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The obvious reason why the NHL won’t switch to a larger ice surface

Aug 22, 2011, 11:47 AM EDT

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The 2011 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp acted as a mad science lab to test rule changes both big and small, but it was also a sly way to generate buzz for hockey in August.

Naturally, the talk of altering the game encourages bloggers, fans and writers to chime in with their own suggestions. Some wonder if the sport should do away with fighting, making all head shots illegal or even remove body contact altogether. Others are a bit more realistic with their expectations.

The Toronto Sun’s Steve Buffery is the latest writer to offer a reasonable change that probably won’t happen for a long, long time (if it ever happens): switching to a larger ice surface.

On the surface level, it’s a big picture cure for whatever worries the league might have about scoring. As Buffery explains, more ice means more room, which is a great weapon for speedy and skilled players. The first dissenting point Buffery brings up is that a larger ice surface would likely make for less hitting, a reasonable assumption since it would be that much tougher to lay a body on shiftier players.

It’s not until he gets a little deeper into his argument that he hits on the obvious sticking point, though: money.

Opponents of bigger ice will also argue that, logistically, it’s too costly to widen the ice, that it’s too late the make the change.

Sure, it would probably cost each club a few million and a few rows of seats. But it’s a smart investment. It’s like the federal government increasing spending on health and fitness. Yes, there are big up-front costs but, down the road, the investment is going save money on health costs.

If the NHL spends the millions now to widen the ice, it would pay off in a big way down the road, because, as the game becomes more exciting and goal-scoring increases, more fans would get turned on. And it would make sense that TV ratings would go up. And perhaps, one day, the NHL would even get more lucrative TV deals outside of Canada.

Sure, in an ideal world, all 30 NHL teams would be forward-thinking enough to swallow the bitter, multimillion dollar pill that would come with such a change. But how many teams would actually be comfortable with losing some of their most lucrative seats for a change that isn’t guaranteed to work? The Florida Panthers’ “Club Red” is strong proof that, if anything, the league’s teams are looking for more ways to squeeze every last dollar out of their “premium” seats. Even bigger clubs who could stomach those millions in losses are unlikely to want to give up some of their best money-making rows in the name of an enormous change.

Yes, it’s tantalizing to imagine how entertaining the NHL would be on international-size rinks, but don’t expect that to take place anywhere outside our imaginations.

  1. jrod691 - Aug 22, 2011 at 12:07 PM

    I dont buy the notion that enlarging the ice surface gets rid of some of their most lucrative seats. It would actually increase the number of front row (also know as the most lucrative) seats.

    With a larger ice surface there is a larger perimeter which means there is more room for seats in the first row. Increasing ice surface would actually mean you are getting rid of a row or two at the back of the bottom level. In addition to increasing the number of seats close to the ice in the lower bowl, enlarging the ice suface will bring the first few rows of the upper bowl closer to the ice surface, increasing their value as well.

    Baically, if you think about the arena as a whole, the short term loss in ticket revenue would actually be close to nothing. The clubs would only really have to pay for enlarging the ice and the loss of concession revenue from having a couple hundred less people in the building.

    • James O'Brien - Aug 22, 2011 at 12:30 PM

      Perhaps this is something worthy of a longer-term study then, because everything I’ve read has indicated that a larger ice surface would be costly in big-time seats. Thanks for the interesting feedback – it’s certainly something to ponder.

    • jrod691 - Aug 23, 2011 at 1:52 PM

      After thinking about this some more I have softened my stance. Enlarging the ice surface would not add as many front row seats as I originally thought. It would add some but only at the corners of the rink and the ends behind both nets (assuming the length of the ice surface stays the same and only the width changes). The long sides of the rink (benches and penalty boxes) would not be adding any seats. I don’t know the exact dimensions or curvature of an olympic-sized rink but you would increase the perimeter at both ends of the rink through the curved corners.

      The rest of my argument still stands. Increasing the ice surface would still increase the value of virtually every seat in the arena because they would be closer to the ice. I still think they need to think of it as removing the back rows of the lower bowl instead of removing the front rows. In addition to the value added by proximity to the ice surface, if the change really does increase the overall interest in the game, one could infer that would increase demand for tickets, which would in turn increase the value of those tickets–of course that and increased TV money is the whole point of the proposed change.

      I guess it would come down to how many rows they actually have to remove, how many front-row seats would be added and how long it would take for them to see some sort of return on investment in terms of the increase in interest translating to an increase in ticket value. The TV money side of things is a different animal altogether and there likely wouldn’t be any ROI until the current deal that was just signed expires.

  2. lewdood - Aug 22, 2011 at 1:57 PM

    That’s actually a brilliant comment, and the first time I’ve ever heard that argument. You’re 100% right on that — teams can charge top prices on a greater # of seats and increase all of the prices all the way back the lower bowl. Fans wouldn’t complain much, either, since they’ll be closer to the ice.

    Now, that being said, I have to ask why everyone always seems to think that more exciting = more scoring. As long as the score is close, it’s exciting to me…

    • ThatGuy - Aug 22, 2011 at 2:29 PM

      Because your a hockey fan frequenting a hockey blog(I feel the same way). More scoring will bring in the casual fans. Casual fans = $.

    • James O'Brien - Aug 22, 2011 at 4:18 PM

      To me, it’s as much about scoring chances as it is as about the amount of goals scored. A larger ice surface would make it tougher for less skilled players to get away with being, well, less skilled. Any changes that encourage genuine competition and as much exciting play as possible – without ruining the balance of what makes the sport great in the first place – is worth at least considering. I just have doubts that teams would be willing to give up the revenue that would come with the surface changes.

      Of course, if an earlier comment is accurate, the changes might not have as much of an impact as it originally seemed.

  3. 12is3times4 - Aug 22, 2011 at 6:34 PM

    Couldn’t the NHL just grandfather in the larger rink requirements? That is, require it for all new/renovated arenas built after a certain date in the future (or for temporary home arenas while new arena construction is in progress), but allow teams to keep the current rink size in the meantime?

    • 12is3times4 - Aug 22, 2011 at 6:39 PM

      (And yes, I realize that would mean some teams would have larger rinks than others, probably for many years. However that’s already true in college hockey where some teams play on Olympic-sized rinks, and that’s never been a big issue. It could also throw a new strategic wrinkle into games, where teams accustomed to playing on one type of rink must adjust to the other.)

  4. 12is3times4 - Aug 23, 2011 at 7:43 AM

    Correction to my original post: The league could allow the old rink size for temporary arenas.

    Another thing to consider is that in many if not most cases state/provincial and/or local governments, being the arena landlords, have to fund, or at least sign off on any changes to their arenas. What does the NHL and/or one of its teams do when expanding their rinks results in another huge political row with the local stadium authority? The Islanders’ situation comes to mind here.

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