The first public indoor ice hockey game was played in Montreal's Victoria Skating Rink on March 3, 1875, before 40 spectators. Today, nearly 135 years later to the day, hockey is still trying to find a foothold in the United States. A week ago today, Canada beat the United States in overtime of a thrilling men's gold-medal game at the Olympics. It was the most-watched hockey game in the United States (average 27.6 million viewers) since the 1980 Olympics. This is it, hockey fans say, this is the type of game the NHL can use as a springboard to great popularity. But haven't we heard this before? Didn't we hear this after the Miracle on Ice in 1980? Didn't we hear this when Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux (the NHL's version of Magic and Bird) ruled the league? It would be surprising if the NHL can sustain the popularity boost it received at the Olympics. A U.S.-Canada Olympic game doesn't happen all the time. Furthermore, the medal game was about national pride. Americans tuned in to root for America on one day, not for one city in America over several months. The Olympic showdown certainly didn't hurt the NHL, but other steps must be taken for the league to increase its popularity. Here is what else the NHL can do to attract more American fans.
Get back on ESPN
The NHL's cable deal in the United States is with Versus, which does an excellent job covering the games. But it's not about that. It's about being part of the sports fans' consciousness, and that's what ESPN provides (and Versus doesn't). Sports fans instinctively turn their TVs to ESPN, often not even knowing what will be on. It's habit. ESPN carries every major sport — the NFL, NBA, major-league baseball, golf, NASCAR, tennis, soccer, college basketball and football. It even shows poker, for crying out loud. But not the NHL, not since 2004. ESPN sets the nation's sports agenda. If ESPN covers something, the event becomes important to sports fans. Many believe that if ESPN carried the NHL again, the network would dedicate more time to it on SportsCenter and maybe even again have a specialized show for it like it did when it carried the games; its NHL 2Night was a hockey version of Baseball Tonight and NFL Live.
Put another team in Toronto
Though we would favor contracting some teams, we also would be in favor of moving a troubled franchise to Toronto. Why does the most passionate hockey city in the world have only one team? Three teams are in the New York City area, two in Southern California and two in Florida. Surely Toronto could support another team besides the Maple Leafs. With relocation, you take a troubled franchise and make it one of the strongest. That has to be good for the overall health of the NHL, don't you think?
Though we hesitate to suggest killing teams (partly because the Lightning might be a serious candidate), the NHL has too many of them. Look at it this way: Since 1991, the league has added nine teams. That's about 200 players playing today who couldn't have made the league 20 years ago. (There also seems to be a shortage of NHL-level officials, too.) Think how much better the league's overall talent would be if five or six teams (100 or so players) were eliminated. The better the talent, the better the games. One reason the Olympic tournament is so well received is that every team is made up of the best players in the world. Today's NHL has too many bad games partly because it has too many bad players.
Have the players wear microphones
This is an idea formed by former NHL star Jeremy Roenick. Show a "Game of the Week" on ESPN or NBC or whatever as usual. That would be the PG version. Then strike a deal with a network such as HBO or Showtime to show the same game with audio from players wearing microphones. That would be the R-rated version. Make it uncensored; what they say is what you get. Think how provocative it would be to hear all the uncensored trash talk. While we're at it, let's mic the officials and coaches, too.
Get rid of, or at least alter, the salary cap
The owners likely won't go for it. But the salary cap has created parity, which isn't necessarily a good thing. With the cap, teams struggle to keep a core group of stars together. Look at how the Lightning had to break up its championship nucleus because it couldn't afford all its stars. Take a team such as the Penguins, which eventually will have to part with either Sidney Crosby, left, or Evgeni Malkin because they can't afford both. Is it good for the game to see homegrown stars leave a franchise? Getting rid of the cap — or at least altering it to a soft cap that would allow teams to keep homegrown talent — would allow for dynasties (always a good thing in sports), blockbuster trades (which have all but disappeared from the NHL) and, mostly, stars to stay with one franchise for most or all of their careers.
Find a new commissioner
This isn't meant to slam Gary Bettman, because he's not as bad as many fans and media members think he is. But he has been on the job 17 years now, and it's time for new blood, someone with fresh ideas and a different approach. Don't hire an old-school hockey guy or someone in the NHL office. Owners need to think outside the box by going outside the "company.'' Look to an up-and-coming whiz kid from another sport. Look at a top-level executive from a company outside sports. Find someone who isn't going to keep doing it the way it has always been done. After all, the way it has always been done isn't working.
Shorten the season, shorten the playoffs
The best thing about the NHL is the Stanley Cup playoffs. But last year's first playoff games were April 15. Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final was June 12. That's nearly two months. It took the Stanley Cup champion Penguins 59 days to play their 24 playoff games. That meant Penguins fans had 35 nights when their team was not playing a playoff game. That kills momentum. Then this season started less than four months later. Remember, the NHL is trying to increase popularity among casual and non-hockey fans. Asking those people to dedicate eight months, including a two-month postseason, to a sport they are cavalier about is asking too much. People get into Olympic hockey because it's a two-week tournament. The NHL can't trim the playoffs to two weeks, but shortening the playoff series should help cut a couple of weeks out of the playoffs.