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Lessons the NHL can learn from the world of soccer

By Ryan Cooper

As a (very, very recent) convert to the world of English Premier League (and Manchester City fandom), I’ve been thinking lately about some things that I enjoy about soccer that I think would be cool if they were somehow implemented in the NHL.

Tournaments, Tournaments, Tournaments

One of the interesting things about European professional soccer is the inordinate amount of tournaments/leagues in which teams play. There’s nothing in hockey that’s the equivalent of the UEFA Champions League or the Europa League. In fact, there really aren’t any tournaments at all except for the Olympics (which are VASTLY inferior to the World Junior tournaments every year), and the Memorial Cup, along with a few lesser tourneys (like the Spengler Cup).  Wouldn’t it be great if the top four or eight teams in the NHL every year played in a giant European tournament against the best teams from the top European leagues, like the KHL, Swedish Elite League, or DEL? You could run it like the UEFA and play home and homes (so the owners don’t go crazy), and advance on things like goal differential.

Fan Support

I love European crowds. At Manchester City, for example, they’re doing things like singing “Blue Moon” and waving around inflatable bananas.  One of the reasons I love watching Canadiens games is because the crowd is so alive and into the game (much like they are in places like Edmonton on occasion). What do we do at Verizon Center? Some knuckleheads in the corner “heckle” the opposing goaltender by counting goals (even when the Caps are losing), and shout out the wildly inventive “Who cares?” when the goal for the other team is announced. This is more of a cultural thing, but I wish Capitals crowds would have more spirit, energy, and fun at the games.

Relegation

This will never, ever happen in any American sport, but what if we took the bottom four teams every season and sent them to the AHL, while bringing up the top four teams from that league? I think it would be an awesome way to improve the game and increase popularity for the sport to have NHL teams go to some of these smaller venues in the AHL and win games. It would give the bottom four teams a reason to keep playing tough and competing every night instead of just packing it in to improve their lottery chances.

I realize, of course, that none of these ideas will ever come to fruition, but sometimes the best ideas are ones that people think are absolutely crazy and outside the “normal” realm of thinking. The NHL has been far ahead of other leagues in terms of its internet, video and social media functions.  What if it goes the next step and does something no other league has really contemplated doing? What would it hurt to try something different?

By Box Seats blogger  | October 1, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Ryan Cooper  | Tags:  Capitals, Ryan Cooper  
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Comments

AHL teams are supplied by teams from the NHL; they aren't independently operated franchises (like the model you talk about with soccer). NHL clubs regularly scout their AHL affiliates and call players up from said teams in cases of injury or otherwise.

In addition, NHL broadcast partners would assuredly balk at this without serious compensation built into the contract. Why? If you took the bottom two in 2009-10, this means Toronto and Edmonton would drop down, and Hershey and Texas would come up (forgetting momentarily that Dallas and Washington would effectively have two NHL franchises and the host of problems with that). CBC, TSN, and Rogers would lose, by far, their largest draw card (Toronto) and most lucrative market (plus the massive amount of revenue sharing dollars Toronto contributes every year that helps teams like Washington who have benefited from league revenue sharing (which is a good thing)), in addition to a team with a decent regional appeal. They would all want massive reductions (which would have to be negotiated in advance) in their rights fees, which shrinks the revenue numbers and then shrinks the salary cap (ask the players if they like this idea).

Plus, you would have to negotiate some form of compensation for franchises who get relegated (teams would go broke having to pay out an NHL salary cap on an AHL revenue stream, which means teams would have to funnel money into this fund)

Plus, you'd have the debacle/folly of Washington playing itself (in Hershey).

Tournaments- The NHL and most European Federations don't have a transfer agreement (so it's a free-for-all). There are already systems in place with respect to European football tournaments (domestic and European). NHL teams already play a six-month regular season and can tack on another two months for playoffs (potentially playing as many as 110 games if they played the max number of playoff games; tack on another 6-7 games for elite players during an Olympic year and you're begging for injuries and players to break down). You would have to build in scheduling windows (the NHL regular season is already long enough), and you're asking (potentially) West Coast teams to fly half-way around the world. Cut the regular season? Fat chance- NHL teams rely on ticket sales to make up about 70% (it varies but it's an average) of their revenue. The vast majority of NHL owners would kill this thing on arrival.

When not rioting, looting, booing the American National Anthem or burning police cars, Montreal fans like to do their "Ole Ole Ole" chant to show how European they are.

