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ShedLight Hockey Blog

This is part three of a three-part series. In part 1 we looked back on the format of the NLA and NLB since 1980. Last week we analyzed the benefits and drawbacks of the different modi. This week we will look at what I think would be the best format for the National Leagues. If enough discussion is sparked from this series, we will post a “bonus” part four analyzing the viewpoints of different parties from around Switzerland.

By Ryan McGregor

In this format, we will have an NLA, NLB and NLC. Instead of the usual two leagues, we would introduce a new NLC. The NLA would consist of 10 teams, where the top 8 would make the playoffs and the bottom 2 would play the usual best-of-seven playouts. The loser of the playouts would be directly demoted to the NLB. The NLB would also consist of 10 teams and the NLB Champion would be promoted to the NLA. The new NLC would be a purely developmental league. Every NLA or NLB team would have the right to enter a team into the NLC. The NLC would have strict salary and age caps and would play roughly 50 games to determine its own champion.

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The NLA would be the most similar to its current state. However, by reducing the league to 10 teams, we would increase the competitiveness and slightly reduce salaries. Fewer roster spots for the same number of top players would, on average, make each of the 10 teams better and decrease salaries for the average to above average players. At the bottom end of the spectrum, playouts and direct relegation would hold teams accountable and not allow the bottom one to two teams to coast through the last 30 games of the season, thereby hurting competition throughout the league. I assume that we would see the quality of hockey slightly increase in such a league.

The NLB would be drastically different to how we know it today. Looking at the current standings, Fribourg-Gottéron, Ambrì-Piotta, Rapperswil-Jona, Langenthal, Ajoie, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Martigny, Olten, Visp and Thurgau would be in the NLB. These teams would be battling to determine who will be promoted to the NLA for the upcoming season. Such an NLB would have much more parity, and would, therefore, have many more competitive hockey games, as opposed to its current format. This NLB would be an ideal stepping stone for players developing on the way to the NLA. Furthermore, it would be a much more interesting league for the fans, as the quality of hockey would be far greater than it is today.

Finally, the NLC would be a league similar to the NBA D-League – with its main purpose being the development of young players. Any NLA or NLB team could enter a team into the NLC and teams could join together to do so, as Ambrì-Piotta and Lugano already have with the Ticino Rockets. The NLC teams would play a standard qualification and playoffs to determine the NLC Champion.

In my opinion, the NLC would be incredible for the improvement of Swiss hockey. One thing Swiss hockey lacks that is present in North America is a designated path from juniors to the NLA. In North America, players assume their role when they are 17 and play that role from junior hockey, through the minors, right up into the NHL. If you are a defensive forward in the ECHL, you will get called up if someone in a similar position gets injured in the NHL or AHL. Most NHL teams don’t call up a first line scorer if their tough guy who killed penalties got injured. Instead, they will look for someone with similar abilities to replace him. In Swiss hockey, however, players gradually move through the ranks. For example, after junior, a skilled forward will sign with a club and put in his time as 13th forward, then 4th liner, and then after a few years, finally get his chance on the power play. In North America, this same player would have played on the power play in 3 different leagues until finally making it to the NHL, thereby honing his playmaking abilities, instead of honing his bench warming abilities, as the Swiss player did. Many of our young players go through this phase in their career, and we wonder why we can’t develop enough really skilled players. It’s simple, we need to give them more opportunities to hone in on their skill instead of wasting time playing a different role! Find a player that fits the role – don’t fit the player to a role!

The NLC would bridge the gap so that players could get more ice time to improve their skills. The NLC could implement strict guidelines on player age and salaries. For example, players would be guaranteed a bedroom in an apartment and 800-1600 CHF a month and must be under 25 years of age. These set guidelines would allow clubs to stand out by how they could develop a player. Players looking for an NLC contract could pick the teams best suited to them, instead of picking a club that will pay them lots of money, despite having to watch every game as the 8th defenseman. These players could be called up by their clubs, but if they weren’t needed they could immediately be reassigned instead of watching the NLA from the stands. Now we would have a clear path from junior to the NLA. Good junior players who aren’t ready for the NLA could sign an NLC contract and play a role that suits them. As they get more skilled, they would progress to the NLB and NLA when they are actually ready to play in a higher league. Since junior ends at age 19 in Switzerland, many players are simply not ready to step into an NLA or NLB role, but playing in the 1st league (tier 3 amateur hockey) is often seen as writing off their career. Therefore they sign a deal with a team that already has their position filled out since it’s the only option they have.

The NLC would differ from the 1st league in that its sole purpose would be for player development. In the 1st league, many club objectives determine who gets signed and who plays the most. There are some players who have retired from professional hockey and others who are still hoping to make it. The NLC, however, would be a congruent league with players of similar skill and ambition. Players would have direct ties to the NLA and NLB, and would quickly be rewarded for good play. They would also have access to the resources of their affiliate, so they wouldn’t have to sacrifice coaching or strength and conditioning by playing in the NLC. Furthermore, playing in the NLC would be a career stepping stone after junior and before the higher leagues.

A further benefit of the NLC is that these players would actually be playing for something. In the current NLB, the bottom 3-4 teams have kicked the bucket before the halfway point of the season. Playing for 11th place and losing many games by 10 goals cannot be good for a 19-year-old’s development. This would be a benefit for every league: The NLA wouldn’t have the bottom teams that are never going to win anyway, and the teams that didn’t have a chance in the NLB would now be playing for the trophy in the NLC against players their own age and with their skill level.

 

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

- George Bernard Shaw

 

In my humble opinion, this National League format could progress the development of young players, increase the attractiveness of games across all three leagues, keep fans more interested, improve the quality of hockey, and make the clubs more financially sustainable. Of course, there would be many difficult hurdles and drawbacks to this new format. We would have to pick a first season where the bottom two NLA teams are demoted. Since this could hit any of the NLA teams, they are likely to be extremely resistant to such an idea. Other complaints could be that teams don’t want to play 5-6 games against each team or have direct promotion/demotion. Nevertheless, we must constantly strive to innovate our hockey, even if it is comfortable to stick with the status quo. Right now, it feels as though some National League clubs are clinging to the way things are, but to progress, we must undertake things that seem risky or new, and believe the outcome will be better than the way things once were. We must think of what is best for Swiss hockey, and not just an individual club.

Ryan graduated from Harvard in 2015 and is currently a forward for the SC Rapperswil-Jona Lakers.

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