Over the past ten years, it has become obvious to National Hockey League fans there are serious problems plaguing the game of professional hockey. The on-ice product has deteriorated from a fast-paced, highly-charged game into a plodding, boring contest, devoid of the excitement that first enticed its fans.
Instead of a game of speed, skill and equal balance between offensive and defensive play, we're now left with contests that are low-scoring, chippy and dull. A game where clutch-and-grab tactics, a watered down talent base, and a lack of respect for opponents are winning out over skill and talent.
Off the ice, player salaries have risen at an alarming pace, with news of contract squabbles often overshadowing the game itself. League expansion policy motivated by greed rather than common sense has been the rule of thumb. Old, beloved arenas have been replaced by cookie cutter venues, and outrageously high ticket prices have driven many fans away from the game.
Yet the NHL hierarchy continues to insist there's nothing wrong with their product, merrily pointing out how player salaries are coming under control, tinkering with innovations designed to "improve the game", how gate revenue is rising, and how penalties are down from years past.
Luckily, there is a book that takes rips off the rose-coloured glasses the NHL would have us look through. That book is "The Death of Hockey".
Written by two American sportswriters, Jeff Z. Klein and Karl-Eric Reif, "The Death of Hockey" is best described by it's back cover notes: "a love letter, a stinging indictment and an impassioned rant on behalf of fans who love the game, who think it's on the road to extinction, and who want to make their concerns heard".
Well-written, highly entertaining and meticulously researched, "The Death of Hockey" takes aim at the major problems affecting the NHL, such as expansion, team re-location, the shrinking talent base, and the style of play of today's game. They also take a look at other issues, such as the treatment of fans in today's arenas, as well as the lack of interest hockey has in the United States, the very market the NHL has tried to cultivate in recent years.
What makes "The Death of Hockey" such an enjoyable, as well as educational, read is Klein and Reif address the issues not in the tone of professional journalists, but in the manner of the hockey fans they truly are. Their intelligent, witty style makes one feel as though he or she were involved in a hockey debate in a favorite sports bar, or at a game itself. This doesn't mean they're "dumbing down" to address the issues, but instead are speaking from the heart as only passionate sports fans can.
The authors also use humour to drive home their points, many of which had me laughing out loud. Observing a fight between goaltenders Garth Snow and Steve Shields in 1998, the authors declare all that's missing are "clown costumes and Nerf bats". In observing how goaltenders incredible statistics today are due as much to their over-sized equipment as to their skills, they compare today's netminders to 'the Michelin Man". In attacking the ear-splitting canned music that plays at today's games, they compare it to "some sort of torture designed to brainwash political prisoners", rather than the entertainment the league believes it's supplying the fans.
The authors aren't content to just point fingers and find fault , but also suggest steps the League could take to turn their fortunes around. Among them, no more expansion; shortening the regular season schedule so the games actually mean something; listening to and accepting the criticisms of the game's fans, and restoring team rivalries. They also celebrate the rise of interest in international hockey, and encourage the league to continue to make inroads in Europe.
Klein and Reif attack the rise in violent play as another contributing factor that has slowed the game in recent years. While confessing they like a good hockey fight as much as the next fan, they also acknowledge that the only way the National Hockey League can be taken seriously in the professional sports world is to do away with fighting. They also believe in cracking down on obstruction and stick foul offences by getting the on-ice officials to call the games as per the official rule book, quite rightly pointing out that it's the best way to get the game back to the entertaining style of years past.
There may be a tendency among some Canadian fans reading this book to insist that fighting is an important part of the game, and that being American, Klein and Reif don't truly understand the sport. However, it's obvious from reading "The Death of Hockey" these two are not only knowledgeable, but they share a love of the sport as deep as any felt by Canadian fans, having grown up with the sport in Buffalo, New York in the late 1960's and 1970's.
Perhaps the most important message that readers can take from "The Death of Hockey" is the authors insistence that hockey fans must not take the state of the game lying down. In order to affect real change, Klein and Reif write it is up to us, the hockey fans, to let our voice be heard.
Since "The Death of Hockey" was first published in 1998, it has slowly become obvious hockey fans are doing just that. Klein and Reif foretold the fans would make the league suffer by staying away. In 2001, an estimated 20 of 30 NHL clubs were believed to be losing money, and attendance was dropping in big market cities like Los Angeles and the New York metropolitan area. The problems addressed by "The Death of Hockey", and the solutions proposed by its authors, are more relevant today than in 1998.
It is my opinion that "The Death of Hockey" is the best book written about the modern game since "Net Worth", and every bit as important. For hockey fans that care about the game, who are unhappy with the NHL's direction, and are looking for potential solutions, this book is a must-read..