Posted by: jcurrin | October 1, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

The worst thing about the NHL is the extremely unnecessarily long season. While the Champions League is the obvious example from soccer, I think the idea of the FA Cup is much more interesting. It is a tournament that everybody in the league plays in, and it runs at the same time during the regular season. Therefore, if the Minnesota Wild struggle in the regular season again, they still have a chance to make a run for this second trophy and keep fans excited later into the season. Again, it would never happen, but the NHL and NBA have stupidly long schedules and I no longer watch regular season games (or, to be honest, even playoff games).

Posted by: kingchros | October 1, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Fans can do the flag waving and chanting and not cause too much of an issue because a lot of time there is no great action on the field. Could you imagine Ovechkin skating up the ice but you can't see because some giant flag is in front of you?

As for the tournaments the season is already long and players want to have some time off. Especially the ones in the playoffs. That is why you often see guys decide not to play in the World Championships that are played every year during the NHL playoffs. The thing is no one really cares about them. The games are on NBC-Universal and half the time they don't even play the games live and there is not big complaints.

There are things Caps fans do as a whole that are the hockey version of the soccer stuff you talk about. Such as yelling Red and oh during the anthem, the Let's go Caps chant, the Unleash the Fury yell in the third, as well as the two you talk about in your article.

Posted by: icehammer97 | October 2, 2010 1:28 AM | Report abuse

Ryan,

What do you normally cover and write about? I love new ideas, but new ideas that are somewhat productive must be based at least a little in the knowledge of the sport.

Hockey,specifically playoff hockey, is infinitely more physical than soccer. Everyone who knows hockey knows that the way hockey player play in the regular season can very different (less physical, less defense) than the playoffs. If there were more tournaments, besides creating a longer season, there would be more injuries. Many of the players we pay to see would play less and potentially have shorter careers.

The AHL/Nhl switch as the previous writer said is impossible. Please read above.... twice.

Lastly, Washington is now known as one of the best places to see hockey in the league. Where have you been? Do you live in DC?
This piece is not a creation of new ideas, but rather an example of a writer being completely out of touch with the sport he is writing about.

I'm puzzled.

Posted by: will111 | October 2, 2010 2:11 AM | Report abuse

The first two points I find interesting and agreeable.

In terms of the last one: They have that in the Swedish Elite League. I don't think it makes sense here.

Posted by: j762 | October 2, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

I agree that soccer/football is a fantastic sport; I've followed/played it since I was a child (since parents were from East. Europe) and am glad that, having been finally exposed to top flight teams playing the game (via Espn's coverage) the sport has drawn great interest here, with the top European teams routinely selling out large stadiums on their exhibition tours in this country.

I like that the championship in the Premiership and the other leagues is a season-long round robin tournament: it does much to even out the effect of injuries, bad luck, and unfavorable matchups. The team that wins is ordinarily the team that has matched up best against ALL the teams in the league.

They have knockout tournaments also but these occur WHILE this other "championship" is being fought out.

But what about the Champions League? Why not here? First, it should be noted that the play in the domestic leagues (Real Madrid vs Barca - no fan of sport should miss those matches!; Chelsea v Utd;) is much more exciting than the play in the Champions League because it's more coherent.

Also, it should be pointed out that it's a European Champions' League, not a "World" league. For it to be emulated here, you'd first have to divide the NHL into 5 or more leagues whose teams never play each other (perhaps by geographic region?) outside of that competition. That won't fly.

Also, as much as I think the Premiership approach to determining a champion is more fair, it can only work with a much smaller league because each team would have to play the others an equal number of times. I do think the playoff experience in North American sports is also very good. Just different.

As for relegation/promotion. Again, the situations are different: most of the big cities in Europe have 2, 3 or more teams. If one of them is a "minor" team - and promoted or not, they are still minor in every other sense of the word - they can rent a big stadium for that occasional season they're playing with the big boys. OTOH, Hershey, if promoted, would have to come play in Pittsburgh or DC. I don't think it would work. If you look at the promotions and relegations in the Premiership since 1990, you'll see that the teams that never fall in the relegation zone have stayed pretty much the same. Thus, there are 4 or 5 bottom dwellers, 3 of whom go down every year to be replaced by 3 other bottom dwellers.

Posted by: RedLitYogi | October 2, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

As for the fan experience: I think the Caps fans here create a great atmosphere - it's a far, far cry from November of 2007!

