Sunday, July 31, 2005

Shootouts? No Red Line? Smaller Goalie Pads? This Isn't Your Father's Hockey League

(the following column can also be viewed at RetailDetroit.com, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to www.RetailDetroit.com and click on "Columnists")


When the NHL -- a.k.a. the NO Hockey League -- recently announced the ratification of its new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), commissioner Gary Bettman, perhaps the most irrelevant man in professional sports, looked into the cameras and lowered his mouth toward the microphones and said of the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season, "To all of the fans out there, I promise we’ll make it up to you."

Oh? I’m dying to find out how Bettman plans on doing that. What does he mean, he’ll make it up to me? Is he going to change the oil on my car? Mow my lawn for a month? Give me a ticket to a game for half off?

But then I figured it out, sort of. I’m guessing Bettman is trying to "make it up" by introducing a bastardized version of hockey that you would be accustomed to find in the lower minors. Of course, you could make an argument that the NHL itself is a lower minor league. Ba-da-bum.

Seriously, have you read the rule changes that the league plans on implementing this season? They look like a list that some beer leaguers came up with on a cocktail napkin at their favorite pub: No red line. Smaller goalie pads. Some weird trapezoid thingie behind the net. Smaller neutral zones. Teams that ice the puck can’t make a line change. Less room behind the goals. And, worst of all, shootouts to determine winners of tie games.

First, a word about shootouts. And that word is, $#&%!. I’m sorry, but until major league baseball decides to have a home run derby instead of extra innings, or the NBA holds a slam dunk contest instead of having to suffer through the inconvenience of overtime, or the NFL trots out a punt, pass and kick thing so coaches like Marty Mornhinweg don’t have to worry about taking the wind in overtime, then you can take your shootouts and stuff them in your five hole.

I know I might be in the minority here, because old-time hockey fans like me are becoming as much of a part of American history as the Edsel and New Coke. But I like to think there are enough of my type to make me feel not like a party pooper, but rather a voice of reason. Do we really need to determine winners after 65 minutes -- 60 of regulation and 5 of overtime -- by watching six penalty shots in a row? In case you don’t know, the shootout event kicks in if the game is tied after the five-minute overtime, which itself is already bastardized because teams play four skaters a side during it. In the shootout, three skaters from each team get one breakaway attempt each. If the contest is still tied, there will be a sudden death-type shootout. And so on, and so on, until a winner is determined. Heaven forbid there actually be a tie game, after all.

For those of you who are jiggling and wiggling in your seat with excitement and anticipation because the thought of all those penalty shots is just too much to handle, buckle yourself in and let me tell you something. I agree that the penalty shot is one of the most exciting plays in sports. That’s because -- and stick with me here -- they hardly ever occur. Ever hear the saying, "Too much of a good thing...."? I guarantee you, watching six or seven or 10 or 12 penalty shots in a row will dilute the play’s excitement like a gallon of water added to a tea bag. And that’s what you’ll be subjected to, if the shootout thing goes into sudden-death. Some of you may even be hoping that the Red Wings’ opponents score, just to get the game over with.

Forgive me if I sound like an old fuddy-duddy -- I detest the DH in baseball, to show you where I’m coming from -- but ending an NHL game with a shootout is...just plain wrong. First, it gives an unfair advantage to a team with a lot of scorers and penalizes the more defensive-minded teams who worked their rear ends off to broker a tie after 65 minutes to begin with. Granted, a shootout loser still gets a point in the standings (the winner gets two), but those single points add up and can mean something at the end of the season, like whether or not you make the playoffs, where, by the way, shootouts are outlawed. Which brings up another point. If the NHL is so sweet on shootouts, then why don’t they use them in playoff games? Two possibilities: a) the shootout idea isn’t good enough for the playoffs, which makes it flawed from the get go, or b) because the one thing the NHL still has going for itself is the drama of sudden death playoff overtime. And there is drama because such extra sessions only happen in April, May and June. So we’re back to the "you’re gonna dilute the penalty shot" thing.

Like I said, I understand I am probably spitting in the wind here. I can sort of understand what the NHL is trying to do: lure the casual fans back to the game. They know they already have die-hards like me in the fold, although I didn’t miss the game as much as I thought, for whatever that’s worth. The league knows I will be tuning in. They’re going after those who have a lukewarm interest in the game. Fine. So I guess I can abide the shutouts for the greater good. Doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, though.

Other rule changes include eliminating the center red line, which will cut down on offside passes and that’s actually a good thing. Also, supposedly the referees have been mandated to have "zero tolerance" when it comes to interference and grabbing. So while the longlasting effect might be a more open game that benefits the skilled teams, expect tons of penalties for a while. Players can now "tag up" -- leaving the offensive zone and returning -- without fear of a whistle for delayed offsides. Again, okay with me.

But then the league got goofy again. All NHL rinks will now have a trapezoid -- yes, trapezoid -- sectioned off, outlined in paint, behind each net. Goaltenders will not be able to handle the puck outside the ‘zoid -- zoid is void, remember that -- without fear of being whistled for delay of game. The league says this will keep the puck moving. Forget that some netminders handle the puck better than some defensemen I’ve seen. Regardless, I think this is over-legislation, not to mention a waste of paint. And the league can use every penny it can get its hockey gloves on.

Speaking of goaltenders, pads will be smaller on them. I don’t have much of a problem with this, since a lot of them nowadays are starting to look like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. The NHL even toyed with the notion of making the goals themselves larger. Why not stop there? Make the pucks smaller and the sticks longer and hey, make it a rule that you can’t play goal if you’re taller than 5’2". You want more offense? That’ll be a start.

All of this is well and good, but you could make the nets as big as soccer goals and play the game with two pucks at a time, but it’s not going to mean diddly squat unless the game takes a serious look at itself, and how it’s marketed and figures out why in the world there are franchises in Columbus and Atlanta and Miami and Nashville but not in Minnesota or in more Canadian cities. Maybe they are addressing this with the new CBA, somewhere in the small print. The NHL grew itself too fast into some illogical cities, and now they’re in this financial mess. Perhaps the most humiliating blow was when ESPN refused to sign back up for another TV package, even at half the old rate. When they’d rather show billiards or poker or figure skating, then you know you have an identity crisis on your hands.

Finally, the computer spit out a schedule for this season, and not once do the Red Wings play Montreal, Toronto or Boston. That’s four of the Original Six that won’t play each other in 2005-06. Maybe it’s all well and good. To see a Red Wings-Maple Leafs game decided by a shootout doesn’t exactly thrill me.

But then again, the league has already taken my support for granted. And the worse thing is, they’re right.

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