The Shootout Makes a Mockery of the NHL

Greg Eno@@GregEnoSenior Analyst IDecember 12, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 05:  Brad Boyes #22 of the St. Louis Blues scores the game winning goal over the shoulder of goaltender Jonathan Quick #32 of the Los Angeles Kings in the shootout at Staples Center on December 5, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. The Blues defeated the Kings 5-4 in a shootout. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Leave it to the NHL to make the designated hitter rule look profound.

The NH Hell continues to chip away at its grand game, slowly but surely ruining it through a series of gimmicks, rule changes, and officiating that has the consistency of lumpy pancake batter.

The league is doing its best to kill its game by stripping it of what little credibility it has.

Take the shootout. Please.

There’s a phenomenon occurring right now in the NH Hell, and it has all the appeal of biting into a sandwich—after you’ve noticed the moldy bread from which it’s made.

What’s happening is that shootouts are gradually deciding more and more hockey games on a nightly basis. Playoff positioning is being determined by a bunch of faux penalty shots.

I don’t even like the word shootout. A shootout is something that happens at the OK Corral. Or, if it must happen in sports, then a shootout is an occasional high-scoring affair.

A shootout should be an adjective. But the NH Hell chose to make it a noun, and it’s spreading like cancer throughout the league.

Did you know that one of the greatest college football games ever played ended up in a tie?

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Notre Dame-Michigan State, 1966. That game’s legacy hasn’t lost a smidgen of shine in 43 years, and the final score was 10-10. In fact, because there was no winner largely accounts for why that contest is so legendary.

Somewhere along the line, it was decided that every single NH Hell game have a winner. But the league couldn’t even get that right, because it managed to fashion a system whereby there could be a winner and yet, no loser.

The hockey shootout, me thinks, will go down in sports history as one of our greatest embarrassments. Generations down the line will ask two questions: How did George W. Bush get re-elected, and why did the NH Hell allow shootouts to decide games?

I start to get a nervous tick when I’m watching hockey and the score is tied with less than 10 minutes to play in “regulation,” a word that was once reserved for the thrill and drama of the playoffs.

I get that way because with each passing minute off the clock, we’re that much closer to overtime, which has merely become the opening act for the shootout.

An overtime session in the NH Hell is rapidly becoming five minutes of cautious, 4-on-4 hockey that is the equivalent of a game of egg toss at the company picnic. No one wants to have the egg break in their hands, so the goal isn’t a goal—it’s to survive the five minutes so you can win the game the way Commissioner Gary Bettman intended: with gimmicky 1-on-1 hockey.

The 4-on-4 thing was yet another gimmick. The original overtime rule—enacted for the 1983-84 season—stated that the teams would play 5-on-5, as normal, for up to five minutes and whoever scored won and whoever got scored upon lost. Two points for the winner, no points for the loser. Hard to argue with that, right?

Oh, and—get this—if NO ONE scored, the game would end in a (gasp!) tie.

Ties had been a part of the league since its creation. It was part of the charm of the hockey record—the trademark “yadda, yadda, and yadda” rhythm of a team’s won-lost-tied mark.

“What’s the Red Wings’ record now?”

“Oh, they’re 17, 14, and 6.”

Translated for today’s youngsters: 17 wins, 14 losses, and 6 ties.

The NH Hell still has the rhythm, but its meaning has been bastardized.

Today, 17-14-6 is a sugarcoated 17-20, for what 17-14-6 means now is that the team won 17 games—some in regulation, some in overtime, some in a shootout—lost 14 games—all in regulation—and then lost six more games, in a manner that’s for you to find out.

Maybe those games were lost in overtime, maybe in a shootout. Maybe five were in overtime, one in a shootout. Maybe four in a shootout, two in overtime. The NH Hell is the only league where a team’s record is shrouded in mystery.

But 17-14-6 isn’t 17-20 because teams get one point for each number in that mysterious third column.

Yes, you can “lose” an NH Hell game and still get a point. If the NFL had that, the Detroit Lions might lead the league in points. Maybe; who knows for sure? Quick, someone get that guy from Numb3rs .

So the hockey teams nowadays will often play 60 minutes with no clear cut winner and then commence to play up to five minutes of 4-on-4, which was originally intended to provide a more wide-open brand of hockey to encourage a game-winning goal.

But they could play 3-on-3 or 2-on-2 and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference, because more and more the strategy seems to be to “just get to the shootout unscathed.”

The funny thing is, you still get a point if you lose in overtime, but teams are figuring out that their best chance at that extra point is to be the outshooter in the shootout. The result? Overtime sessions that are polite and sanitary.

An NH Hell overtime anymore is a great time to run to the kitchen to make a bag of microwave popcorn, in order to be prepared for the big shootout.

Don’t worry—you’re not likely to miss anything.

What’s happening now is exactly what I was afraid of when the shootout was announced for the 2005-06 season—the first season after the lockout: an over-emphasis on the shootout as a means to an end, instead of as a last resort.

I cringe when I watch a shootout. It rankles me to no end to see a hockey game decided in such a fashion. It’s bush league and makes a mockery of the 65 minutes of hockey that preceded it.

Then, as if the league knows it’s doing something wrong, the “losing” team gets one point anyway, like a parting gift at a game show.

What’s wrong with a tie game? And what’s wrong with getting two points for a win and zero points for a loss? This is hockey, not Wheel of Fortune .


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