockey.

Bettman on fighting in '93:

"Fighting, despite an attempted crackdown this season, is making a comeback, as some referees refuse to enforce rules against instigators and punching specialists follow their own agenda to get around the spirit of the law. Bettman called fighting "something we need to look at" before telling the players: "This is the amount, these are the rules. We're going to enforce the rules and put it to rest, do it on a buttoned-up basis."

Result: Fighting is down but it isn't because owners and the league office finally did something about it on their own, rather the threat of losing lawsuits due to their handling of head injuries.

The Canadian Complex is real

Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette, once wrote about the league giving FOX preference ahead of the CBC, "just another example of how the N.H.L. snubs its nose at the country that invented hockey and its fans."

I've heard this "Canada's game" malarkey for years and maybe a ride in the time machine is needed because of the original six teams in the NHL, two actually existed in Canada. For those that believe like Hickey and don't know their history, those original six teams were the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs.

You know, a decidely American located league and most assuredly, fan base.

Then we had this nugget quoting former ice occupierNick Kypreos in the Globe and Mail under the headline CBC livid as league bows to Americans.

"The more you tamper with the tradition of watching Canadian hockey on Saturday nights, the more you're going to turn audiences away."

If hockey is as strong as Kypreos and others have talked about and what I believe it to be, then why would Canada turn away from hockey? That is about as real as Toronto or Philadelphia winning the Stanley Cup this season.

But my favorite headline was this Jack Todd column on the Calgary Herald with the headline Americans and Bettman have stolen Canada’s game.

What fuels this angst over the game evolving?

Good people and smart businessmen had no choice after the 2004-2005 season was cancelled and Bettman knew it.

Bettman was finally going to have a chance to set the league on a course of focusing more about the product on the ice. We're talking about a man who was around for the Michael Jordan ascent and Nike swooshes while working in the NBA for 12 years behind David Stern.

If anyone knows what it would take to grow a sport, it was Bettman. That's partially why the owners hired him.

Unfortunately, Bettman's direction lasted one season.

In an interview earlier this year with the Wall Street Journal, Bettman said,

"We owe it to Canada for taking it to levels that have been unapproached almost anywhere else but the fact is, it’s a great game, and the more [that] people can share it, the better."

If it is reasonable for Bettman to know talent drives ratings, which delivers money into the bank accounts of the owners, then why has the league been so slow to react to the undeniable trend in goal scoring?

Understanding the Game

A common and quite frankly fair criticism of Bettman is his understanding of and love for the game.

To be even more frank, Bettman has been able to stand in front of the onslaught of criticism over these 22 years because people will believe the excuses put forth by the NHL because they don't want to lose 'their' niche sport. It is this support that has provided the blow back protection for the owners that will not budge because they'll point to their bank account and little cost to them financially even when other fellow owners struggle.

5.27 means nothing to Snider and Jacobs unless it is millions in their bank accounts.

In 1997, Bettman explained away a scoring decline of 6.4 to 5.9 goals per game by saying goaltending was better than ever and tried to deflect a decrease in power play goals by saying even-strength goals increased.

Funny how the excuses can be recycled from as far back as 1997 and the 'bs' meter was off the charts for Helene Elliot as she wrote this classic response for the LA Times:

"Of course they have. With fewer penalties being called and fewer power plays, there are more even-strength scoring opportunities, and therefore more even-strength goals. As for obstruction, Bettman said, "There has not been a mixed message to officials." No? Last season, they were told to call everything that resembled obstruction. This season, they were told not to make marginal calls, which leaves the problem of one man's marginal being another man's sure penalty. Choose a path and stay there, that's all anyone asks."

So we fast forward to 2005-2006 as the NHL is desperate to retain their fans, advertisers, and some semblance of a television presence, which produced what we can now call one of the most farcical league press releases supported by video evidence that any league has ever presented to the public.

Exhibit A - July 22, 2005 NHL Press Release

Exhibit B - 2005-2006 Rules Enforcement Video

Ten years later, we have Exhibit C from Stephanie @myregularface with "legal hooking"

A Committee for Some

The scoring problem isn't just that Bettman and some in the league's office don't understand the game or that some media and fans are insulted by the 'Americanization' of the league, rather the problems persist because of those who do understand the sport.

When the league returned, NHL and NHLPA agreed to form a competition committee responsible for making recommendations about rules and related issues to the NHL Board of Governors and NHLPA Executive Board. The committee is represented by five members each for the NHLPA and NHL with each having a non-voting member.

Currently, no member of the committee was born outside of North America.

Not exactly a fair representation of the total constituency within the NHLPA.

Nary a word is said about this fact.

Rule Changes

No one within the league truly wants to change the size of the net, so NHL and NHLPA are back on the tired excuse of goaltender equipment.