In England, there are sections of the fans - not all by any means - who go into a hyper-intense experience as a group. They sit together in large sections, link arms, and chant their songs throughout the game. I'm told by a few people who've done it that rather than interfering with the experience of the game, it makes them hyper-aware, as though a communal forcefield is generated and each tackle, each touch of the ball, each run down the field sends a jolt through this thing and all feel it in an intensified way. They say it's addictive , intense experience and the game comes alive in ways it doesn't watching it the "normal" way. No touch of the ball is missed by this thing but we do miss things to check our blackberries, etc...

That would be cool here, but the arenas are not set up for it (it requires standing,for instance). It's something they have - good for them - that we don't. But we also don't have riots and roving bands of hooligans attacking fans of the other teams. If I were to see a fan of another team here, I'd treat them with civility. That doesn't happen to a Chelsea supporter at Arsenal.

Posted by: RedLitYogi | October 2, 2010 6:59 PM | Report abuse

As for the fan experience: I think the Caps fans here create a great atmosphere - it's a far, far cry from November of 2007!

In England, there are sections of the fans - not all by any means - who go into a hyper-intense experience as a group. They sit together in large sections, link arms, and chant their songs throughout the game. I'm told by a few people who've done it that rather than interfering with the experience of the game, it makes them hyper-aware, as though a communal forcefield is generated and each tackle, each touch of the ball, each run down the field sends a jolt through this thing and all feel it in an intensified way. They say it's addictive , intense experience and the game comes alive in ways it doesn't watching it the "normal" way. No touch of the ball is missed by this thing but we do miss things to check our blackberries, etc...

That would be cool here, but the arenas are not set up for it (it requires standing,for instance). It's something they have - good for them - that we don't. But we also don't have riots and roving bands of hooligans attacking fans of the other teams. If I were to see a fan of another team here, I'd treat them with civility. That doesn't happen to a Chelsea supporter at Arsenal.

Posted by: RedLitYogi | October 2, 2010 6:59 PM | Report abuse

I have an idea, let's do that top four go up and bottom four go down in baseball. And do it all all levels. Then, in about three years, all levels of the minors will be completely screwed up. Could you imagine the big Carolina League championship match-up between the Tampa Yankees and Albuquerque Isotopes!

That's only a good idea if you have competing leagues that don't have a working agreement. MLS and USL (plus whatever the other league is), you could do that with. Then the MLS could go to Richmond beyond just friendlies with DCU.

If there was a rogue basketball league that started up to match the NBA, but wasn't as good, they could do that with, but there isn't room for that in hockey.

Posted by: dj1123 | October 3, 2010 10:09 PM | Report abuse

You just got into soccer and became a fan of City? Have you no soul?

Posted by: FlyersSuck | October 4, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Aahh....the curse of the central time zone... the mid-morning coffee break makes one late to the party on a regular basis. Most of the "high points" (clueless, Johnny-come-lately, etc.) have already been addressed...

So, in a nutshell:

1. Tournaments. Hockey already does this better than any other American pro sport. It's called the World Championships on a yearly basis & the Olympics every four years. My only criticism of them is they start too early...the best players are still occupied with the NHL playoffs.

The logistics don't work at the team level. Geography, different rules, etc.. If you want to lobby for something, lobby that knuckle-head Bettman not to screw up the Olympic tournament by withdrawing NHL participation.

2. Fan support. I've followed European soccer for decades (Manchester City??? Puhleezee...let me guess...you LIKE the Danny, too! Right??) & I LOVE the singing & the clever chants...even when I can't understand a word they say! I could live w/o the monkey chants & banana throwing towards black players. Whole other story...

Suffice to say it just doesn't translate to American culture...

DEE-fense!
Let's go [insert team name here]!
You suck!!

It's just how we roll...

3. Relegation. The "minors" in American sports is about PLAYER development...not TEAM development. Relegation works in world soccer because all of the clubs have reserve sides & youth academies for the development of young players "in house". AND, rich clubs (cough, cough...Baby Blue Scourge...cough, cough...) buy the better players from lesser (read, poorer) leagues & sides. Bringing relegation to hockey - or any other North American pro sport - would require a TOTAL revamp of the organization & the culture. Have fun storming THAT castle!

Go back to the haikus...they make MORE sense!

Posted by: clb_in_md | October 7, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Have fun storming THAT castle!


I forgot to add....

The BEST way to start tilting at that windmill is by telling the powers that be in North American sport:

"It's how it's done in soccer/Europe & it works GREAT!"

They just LOVE that!!!!

Posted by: clb_in_md | October 7, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

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