The great George Carlin had a brilliant comedy special on seven words you can’t say on the television. While somewhat puzzling to him, and to me for that matter, most people can understand the reasons for dirty words being banned from television broadcasts. The argument he makes pokes fun at the hypocrisy of those words and the fact that it all depends on the context of each word, not just the word itself, because the word itself is usually harmless all by itself. The dirty words to this day, even though used broadly and frequently by most regular folks, are bleeped and are treated as “career” enders when uttered during live broadcasts.
So what about hockey? Well, there is a very dirty word in hockey…. “shootout”.
Canadians despise this word. It is nothing but a gimmick and historically disrespectful way to end the game. I probably will have some sort of Canadian militia heading my way after writing this armed with, since it is winter, I can only assume truck loads of snowballs of various sizes. The mere mention of the word “shootout” on hockey forums is enough to draw many haters out of the woodwork, and if one is so bold as to proclaim they are in favour of it will most assuredly draw an onslaught of ridicule, especially from Canadians.
I really do not understand why people in North America generally dislike the shootout? Why do people get so upset over it? Is it because it is not a hockey play somehow? Is it because it cheapens the stakes? It seems that as soon as anyone brings up the topic of “What would you change about the NHL?” undoubtedly one of the first things mentioned is to take the shootout away in favor of more overtime (or different versions of the same). Why? I need an explanation because I don’t understand the hate towards an exciting part of our beloved game.
I have been watching Euro soccer and hockey for about half my life, and between Olympic events and other major hockey tournaments, have come to expect that the game will end in a shootout if there is no winner after overtime has expired. For one, I do not consider it anything other than a hockey play or part of hockey.
We got to witness the excitement of a shootout recently during the 2013World Junior Hockey Championship where Switzerland went into the shootout vs Russia followed by Sweden’s shootout vs Russia in the elimination games. How could you ever top that? The game was literally lost for the Russians in both games. With seconds left against the Swiss, the Russian team tied the game sending it to overtime. After overtime the game was still tied, and the pressure and the attention then turned to a play that quite literally keeps entire nations on their feet at home and in the arenas. Nail biting, knuckles-and-hands-in-mouth kind of exciting. Picture that moment where you hold your breath as the shooter skates with the puck. The pressure is immense on both the shooter and the goalie. The shooter is looking for an opening or a move he was saving for this moment and the goalie is trying his best to make the last move. Save, save, save, save…until finally a goal. The roar of the arena and overwhelming accomplishment and joy that the player must feel as he scored as an important goal for his nation as it will get and now it is time for his goalie to hold the lead. I can go on and on, but it is one of those things that even listening on the radio, you get the full effect of the play. It is “fantastica”.
The overall desperation of the play makes me excited to watch at home, never mind looking up the highlights of the shootouts from each game I did not get to watch. It has become such a staple that you already know what guys are super dangerous during the shootout and who, while successful in five-on-five play, are busts at this point in the game. I remember all of the buzz that was talked about when Datsyuk pulled his favorite move and than years later had Giroux copy it on the right hand side. It was sick, filthy, unreal, and you watched that replay thousand of times, don’t lie. Articles were written about just that one move and how awesome it was – thousands of views on Youtube, and endless amount of replays on various sport shows. This is awesome for hockey and helluva fun to watch as a fan.
There is also the extra delicious, the extra fun aspect of the shootout, which is that it is all about the fans. When we get together with friends and the game goes to OT, we all automatically root for the shootout. Why? Well because it is that much more fun to watch. We get to make small bets between friends like picking whether it will be a save or a goal on each shot, betting a few bucks here and there.
Some of you may argue that overtime is a lot more exciting, though let’s draw a comparison between the two. During the overtime and during the game, we all chat about life, players, the current game, and who sucks more in fantasy. During the shootout, all of the attention turns to the sport and the current shooter, everyone in the arena is usually on their feet standing nervously. It involves 100% of our attention for each shot. It is the ultimate special play. Much more special than a power play or a penalty kill. This is where the game sees the best of the best try and put forth their best effort and sometimes this results in spectacular plays. This is why we seek out other shootouts going around the league during busy Saturday nights.
