As a fan of the San Jose Sharks and good hockey in all forms, I was devastated by the total loss of the 2004-2005 NHL season to managerial greed in the form of the NHL lockout. While the owners and executives managed to sway the collective bargaining agreement more in their favor than it has ever been, one must ask at what cost.
The NHL was far from an elite power on the American professional sports radar before the lockout. After the lockout, things got even worse. As with Major League Baseball in 1994, the total loss of a season left many fans feeling alienated and angry, and when you consider that there were relatively few NHL fans to begin with, that meant big problems for the league.
Owners worked with the league to develop a set of rule changes to “enhance” the appeal of the game and try to cater to a wider array of American sports enthusiasts. These changes artificially encouraged higher scoring, poorer fundamentals, and elevated individual flashy play over solid team-oriented game skills. In my opinion they greatly diminished the merit of what once was a terrific spectacle.
Did it work? That is not perfectly clear. Attendance and television ratings have rebounded substantially, but that may be due more to the emergence of league-wide superstars like Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jonathan Toews, along with more aggressive and “mainstream” advertising and marketing.
What is clear is that the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games did much more for the popularity of the NHL than these gimmicky post-lockout rule changes ever hoped to. After the United States came within a sudden-death overtime goal of wresting the gold medal from the burly hands of the vaunted Canadians, the popularity of hockey and the NHL skyrocketed.
Given that, can we finally move forward and restore the game to its pre-lockout state? Here are five rule changes I would reverse before the start of the 2010-2011 campaign.
It never used to be a crime to shoot the puck directly off your stick and into the crowd from your own defensive zone, but after the NHL returned from the lockout, it became an automatic two-minute minor for delay of game.
The critical element behind this rule is that it is an automatic penalty, regardless of situation or intent. No questions asked: If you put the puck directly into the crowd from your defensive zone, you will be spending the next two minutes in the box.
The spirit of this rule is reasonable, since if it did not exist defensive players would take advantage of such a capability and shoot the puck out of play to get a stoppage and a change on a critical defensive sequence. However, the referees need to be given the authority to use good judgment in determining a player’s intent, and decide whether or not to call a penalty accordingly.
The NHL says such a notion is against protocol, as referees are not supposed to be called upon to determine player intent, but such an argument is utter bunk. Referees already have the leeway to issue major penalties, minor penalties, or no penalties based on the severity and intent of a possible infraction? How would this be different?
This rule has a direct and significant effect on play. Because it is often difficult to fully control a bouncing or rolling puck, especially in warm-weather climates like Anaheim and Dallas, where the ice quality can become suspect mid-way through periods, this rule has led to a gross increase in the number of 5-on-3 power play scenarios, which has artificially inflated scoring throughout the league since the rule’s inception.
A team already killing a penalty attempts a clear and the puck rolls on the defender’s stick, suddenly they are down 5-on-3. That is not right.
Before the lockout, an NHL goaltender had the free range to play the puck anywhere on the ice. Since the lockout, he can still play it anywhere in front of the goal line, but once it goes behind the net, he is forbidden to touch it unless the puck is within the trapezoidal region defined by goal line, end boards, and two diagonal lines added on either side of the net.
Goaltenders with solid puck-handling abilities like Marty Turco and Martin Brodeur used to take great advantage of the ability play the puck anywhere it lied, stifling offensive cycles and initiating up-ice breakouts. Now they find themselves handcuffed by this new rule, which penalizes goaltenders who possess such skills and artificially creates more parity at the position throughout the league.
It has boosted offensive pressure off dump-ins and thus led to more scoring opportunities and goals, not because the offenses have gotten any better, but because the goaltenders are no longer able to perform their jobs fully and properly.
There are five lateral lines along the length of a hockey rink: Two goal-lines, the red line (or center line), and the blue lines, which define the borders between each team’s respective zone and the neutral zone. In the olden days, a pass could only legally cross one of these lines. Crossing two would lead to a stoppage in play and a faceoff.
However, in their infinite wisdom, the NHL decided to eliminate this restriction following the lockout. The blue lines are still used to enforce the offsides rule (and in a related sense define the border between the offensive/defensive zone and neutral zone) but nowadays, that is about all they are used for. A player may now pass all the way from his own defensive zone to a teammate at the opposing blue line.
The change was intended to make head-man feeds easier and encourage more one-on-one and odd-man rush scenarios. It has done that to an extent (which in and of itself is not necessarily a great thing), but it has also had some unforeseen effects.
It has led to a shift in the defensive posture of the NHL game, making the defending team more tentative as a whole. It effectively increases the area a defending team must cover by a factor of one-and-a-half, diluting the defense and forcing them to go to a more tentative approach. This has led many teams to employ a neutral zone trap to force the offensive team to dump and chase, leading to a much more tedious and far less elegant brand of hockey.
Furthermore, it discourages forward involvement and teamwork in the defensive zone. At least one forward can now often be found hugging the blue-line while defending, looking for a transition opportunity, rather than assisting his team with systematic, fundamental defensive zone protection. This can lead to more scoring on both sides. Again, this occurs not because players are any more skilled, but simply because the game dynamic has been toyed with.
In another ploy to boost scoring for fickle, casual fans, when the NHL returned from the lockout it decided to place a major emphasis on controlling what it termed "obstruction." This included hooking, holding, slashing and a variety of other minor and major infractions that a defensive player might use to slow down a player with the puck.
