Friday, December 23, 2011

Shooting to Thrill

This piece originally ran in Cold as Ice, the hockey column I write for Popblerd.

In any pro sports league, you’ve got debates brewing over rule changes and inconsistencies. In baseball, the American League’s adoption of the designated hitter rule in 1973 is STILL hotly contested by purists. The NFL changed its kickoff rule this season to increase the number of touchbacks (in the name of player safety), but it also angered players who in previous years served solely as kick returners because they were essentially losing their jobs. In the NHL, a perennial argument has waged since the advent of the shootout in 2005-06: Is it a valid way to decide games or a cheap gimmick?

For decades, the NHL had regular season ties. If a game was tied 3-3 after 60 minutes of play, that was that. Each team received a point and moved on. (Playoff games, however, that are tied after regulation were and are played until one team scores to win.) The league added a regular-season overtime period in the early ‘80s to reduce the number of ties and then adopted the shootout after testing it out in the minor leagues. As things stand now, if a game goes to overtime, both teams automatically get a point. If things are still tied after the OT, the teams move on to a shootout round. Each team picks three shooters to take penalty shots on the opposing goalie; whichever team scores the most goals in that initial round wins the game. If the game is still tied after three shooters each, the shootout moves to sudden death mode, with each team getting one shot until a winner is decided. The winning team gets an extra point in the standings.

I was never a fan of ties. They always struck me as an inconclusive way for a game to end. But the shootout, which had been used for years in international soccer tournaments and playoffs, just cheapens the regular season to me. That’s not to say it isn’t exciting. A penalty shot in the middle of a game gets the crowd to its feet and can be electrifying, and the shootout can be similarly thrilling.

When I was a kid growing up in Canada, I used to love a program called “Showdown” that would air between periods of games. It was sort of the hockey equivalent of the old “Home Run Derby” show, filmed in the offseason and pitting NHLers against each other in several skills competitions, but the highlight was the one-on-one. I would spend endless hours emulating it in my driveway with me as Buffalo’s Gilbert Perreault (one of the flashiest players in the league in the ‘70s) and my brother as goalie Ken Dryden. It made for great TV and great street hockey, but it’s not a great way to end a team game. You have two teams that battle it out for 60 minutes and then the game is decided by a one-on-one skills competition. It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

The gimmicky aspect has also been extended to the 5-minute overtime period preceding the shootout, with each team going 4-on-4 (instead of the customary 5-on-5) to create more space and offensive chances.

And as I mentioned earlier, the NHL has kept the gimmicks out of the playoffs. Tie games go to OT and are played 5-on-5 until somebody scores, whether it’s in the first minute or in the 6th OT period. The stakes are obviously higher in the playoffs and teams play with urgency throughout regulation, and even more so if it’s a sudden death situation in OT.

So what’s the solution for the regular season? Going back to ties is out of the question, and teams won’t agree to just playing until there’s a winner; there are too many games and owners want them concluded in a reasonable fashion (most games are concluded in approximately 2 hours and 35 minutes). Sure, baseball games are played until a team wins, but they can drag on into the night. Hell, even nine-inning games can take forever to play.

Some NHL general managers, including Detroit’s Ken Holland and Toronto’s Brian Burke, have criticized the shootout. Holland has even proposed adding another OT period with 3-on-3 play to hopefully reduce the number of shootouts. Such a format has been used for years in the British Columbia Hockey League. Holland’s proposal hasn’t been adopted, but it’s out there and with any luck, it’ll gain traction. Sure, 3-on-3 play is gimmicky, but at least it’s still a team game instead of a skills competition.

However, if it comes down to the lesser of two evils, I’ll still take a skills competition over a sister-kisser any day.

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