My five suggestions to improve NHL

July, 16, 2010

Summer at last. Can you believe I haven't picked up a golf club yet?

I've been too busy chasing down the latest in the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes. Well, when he finally signs, it won't be on my watch. All yours, Scott Burnside and E.J. Hradek.

Yes, folks -- vacation time is here. Time to turn off the BlackBerry. Oh, I might post the odd tweet here and there, but it'll be to tell you where the LeBrun family is vacationing, not to post hockey updates!

But before I leave, here are some humble suggestions for the NHL and NHL Players' Association to make this great product even better. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments section, puckheads. Not that I'll be reading them, though.

1. Change the start date of free agency: July 1 is a Canadian national holiday, while July 4 is Uncle Sam's big party. It's so stupid that some of the NHL's biggest storylines are played out on those days when people aren't paying attention. I know the league has asked the players' union to change the date in recent years (move it to later in July) and the players balked because they didn't want to shorten the free-agent period (the players have a valid point, there). Let's back it up, then? More on that next.

2. No hockey past May 31: This is hardly a new suggestion; it might be the oldest one from longtime hockey scribes. But it ties in to other issues, including free agency. So, first of all, let's start the regular season in late September. The kids are in school, the leaves are turning and the Detroit Lions have already given up on their NFL season. The hockey community is ready for the puck to drop!

The NHL has always been loath to compete with baseball pennant races and the start of the NFL season, but it's always going to compete against something. This year's Cup finals, a terrific one, went head-to-head with Celtics-Lakers series in the NBA finals. Drop the puck and let your product do the work. Don't worry about other sports or TV Sweeps Week in late May or anything else.

By starting next season earlier -- let's say, for argument's sake, on Thursday Sept. 23, instead of Thursday, Oct. 7 -- it advances the schedule by two weeks' time. The 2011 playoffs, which are scheduled to begin April 13, would instead get going on March 30 under our plan. End result? No Stanley Cup finals in June.

Another important byproduct is it would advance the NHL's offseason dates, as well. The awards, NHL draft and start of free agency would all be moved up by two weeks. So, the usual July 1 start becomes June 17. Has a nice ring to it, right? By the time the national holidays on both sides of the border roll around, most of the big free-agency news should be done. Unless, of course, Kovalchuk is a free agent again.

3. Ban the All-Star Game: It's a joke. I get sick just thinking about covering one more of them. By now, anyone who listened to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's state-of-the-union news conference at the Stanley Cup finals knows I hate the All-Star Game (I asked him what the league had in store to spice up "a stale event").

The commish wasn't pleased with my question, but one very important figure in the league's offices wants to cancel the whole thing altogether. Another equally important figure wants to desperately change the look of the All-Star Game to salvage it.

Let's kill this baby. It's done. The players don't care. I know young hockey fans still do, and you can't discount that, but if the players have stopped caring, it's a dud. For years, the league's response was the All-Star Game took care of its corporate sponsors and that was a legitimate point. But now, the immensely successful Winter Classic more than takes care of sponsorship relations. There are no more valid reasons to have an All-Star Game other than it's an event for some markets to showcase the game (i.e., Carolina next season). Sorry, that's what the draft is for. (Maybe make the Toronto-based draft combines each spring a showcase event that rolls around the league? Just a thought.)

I would just scrap the All-Star Game and not replace it at all. But if the league insists on having something for those three days, my solution for a while now has been this: bring on Europe's best. Bring on the best players from Alexander Medvedev's KHL, plus the top skaters from the leagues in Switzerland, Sweden, Germany and Finland -- an IIHF All-Star team -- and take on the NHL's finest. The winning team gets a $1 million share per player. Between Medvedev, the IIHF, NHL and NHLPA, you can easily dig up the cash. Now you've got a midseason hockey game that matters.

4. Hold the NHL awards and draft in the same town: It was pretty close this year with Las Vegas once again hosting the awards (best show in years, by the way) and Los Angeles holding the draft. It was either a short hop on a plane or car (Mr. Burnside and I did the latter) between both events. Now, I know the NHL is contractually obligated to host at least one more awards show in Las Vegas, and next year's draft has already been awarded to the Minnesota Wild. But after that, let's hold both events in the same city. It just makes sense. The league did just that in June 2006 in Vancouver, and I thought it was terrific. Many people in the hockey industry, as well as fans, go to both events, so this would make things easier from a logistical point of view. It doesn't mean Vegas should be ruled out long-term. Heck, hold the draft in Vegas.

5. Commit to the Olympics and bring back the World Cup of Hockey for the two-year interval between Games: Listen, the league's concerns with Olympic participation are fully accurate and legitimate. It's an absolute shame the way the IOC steals the world's best hockey players for two weeks and doesn't pay a dime to the NHL or NHLPA. It doesn't make anyone from those organizations feel welcome to the party. (Can we start by allowing the NHL Network to air highlights from these hockey games during the Olympics?)

Having said all that, the players must remain in the Olympics. Hockey has found a home in the Games like no other professional sport (yes, even better than basketball); it's best-on-best and players are leaving it all on the ice. Only a Canada-United States matchup will drive up the TV ratings in North America; but I found the 2006 Sweden-Finland gold-medal game equally enthralling. This is a great international sport, and despite all the major issues (travel, stopping the NHL schedule for two weeks in midseason, etc.), there is only one answer: stay in the Games, starting with 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

In the meantime, the NHL and NHLPA (with the IIHF's blessing) must bring back the World Cup of Hockey in September 2016. The old Canada Cup has produced some of the greatest hockey memories I know. But it's a farce to have the event held in such an irregular fashion. Bring it back and give it a permanent home in non-Olympic years.

OK, folks -- that's my two (Canadian) cents. Enjoy the rest of the summer and keep reading!

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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