Great, do it but let's not think the final act of a scoring chance is the be all and end all with the goal scoring decline.

Even changing the size of the net by two inches and angling the posts is going to have little effect on the scoring issues.

Both of these changes need to be supported by rules and not left alone like the elimination of the 2-line pass restriction.

All coaches did was change the defensive alignment on the ice, going with less 2-1-2 and more 1-3-1 and 1-2-2 systems.

If you can't get through the neutral zone because everyone is playing some version of the trap, what good will become of the net and equipment changes?

And if you happen to get the puck into the offensive zone, there's a good chance the shot will be blocked by one of the 'Fightin Louganis' defenders.

Bob Gainey wanted to eliminate full-body sliding while in the defensive zone back in 2008 and then this year, Mathieu Schneider reportedly suggested a ban on certain blocked shots. The suggestion has little chance of succeeding without a significant injury taking place on the ice.

One that already happened in 2000 as then Montreal Canadiens forward Trent McCleary can be seen in this video dropping to the ice to block a shot that he was undoubtedly trained to do by his coaches. The result was a fractured larynx and collapsed lung, he almost died.

Then there was this Mike Green slap shot in 2010 that hit Josh Gorges on the back of his helmet. As you can see in this video, he looked lifeless for a short period of time.

Unfortunately for McCleary, he never played again.

Besides the obvious benefit for the product on the ice, what's the NHL Competition Committee waiting for, a death on the ice?

The No Men

The picture is pretty obvious, Bettman is basically a business consultant given virtually zero authority with the on-ice product.

A Yes man so to speak.

Listen to Colin Campbell (NHL Senior Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations) speak on any television or radio show, he's instantly on the defensive and will rarely admit there's a problem to the extent that it exists or offer a solution.

He's viewed as an authority on the game in title only, surely not by what he's done on the ice as a player or off it as a coach or in his current position.

In 2010 after Matt Cooke had just taken Marc Savard's head off with an elbow and escaped a lengthy suspension, Campbell said this to Joe Starkey during his Pittsburgh radio show, "Have you ever played the game of hockey, Joe?  Well, he didn’t do anything wrong!"

A few weeks ago, Campbell was on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCowan and John Shannon.

The money quote in the interview that you need to view

"The one thing we have had, and you can’t deny this, is lead changes, and that’s an important thing," he said. "If you go up 1-0, 2-1 in the second period, even the third period, if you have no hope, your fans have no hope, that’s a problem. We have had lots of lead changes even in the playoffs over the past few years."

Coming back from a 1-0 or 2-1 deficit shouldn't be what the league is targeting for excitement.

After the recent GM meetings, Campbell was sounding like changing the nets was the best idea but I wonder if his comments are being made in order to get other changes instituted for next season. I would take what Nashville GM David Poile said to the media at the meetings as where the league could be looking.

"Do you want to start with the goaltending equipment, do you want to start with all the congestion in front of the net, all the shot-blocking? How about taking out the trapezoid? We can go on and on and on."

Then there's Brian Burke.

Well, there's always Brian Burke somewhere trying to get his name out there against the evolution of the game.

Of course, he took a shot while in Toronto at the Hockey Hall of Fame induction for Chris Pronger saying

"The game's changed, but it's still a man's game. It's still belligerence and testosterone and fearlessness. These are still valuable commodities to us."

"a man's game"

I'd like to know what female hockey players think about their sport being described as if cavemen were on the ice.

At the GM meetings, Burke said he would be worried about "rewriting the record books" with the increase in the size of the nets.

Breaking news Brian, you are rewriting the record books every game with the current rules enforcement standards and illegal goaltender equipment. Let's just enforce the book of rules first.

Collins Resignation

When the cash register stops ringing, owners listen.

The Tuesday night resignation announcement that John Collins, Chief Operating Officer is leaving to pursue a business opportunity should have been the equivalent of the glass shattering behind the net.

Collins helped grow the NHL's business off the ice and losing someone as qualified as him will hurt the league at a time when the product on the ice has stagnated, the Canadian dollar has weakened to just over 70 cents to the US Dollar, and league is trying to get the World Cup of Hockey as a possible way to get more ice time on ESPN.

It be a wonderful get to find out if Collins resignation is tied to his unhappiness with league's power brokers refusing to advance the game on the ice in order to sell the product more easily.

In a world that sex sells and offense moves the needle for the other sports leagues, it is quite possible Collins saw his work with the World Cup of Hockey as the league's last shot to sell the game without making more significant changes on the ice.

Now that Collins is gone, significant attention turns to Bettman and Bill Daly to find someone with the same business acumen and sports understanding to push the league into the future.

To find someone with those qualifications, Bettman might have to finally tell the owners a qualified candidate wants some creative control and without it, niche sport status is just around the corner.

5.27 will do that to you.

Happy American Thanksgiving Gary.