Wednesday, December 22
The future on the frozen pond
By Brian A. Shactman

 Hockey in the next century. Sorry, be more dramatic. Hockey in the next millennium.

What's in store? Any speculation you get here won't have anything to do with rocket-propelled skates, computerized sticks that can lock in shot coordinates or outfits like Bob and Doug McKenzie saw in that messed up brewery game in "Strange Brew."

But, no doubt, there will be major changes in the game over the next few years, let alone the next 100. Excuse me, let alone the next 1,000.

Two interesting questions to ponder at the moment: What will the league do to adjust to the growing size of the players and when will the NHL actually expand off this continent?

Tale of the tape
Year Avg. Ht. Avg. Wt.
'59-60 5-11 178
'69-70 5-11 184
'79-80 5-11 188
'89-90 6-0 194
'99-00 6-1 199

Let's attack these issues one at a time.

While NHL players have gotten bigger, stronger and faster over the years, the rinks have stayed the same size. Obviously, this is true in every major professional sport, most noticeably in basketball and football. Sticking to pucks, player size has had a major impact on the style of play. In games, there is so little time to react because space and time have been reduced dramatically. Often, what results is a pinball-type game, where a big defenseman slaps the puck around the boards; the winger slaps the puck out of the zone, only to have it intercepted and slapped back into the offensive zone, where it all can be repeated again.

Of course, there are great skill players in the NHL, and the aforementioned scenario isn't how all the games go. Yet, that style occurs often, and it's how many bad teams stay in games against stronger competition.

Furthermore, the size and speed of the game has heightened the impact of the physical game. Literally. Like the NFL, the number of serious concussions has skyrocketed, and several NHLers in recent years have retired because of head injuries -- Pat LaFontaine, Brett Lindros, Geoff Courtnall come to mind.

In the next decade/century/millennium, the league will have to address the style and danger of the game by increasing the size of the ice surface.

Zdeno Chara
The Islanders' Zdeno Chara, at 6-foot-9, is the league's tallest player.

"When we go to new buildings, you'll see -- I think -- a bigger ice surface," Blues GM Larry Pleau said. "In 30 years, the guys will be another five pounds, or whatever, bigger than they are now."

Bigger ice is a good idea right now. Unfortunately, most current facilities cannot fit a larger surface on the floor space, and many so-called hockey purists think a bigger ice surface will take the grit and hitting out of the game. Also, bigger ice would mean fewer seats, but according to Pleau, that may also be a part of hockey in the next century.

"The game is getting so corporate that I could see moving to buildings with 12,000-13,000 seats, but with higher ticket prices," Pleau said. "The fan who pays $15 now will get priced out."

Pleau offered that, perhaps, the $15 fan may remain a fan and be forced to watch the game on television. This would then drive up the TV ratings. For the NHL, a win-win situation -- higher ticket prices offset the reduction in attendance, and television revenues increase due to higher ratings. For the fan, perhaps it's not such a victorious scenario.

However intriguing that concept, it's unlikely any arena that shares real estate with the NBA would allow for reduced attendance. And it's less likely that there will be many hockey-only arenas.

Europe, here we come ... maybe
Europe. That one word that has made expansion at least tolerable. Just like five other words that helped equally well: The Cold War is over.

Early in this decade, when Eastern European players were given the freedom to export their skills from their native lands -- as opposed to risking life and limb by defecting -- the NHL was changed forever.

The European infusion has been so pronounced that an NHL team, the Florida Panthers, instituted rules that only English could be spoken on the ice and in the locker room. Players couldn't communicate with each other because of the different languages.

Year Canada U.S. Non-
N. American
'69-70 94.7 2.1 3.2
'74-75 92.0 5.7 2.3
'79-80 82.1 11.6 6.3
'84-85 77.6 13.2 9.2
'89-90 72.0 16.0 12.0
'94-95 62.3 17.9 19.8
'99-00 56.3 16.0 27.7

Two decades ago, the only language problem was English and French, and it was rarely a problem. Unless you grew up in South Boston and played for the Canadiens in the '60s.

Since Sweden's Ulf Sterner became the league's first European in 1964, the numbers have risen steadily, if slowly. From 1984 (9.2 percent) to this season (27.7), the number of non-North American players has more than tripled -- or a better than 300-percent increase, depending on which number sounds more powerful. Today, more than 175 NHLers were born off the North American continent, almost all of them in Europe.

So, when will the NHL set up shop overseas?

Not soon.

But not out of the question, either. Most of Europe possesses the economic base to support professional sports -- even North American pro sports to some degree. If hockey grows enough in the coming decades, it's not out of the question to expect a European division, where one or two teams will be allowed to enter the NHL playoffs. What if the Eastern and Western Conferences only had seven teams qualify for the postseason? The other two squads could come from NHLEurope.

Clearly, in 20 or 30 years, traveling overseas will be much quicker, but even if it is only slightly better, the European teams can slug it out with each other until the postseason, and then travel to North America for the playoffs. That will hold until Europe clamors for a home game in the playoffs, or travel time is reduced to about four hours between Stockholm and San Jose -- whichever comes first.

The bottom line: the NHL will be in excellent position to expand in Europe, maybe more so than any other professional sport. It just won't happen overnight.

Perhaps the two changes postulated here would happen simultaneously. After all, international hockey is played on Olympic-size ice, which is larger than the average North American rink.

OK, it's too hard to resist: When the Berlin Barons host the Chicago Blackhawks in the Cup finals -- Eric Lindros' son will be one of Berlin's North American stars -- on Dec. 19 of 2034, it likely will be on an Olympic-size rink.

Unless Lindros the younger's grandfather, Carl -- acting as his agent -- doesn't have his grandson holdout for the third time that season.

Brian A. Shactman is the NHL Editor for