1 Aug 2005

Quixotic

Posted by dumpendebat

Duncan Currie, writing for the Weekly Standard, has expressed approval of the NHL rule changes for the 2005-06 season. I agree with him on a couple of points, but disagree on others. To wit:

1. The league dumped its ban on two-line passes. This was a no-brainer. Both the Olympics and U.S. collegiate hockey allow two-line (or “offside”) passes–that is, passes that travel over a player’s own blue line and the red line without being touched by an opponent. Not surprisingly, they boast more scoring and faster action than the NHL. Ditching the two-line-pass rule will permit home-run passes and exciting up-ice breakouts. It will also cripple the “trap” as an effective defensive strategy.

I agree with this, and share his belief that this will help put a stop to the annoying “trap.”

2. The NHL reduced the dimensions of goalie equipment by about 11 percent. I was a late-comer to this idea, but as a youth coach recently wrote to me in an email, “Look at Dryden and Tretiak and all the greats, they were naked compared to goalies today.” Good point. Thanks to equipment innovations, NHL netminders’ pads have ballooned in girth over the past two decades. If you don’t believe me, take a gander at Martin Brodeur’s pads–and then look at those of, say, Ed Giacomin. It’s as if the goalie gear went on steroids. Anyway, tighter restrictions on equipment size seem pretty sensible.

Well, no, that’s not really a good point. Just because the mighty Ken Dryden made do with less padding than today’s goaltenders, that doesn’t mean that Brodeur should have to do the same. That’s like saying that Derek Jeter should have to play baseball with Honus Wagner’s glove.

3. If a game is still tied at the end of a five-minute overtime period it will be decided by a shootout, with each team taking three shots (followed, if necessary, by a “sudden death” format). How much fun will that be? A penalty shot isn’t called “the most exciting play in hockey” for nothing. Imagine a series of penalty shots to determine the winner of a hard-fought game. For one thing, it’ll keep more fans in the seats–and watching on TV–past the end of regulation time. It’ll also provide a bevy of riveting highlights for SportsCenter, which might in turn attract new fans to the sport. Above all, it’ll just be a joy to watch world-class goalies and skaters face off one on one.

I’m not a fan of this idea, not at all. What’s wrong with a hard-fought game ending in a tie? The penalty shot will no longer be “the most exciting play in hockey” if we start seeing it several times a week. Goal-scoring isn’t everything.

4. The league brought back the old tag-up-offsides rule. Until a few years ago, the NHL allowed players to dump the puck into their offensive zone before their teammates were out of the zone, provided those teammates “tagged up” at the blue line prior to heading back in to pressure the opposing defensemen and fight for the puck. (Got all that?) The old rule helped move the game along. It prevented needless whistles and stoppages. And it’s just what the NHL needs.

Agreed. Tag-up offsides should be a good thing.

How many fans won’t be back after the year-long lockout? Not as many as the NHL would like, thinks Currie:

Truth is, I think the league screwed the pooch with its work stoppage–big time. I get the strong sense–from sportswriters, personal conversations, and the email I’ve received from fellow hockey junkies–that large swaths of NHL fans said “To hell with ’em” sometime this past spring. Bringing back the diehards will be tricky enough, to say nothing of wooing the league’s more casual followers.

I wish he were wrong, but I suspect he’s right. That’s why I think the rule changes, while not all bad, are pretty much quixotic. The overall idea seems to boil down to more goal-scoring. But no matter how many goals are scored per game, the overall perception of ice hockey as abstruse, foreign, inscrutable, and boring isn’t going to go away. That was a big problem before this wretched work stoppage, and now the league is in serious trouble. That’s a shame, because hockey’s got it all: speed, agility, raw bone-crunching power, strategy, and even the occasional fistfight… baseball and football are OK, but I’d rather watch a hockey game than any other sporting event. It’s all that.

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