The NFL has a specialty play that sometimes involves a specialty player. He returns punts and kickoffs as a part of the “special teams”. His job is simple and specialized to only show up a few times during the game and return the ball as far as possible. Some players are so good that teams kick the ball away from the player, in fear of them returning the ball all the way back for a touchdown. The NFL tried to limit the amount of kickoffs and this has angered some fans a bit as the kick off is one of more exciting plays in the game. But the players who specialize in kick off and punt returns remain. We have seen this happen in the NHL as well. Where certain players become heroes for their team and find roles on otherwise full roster squads.
Jussi Jokinen was specially affective in the first year going 10 for 13. Petteri Nummelin of Minnesota Wild went 6 for 7 and Ales Kotalik from the Buffalo Sabres went 5 for 7 in 06/07 season. Patrick Kane went 7 for 9 in the shootout during the 07/08 season and continues to dazzle us with spectacular moves during the shootout. Wojtek Wolski from Colorado went 10 for 12 during the 08-09 season. In 09/10 season Sidney Crosby had some success going 8 for 10, while Jonathon Toews, Anze Kopitar, Radim Vrbata all scored 8 goals that year. Alex Tanguay found his touch during the 10/11 season going 10 for 16 and while that is impressive, the absolute monster during the shootout was Jarret Stoll who went 9 for 10. Radim Vrbata had a respectable 7 goals on 11 attempts. Last year we had amazing goals by Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, and Zach Parise. Frans Nielsen patented his infamous back hand move.
So while the players get the glory for scoring the goals, the goaltenders must get some credit as well. I still remember Hasek shutting out Canada in the 1998 Olympic games during the shootout. Semyon Varlamov was amazing last year during the shootout where he faced 24 shots against and only allowing 2 goals.
Now this may be the problem that most hockey snobs have with the shootout – that hockey is being skewed, or at least decided, by an individual player. These people believe this team sport is being divided into this mano-a-mano spectacle of “simple” skill and luck. To some the four-on-four play of the overtime is much more rewarding. Some even propose to extend the OT to have a three-on-three five minute game to create more scoring chances. Anything but the shootout it seems, anything but the shootout. But what most of these critics fail to see is that sometimes this team hockey is chaos. Chaos that some times results in a bounce here and a bounce there, a goal off a shin-pad, or a goal off defenceman’s ass. It is not always a controlled substance of highest quality and magnificent abundance of skill and poise. Sometimes it is a desperate attempt that succeeds due to luck or chance. A shootout on the other hand is a chance to see a coach’s ability to read his players and to know his talent. Does he go with the guy who scored two goals tonight or the defenseman who has a knack at shootouts in practice? It is a team moment as much as anything that happens on the ice before we reach shootout. It is as much a part of the game as a power play or the overtime.
But hey, we love our team sport and we dislike any individualism that comes from our players. Whether it be it during a goal celebration or when our game tries to highlight the individual talent of some of these great players by displaying them in a controlled environment for the entire world to marvel at on SportCenter or Youtube. It is a showcase of the best at that moment as it is a showmanship of the best of each season. It is one of the most exciting plays in hockey and it does not lessen the value of our game, it enhances it. Romance your image of the game all you want, but if anything was learned from this lockout, it is that this is a product and the shootout is the cherry on top. Something that can engage the young kids and make it on the top 10 lists.
Shootout is awesome, and that is the last word.
Feel free to follow me on twitter @lastwordonNHL and be sure to join Ben Kerr and I on Wednesday Nights at 10:00pm when we host the hockey radio show, “Puckheads”, on the Last Word Radio Network. You can listen in live or to our past podcasts by clicking here, or by searching for us on iTunes.