The last time, in July 2005, that the NHL broke out the hair shirts—the one article of hockey attire seemingly not on sale at its flagship New York City store—it ordered THANK YOU FANS! stencils for the ice, jacked up scoring with new rules and added shootouts in hopes that patrons would forget the lockout that had just killed the '04-'05 season.
Now as the 48-game 2013 season starts—following a 119-day lockout, which officially ended last Saturday night—the penance again appears heartfelt, if not all that profound. When the media dropped in on commissioner Gary Bettman on Jan. 9 to see what condition his contrition was in, they learned the NHL was planning giveaways to set things right after squandering incalculable goodwill (and the NHLPA had blown $800 million in salary) on essentially a foregone conclusion: a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue with the players. (Not that Bettman needed to do much more for the NHL fan base, which is middling compared with the NFL's or even the NBA's but which can't get enough of the product: the game at its brightest.)
Sure enough, a day later the Stars announced that children 12 and under would be welcomed free in January and February. The Penguins said they would provide free food at concession stands and sell all merchandise at half-off for the first four home games. The Lightning offered $200 season tickets in the terrace level. Game On sounded vaguely like Groupon.
If the NHL were going to give us a trembling-lip mea culpa after the third work stoppage in 20 years, it could have done better than the equivalent of a box of chocolates and a dozen roses. The best gift of all to fans would not have cost a dime and would actually have made the NHL money: bigger playoffs for 2013. Like Jeremy Roenick's waistline following the last lockout, this would have been a natural time for expansion.
The 48-game schedule already provides playofflike pace after the unconscionable dawdling in negotiating a new CBA. But a wacky half-season would have been the perfect laboratory to reimagine the game in a more substantive way than discount hot dogs, just as the 2004--05 lockout helped foster changes that, at least in their early blush, favored offense. The NHL could have boosted playoff participation from 16 teams to 20.
(Forget about the downside of rewarding mediocrity. That ship sailed long ago. The quest for the eighth and last playoff berth in each conference is almost as much a spring rite as booing Bettman when he presents the Stanley Cup.)
The concept, which has been around for at least a decade and which predates MLB's additional wild-card game, works like this: The first six teams in each conference automatically qualify for the playoffs. The teams that finish seventh through 10th in the conference meet in a one-game playoff, televised doubleheaders guaranteed to resonate. Team No. 7 plays host to No. 10. No. 8 entertains No. 9. The winners advance. The two sweetest words in hockey are Game Seven. Now even before the beginning of the most delightful part of the hockey calendar, and the most anticipated playoff round, the NHL could giftwrap four elimination games.
For a league that brazenly waxes nostalgic over something it never had—outdoor hockey—with its hypersuccessful Winter Classic, a 20-team playoff at least honors actual tradition. From 1942 to '67, the hallowed Original Six era, four teams qualified for the playoffs, the same two-thirds ratio that would exist under an expanded postseason format in a 30-team league. There might be grumbling about the upstarts and upsets, but when the fourth-place Maple Leafs (22-25-13) won the Stanley Cup in '49, it was no less legitimate than the 9--7 wild-card Giants' winning Super Bowl XLVI.
The new format would have the added advantage of creating a two-tiered race in the regular season—one for sixth place to avoid the one-game playoff, another for 10th to grab the last golden ticket—but mostly it would be a reward to fans, who adore playoffs as much as they loathe lockouts.
Twenty teams in the 2013 postseason. Too bad Bettman didn't stencil that in.
Gary Bettman's gift to fans could have been better than the equivalent of a dozen roses.
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO