Goal scoring is down, and nobody not strapping on the pillows is happy about it…
Yup, the lack of scoring this season has hockey pundits and armchair analysts alike pontificating as to the repercussions as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his Board of Governors contemplate expanding into new markets.
Sports revenue is all about entertainment. From television deals to online viewing packages to radio call-in shows, it all comes down to fan engagement, and when the average game features fewer than six or seven goals, frequent whistles and almost zero fighting, there’s almost no “sizzle” left for the casual fan to appreciate.
Hard-core puck heads don’t mind low scoring games characterized by tough board battles, courageous shot-blocks and little-to-no circus show antics like ‘staged’ fights, but let’s be honest: to what degree are we watering the beautiful game down with all these tweaks? Refs playing god in the faceoff circle isn’t dramatic. It’s a bummer. Guys getting nailed for the slightest hook or hold kills momentum and prevents players from battling as hard as they should. Sticks are going to get trapped, arms are going to get wrapped around an opponent, and while impinging on a player’s ability to score should be called, incidental contact should not be a punishable offense in a game characterised as much by physical aggression as skill.
I’m old-school, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I loved watching Darcy Tucker infuriate the opposition with his often-blatant disregard of the code of conduct imposed by on-ice officials. It brought excitement and drama. It was impassioned, and it’s always entertaining to see a guy leaving it all on the ice, every shift, against a rival you hate. And when your favourite player shows his own hate for your rival, you absolutely love him for it.
Today’s game is based on less physicality, and less scoring; hardly the formula for expanding your market share in the ultra-competitive sports and entertainment space. Compared to the days of yore, there is very little to be passionate about. It’s becoming about as milquetoast as the cliché answers every hockey automaton recites ad nauseam between periods and during post-game scrums.
Goaltenders are virtually impenetrable due to the equipment they wear. The modern ‘blocking’ style is based on the sheer mass of the equipment today’s goalies employ. Modern body armour looks like a lacrosse keeper’s kit, far bulkier than what we wore back in the day when a few welts meant you were competing hard out there. But let’s not go there, just yet. Mess with a guy’s equipment, and he’ll claim his safety is being compromised. There are other ways to skin this cat that is becoming the non-combative, low scoring hockey that we are now “enjoying”.
Nobody is saying drop the instigator rule, bring back blind-side hits a la Scott Stevens, and dig up your smelly old Cooper goalie gear from the eighties, but it’s time to recognize that the game is becoming too “safe”. There’s nowhere near the passion that there once was, that sense of danger and excitement that Tie Domi was about to go off on some wanna-be shift-disturber, that nasty smile spreading across his mug, or from watching Steve Yzerman fighting for real estate in front of the net to complete a natural hat trick, or Ray Bourque walking the line before wiring a point-shot right through the wickets. Point shots aren’t getting through. Net-front battles seldom develop as whistle-happy officials turn love taps into a capital offense. And fighting is now the exception, and not the rule.
The game is becoming a little too sane, and a little too sanitized for real growth to occur, and for that reason, I think it needs to be opened up a touch. More speed, more danger, more drama, more goals.
Below are a few of the more reasonable suggestions for injecting some life into this beautiful game of ours:
- Increase the HEIGHT of NHL nets by 2.5 inches.
- Redesign the posts to deflect shots coming off the post inward to increase the likelihood of ‘post-and-in” goals.
- Expand the neutral zone.
- Eliminate shot-blocking except on the PK.
- Less hooking and holding penalties in the D zone.
Adding 2.5 inches to the height of the net gives shooters an added 180 square inches of net-space with which to score. Today’s tendys are generally 6’2’’ and taller, sometimes as tall as 6’7’’. Their leg span when they butterfly is virtually post-to-post, and with the size and construction of modern leg pads, the bottom of the net is sealed completely, with little chance of a rebound. They’re so tall, that going upstairs from in tight is a virtual impossibility. And heaven forbid you bump a goalie, lest you invoke the wrath of the coach’s challenge and see your goal recanted. Taller nets instantly make it easier to go upstairs, and fewer goals are going to be called back for exceeding the high sticking rule. Taller NHL nets mean that the issue of changing every minor hockey net across North America isn’t an issue at all. The “muscle-memory developed by going post-to-post isn’t altered. Prototype nets with posts and crossbars that deflect pucks inward have already been built and experimented with. This minor modification increases scoring instantly with minimal impact to the aesthetics and flow of the game. How many games have we watched this season where a team is down by a goal and hits three posts? Wouldn’t an overtime finish be more engaging for hockey fans?
A larger neutral zone gives skill players like Patrick Kane, Jeff Carter and Taylor Hall more room to wheel and gather speed through the attacking zone. It means fewer momentum-busting offside whistles, and less distance for point shots to travel. It also diffuses the ‘trap’; an infuriating, mind-numbing brand of defense that sucks the energy out of barns around the NHL.
Eliminate shot-blocking? Am I nuts? Personally, I hate it. Sure, it’s a sign of courage, but it also takes players like Brendan Gallagher out of the game for a month and a half, it eliminates shooting lanes, clogs up the offensive zone, and screens goalies. Here’s Arizona Coyotes coach Dave Tippet weighing in:
“I’m not sure if it’s good for the game,” “But it’s good for winning.” (source: Torts: Go Ahead, Take Your Best Shot, Johnette Howard, ESPN staff writer, 5/16/2012).
It’s not good for winning, sorry, Tipper. It’s only ‘good’ for protecting a lead. More goals is good for winning, and good for the game as a whole.
A realistic solution is to eliminate even-strength shot-blocking wherein the player lays down and places himself directly and deliberately in a shooting lane. If the player has a skate blade in contact with the ice, he’s good to go. If not, call a “goaltending” minor penalty. The result? More shots getting through to the net. While on the P.K., block away, because that’s exciting to watch. And, offensive stars generally don’t see as much P.K. time, so you don’t have marquis talent swallowing pucks and missing a month with their jaws wired shut.
We all get that the NHL wants more action in the offensive zone, and that eliminating hooking and holding should deter players from slowing up the opposition while defending. It’s backfiring, though. It’s sanitizing the game because it makes even incidental contact, or as I like to call it: “competing”, an offense. Let them battle and push the envelope, build up some animosity! Fans need more drama and passion, not just more scoring opportunities!
The NHL’s brain-trust believes that the ‘secret sauce’ to a more palatable brand of puck is creating a fast-paced, skill-based style of hockey that is more Patty Kane than Patrick Kaleta, and hockey fans are on-side, but for this new and improved model to pay off, there needs to be attention given to creating more space in which to move out there, and more space behind the goalie to shoot at. They also must let tensions boil over a little bit and be less whistle-happy. Hockey is equal parts blood sport and graceful technique. It’s a contact sport and guys are going to get pissed off, and they’re going to get hurt. They know it, and they expect it. So do the fans.
Players are squeezing their sticks, fans are getting squeezed over ever-increasing ticket, concessions and “merch” expenses, and the overall drama and excitement of the game is being toned down to a level where sustainability, much less growth, is unrealistic.
The NHL Board of Governors must take action and add some sizzle. Let them play, and give themselves a fighting chance to ice a great, entertaining product that combines skill and aggression.