Thursday, 29 November 2007

An Arena Of Debate

With all the new arenas being built around the NHL, you would think that the league would get onboard with some forward thinking. We've heard the arguments about how players are bigger and stronger now than they were a decade ago, yet the one constant that has remained static is the size of the playing surface in the NHL. If players today are bigger, why is the playing surface not expanding with those who are on the ice? We've added another official as well which only means there is less room per person on the ice. With players getting bigger, faster, and stronger, there should be a long look at making the ice surface bigger, possibly as big as international ice hockey rules.

This idea actually came from long-time hockey writer Eric Duhatschek, reporter for the The Globe and Mail newspaper. I actually endorse this idea of a bigger ice surface since the trend of getting bigger in the NHL doesn't seem to be slowing down. With the influx of European and Russian players in the last twenty years, you would see the game change radically with a larger ice surface.

Mr. Duhatschek's article, entitled "In Praise of Bigger Ice", explores this idea, and presents some sound theories and reasons why the NHL should adopt making the ice surfaces larger. Frankly, I support his ideas.

Now, I realize there are downsides. Owners will complain about lost revenue on those prime seats that would be removed if the ice surface was expanded. They'll gripe and whine about losing $100-$500 tickets, and make the case that their bottom line will take a major hit.

However, I pose this question to owners: if you have no one sitting in the upper deck, how much revenue are you losing? Why not just adjust the prices on the rest of the seating? If one person pays $200 for a ticket to see your team and buys $20 worth of concessions, you've essentially made around $220 off that one person. However, if a family of four people buys four upper deck tickets at $40 per ticket, that's $160 right off the bat. If every one of those four people buys $20 worth of concessions, that's an additional $80. The total of bringing in a family of four to your games is around $240 - $20 more than the one person in the premium seats.

As long as you have rear ends in the seats, they will buy something to eat or drink. Isn't this the idea that movie theatres work on? Charge $7 for a movie ticket, and $10 for popcorn? NHL hockey, like a movie, is entertainment. Why not follow the same economic model?

The upsides to larger ice surfaces are evident. The NHL has eliminated the clutching-and-grabbing that killed the speed element of the game in the late 1990s. Speed is one of the most dangerous weapons on the ice now. If the players are bigger meaning there is less room on the ice to operate, why not open it up?

There used to be smaller rinks in the NHL than the standard 200-by-85-foot rinks we see now. The Boston Gardens, Chicago Stadium, Maple Leaf Gardens, and the Aud in Buffalo were all smaller than the standard. Like baseball stadiums, these smaller rinks had different bounces and allowed the home team some leeway in the way they played the game.

In Mr. Duhatschek's article, he spoke to Mike Keenan about the old Chicago Stadium. Keenan told Mr. Duhatschek, "'In the Chicago Stadium, I used to do stops and starts, and all the veterans would go down to the goal line in the corners and all the youngsters were in the middle, and they kept getting beat. So I said, 'Hold it, what's going on?' and stopped the drill and got a tape measure, and sure enough, it was 16 feet narrower – 16 feet – from the goal lines to the red line. You couldn't visually pick up on it, but the veterans knew.'"

If the rinks were built with certain quirks like baseball stadiums have, they would become a signature for that hockey franchise. If you mention Fenway Park, people think of the Green Monster. If you mention Wrigley Field, people think of the ivy on the walls. If you mention AT&T Park in San Francisco, people think of McCovey Cove.

Let's be clear here: I am not saying the rinks should be shaped differently in any way. They shaped as an oval for a reason. However, if you had some that were slightly smaller and slightly bigger, teams would have to make adjustments to their game in order to win when they visited a specific arena, not unlike how the strategies of baseball teams differ depending on where they play.

Mr. Duhatshcek writes, "Not many saw [the smaller rinks] as a problem. On the contrary, there was a certain charm, even for a visiting team, to playing in a building that was a little different. And the home clubs often built teams to take advantage of their home rinks. The Blackhawks deployed forwards who played a determined fore-checking style during the Mike Keenan reign because they could get on the opposing team's defencemen so quickly in the confined space of the old Stadium."

Why not give this a shot? Open the game up more by giving the players more space to work their magic. You won't see five players parked in front of the goalie when the puck is in the corner. More room will result in more scoring chances. Isn't that what the NHL wants? Better yet, isn't that what we, the fans, want?

I'm interested in all comments, both for and against, regarding the idea of increasing the size of the NHL rinks. Please leave a comment below. I want to get a true idea of how this resonates not just in the blogging world, but in real-life as well.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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