Obviously these infractions are penalties for a reason. In certain circumstances, they give the defensive player an unfair advantage and can often be very dangerous. However, this crack-down has taken things much too far.
The types of penalties being called in recent seasons are downright laughable at times. Other than a solid, clean hit on the puck-carrier, there is little a defenseman or defensive forward can do anymore without being called for a penalty.
Taking a hand off one’s stick and trying to leverage for position is highly frowned upon and nearly always results in a minor penalty. The number of slashing calls has gone way up as well, owing mostly to the fact that nearly all sticks are composite in the league today and can be fairly easily shattered by a solid wrap.
This shift in enforcement has also encouraged a good deal more diving from offensive players, as they try to embellish any contact in the hopes of drawing a penalty. It has not quite reached the absurdity of soccer embellishment, but who can say it surely will not in the future?
Of all the things the NHL did to hockey to try to dig out of the hole they got themselves into with the lockout, the way they defiled regular-season overtime is truly the most egregious.
Prior to the lockout, if a game were tied after 60 minutes of play in the regular season, the teams would skate 5-on-5 for an additional five minutes of sudden-death hockey, with the first goal winning the game. Should neither team score in the allotted time, the game was recorded as a tie. Each game was worth two points on the season, two points for a win, one point for a tie, and no points for a loss, regardless of when or how that loss occurred.
But now since the lockout, it nearly requires a degree in advanced calculus to comprehend the scoring system. Teams skate for 60 minutes in regulation, and if the game is tied they still play five minutes of sudden-death overtime. However, the overtime period is no longer of the standard full and even strength 5-on-5 variety, but starts off 4-on-4. Should a team incur a penalty which carries over from regulation into overtime, they will start overtime 4-on-3 (which is an even better situation statistically for scoring goals than 5-on-3). Despite all that, most games remain tied after 65 minutes.
Ties are apparently no longer good enough for the NHL, so the game now proceeds to a three-round alternating shootout where teams exchange penalty shots for three rounds, then indefinitely thereafter if tied, until a winner is determined.
How many points does a team get? Well, if they win in regulation or overtime, they still get two points, ties are no longer possible and losses can be worth either zero points or one point depending on whether they occur in regulation or overtime. This is ridiculous in the fact that some games are now worth two points while others are worth three. It increases the amount of season points possible in a given year by an indefinite number, and awards teams for losses, which dilutes the playoff talent pool.
There are many other problems with this system as well. The fact that teams can earn a point despite a loss encourages some potentially under-matched teams to play for a regulation tie. Of course, the argument used to be that in the past they would just play for an overtime tie. That is true, but the strategy now awards an extra point to the opposing team, which affects the playoff picture for other teams.
Why did they go to 4-on-4? The NBA, NFL, and MLB do not reduce the number of players on the field if the game goes beyond regulation time. Why the shootout? The common response is that the penalty shot is the “most exciting play in hockey” and it allows a gripping way to bring each game to a decisive conclusion.
Personally, I do not buy into the notion that the penalty shot is all that exciting, much preferring the flow and tempo of open play. Furthermore, the shootout prioritizes one-on-one battles over teamwork, allowing the outcome of a game to be decided based on something that used to be an extremely rare phenomenon.
If the NBA were to adopt overtime rules similar to those in the NHL, overtime would look something like this: teams would play 4-on-4 for four or five minutes, then if no conclusion were reached, the teams would alternate technical foul free throws until somebody missed one and the other team made it. That would never fly in the NBA. Why is it acceptable in hockey?
The fact that the rules in overtime are drastically different in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is telling of the fact that not even the NHL views them as less than fully legitimate. They are basically saying that this gimmicky way of deciding close games is good enough for the regular season, but is not good enough for games that “really matter.”
If you have to change rules so drastically for the playoffs, you should not have those rules in the first place.
The old overtime rules were far from perfect, but at least they made some sense. The teams played at full and normal strength (barring penalties, of course) and if they could not score the game ended in a tie. It is a largely American notion that every game must have a winner and a loser, and hockey has caved-in and catered to this short-sighted mentality, at the expense of the sanctity and legitimacy of a great game.
The other changes are much the same story. Americans like scoring, so the NHL went out and found ways to force more goals. Americans like superstars, so the NHL went and found ways to accentuate individual play at the expense of fundamental team hockey.
If hockey continues to cave-in to these tendencies, where will it end? It could subjugate and undermine the very fiber behind what makes hockey so great, turning it into a pandering, compromising, vague, and pitiful shadow of a game the rest of the world liked just fine the way it was, and for good reason.
With the raving success of the Vancouver Olympic tournament and the effect it had upon the popularity of the NHL, one must ask if these measures are still needed. Going back to the previous NHL rules would probably have little effect if any on attendance and ratings, because with the possible exception of the shootout, the types of fans these changes were designed to attract would neither care nor even notice if they suddenly disappeared.
The Olympics brought in a great infusion of new hockey fans, and the NHL owes it to them to be the very best it can be.
Some improvements are certainly viable. No-touch icing deserves some consideration, and the time limit on faceoffs was actually one of the few positive post-lockout changes.
If it were up to me, I would handle overtime by restoring the possibility of a tie, but going to a 5-on-5, 15-minute sudden death overtime period. That way, all games could still be worth the same number of points, but ties would be pretty rare (as with the old NFL overtime rules).
A hearty welcome to all the new hockey converts, but it is time you learned to appreciate the game as it was intended to be played.
Keep the Faith!