Thursday, October 20, 2005

Lemons into lemonade, or how I learned to dislike the shootout

Whoever is in charge of creating the NHL schedule (and by now, it might not even be a person, but rather a computer) needs to be slapped. As of today, the Ottawa Senators have played one game in the last nine days. With the threat of Saturday night’s game against the Florida Panthers being cancelled due to yet another hurricane that looks to be hitting South Florida, the Senators should be a rested bunch.

If not for the Martin Havlat incident, I don’t know what anyone who follows this team would write about. As a blogger that mostly concentrates on the Sens, it’s been slow going, but fortunately, I don’t have any sort of editor breathing down my neck for a story. The local papers are full of fluff pieces, many about the latest on “Mr. Glass” Mike Fisher and his injury. While there probably is a story about Fisher and his injury history to be written, because it wouldn’t be positive and he’s a fan favorite (as well as maybe the most likeable and easy to deal with Senator), no one in the media has dared to do so.

With no Senators hockey, I’ve tried to make the best of a bad situation. As a fan, I’ve had to look elsewhere to get my NHL fix. The pusher has been TSN.

Tuesday night I watched most of the Bruins-Canadiens game, and it was quite good. I saw bits and pieces of their game in Boston on opening night, but what I saw was not exactly entertaining. Slow paced, little intensity, very few scoring chances. For two teams that allegedly still hate each other, it was under whelming. Fortunately, their contest this week was more up my alley. If you’re a fan of the Canadiens, you have to like your chances this season. It’s a speedy team that, despite it’s smallish size, isn’t afraid to play a physical game. With defencemen now impotent to stop defenders from going to the net, now guys like Mike Ribiero, who previously would’ve never dared to pay the physical price necessary to screen a goal, can do so. The Bruins still look to be a team trying to find their way. They turned over a lot of talent during the near-18 month layoff, and are without their captain and best player Joe Thornton (who I have on my fantasy team, as my first round pick, unfortunately) as well as Alexei Zhamnov who they expected to make a big impact, so what we’re seeing probably isn’t the Bruins team that will have it going by March, but in a division that is as tight as any other, they can’t afford to fall behind early. I picked them to win the Northeast, but having seen all the teams in that division at least twice, they may be the worst team thus far.

Another point on the Montreal game: the crowd was electric. Having lived less than two hours from Montreal for most of my life, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been to an NHL game in the city. Though I had every intention of going before it closed, I never made it to the Forum. I have no good excuse for why this is. I’ve decided, before the season is over, I will go to a Habs game. While the Corel Centre isn’t the cavern of quiet some make it out to be, it also isn’t exactly booming with crowd noise either. And I’m not going to the ACC. I have a hard enough time dealing with the spattering of Leaf fans that come to the Corel Centre (and believe it or not, they come, with Leafs jersey on, to other game just to boo the Sens). If I had to fight off 19,000 of them, I might implode from within. So Montreal, I’m coming, eventually.

Last night was another classic rivalry revisited. New York-New York. The truth is, much like the Battle Of Alberta for the last seven or so years, this has been a battle that few people outside of the fans of the two teams involved have cared much about. After all, when was the last time they played in a game that meant anything? With the way each team recycles players, how can any genuine animosity build up between the two sides? While they’ve still got some ground to make up to return to the old days when a game between these two teams actually mattered, I thought last night’s affair was great hockey. And considering these are two teams I expected to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, that says a lot. If two teams as unmanned as the Rangers and Islanders can entertain someone like me, who has no real emotional investment in the game one way or another, that says a lot about the extend the game has improved quality wise. I’m still not sold on either club as a playoff team, but they may not be the basement dwellers I expected either. So, to recap my barely month old predictions: the Bruins,who I predicted to win the Eastern Conference, sorta stink, and the two New York teams, who I said would finish at the bottom, ahead only of the laughably bad Capitals (who haven’t failed to disappoint), are pretty good. Perhaps this is evidence enough that predictions are for suckers.

I must say though, as much as I enjoyed the game, I was very much deflated by the finale. Up to then, I had sort of been in the middle of the shootout debate. The only ones I had seen in full, after watching an entire game, involved the Senators and Leafs, and it wouldn’t have been unfair to suggest that the fact my team won both charmed me on the concept. If they had lost, I would probably be cursing it’s innovation, calling it a skills competition and not part of hockey, the way those cranky members of Leaf Nation have been.

But you can officially put me in the “I don’t like it” group. After watching an entire game that went back and forth, it felt very wrong to end it in such a manner. I do enjoy that there are winners and losers. While I will listen to the purists who say some games should be tied, I also think that at the end of the day, a fan that pays good money to see a hockey game should leave with a victor. That’s sports. People win and people lose. Even if a game is as close as can be from the moment the first puck is dropped, it still feels better when there is a decision.

But the shootout should not be the way to decide it. I like the Garry Galley idea of going to three-on-three. I know the counter argument will be that with TV and all, they can’t have games going that long, but alas, it’s a price to pay.

What Gary Bettman didn’t say during his celebration press conference yesterday in Toronto was the real reason the shootout was implemented: because they thought the hockey would stink. After all, for the most part, is has for the almost 10 years now. They figured, at least if the games are bad, the shootout will provide some excitement.

Except, something strange has happened: the rules changes they put in place to make the game more exciting have worked. With the exception of a small but vocal minority who are poopooing the new NHL (most of whom would hate whatever was going on, I’m convinced), the response has been glowing. I’m sure the suits and ties in New York are as surprised by this as anybody. So really, there is no need for a shootout to provide entertainment because on most nights, we’re getting in regulation and the occasional overtime.

Ultimately, the league has to do whatever to make the fans happy, and if the majority wants a shootout, then it should stay in, regardless of what blowhards like myself say. But I truly think, once the novelty wears off, once it loses it’s mystique (I’ve always contended that much of the reason for the desire for the shootout came down to we didn’t have it; grass is greener and all that nonsense), the shootout will be as popular as it now. Call it a hunch, a guess, or just me hoping, but that’s how I see it going down.

The issue is, when does the NHL say, okay, we tried this, it didn’t work the way we wanted, let’s take it back? I’d love to say they’d so at the first sign it wasn’t effective, but we should all know better by now. The people who run this league are far too stubborn, have way too much pride, to do that. To take it back after a year would be admitting failure. Gary Bettman doesn’t like to do that. After all, this is the same guy who for years said the game was fine, as entertaining as ever, etc. Now, he says the same thing, and subtly hints that it was broken before, thereby proving that he was just spinning all those years. He is the commissioner, so some spinjobs are in order, but with Gary, you get the feeling it’s the more the merrier.

Bob McCowan made an interesting point on tonight’s Prime Time Sports. The NFL, who are often used as the poster league for how to build an enterprise, often implement new rules, and have never hesitated to either tweak and/or remove something if it’s not working.
Does anyone have the confidence in the NHL to do the same? I didn't think so.

So, at least for a while, we're stuck with the shootout. Maybe I'll warm back up to it when the Senators win yet another one, but right now, it stinks.


At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am hooked on "the new NHL" as every TV announcer must be mandated to say at least 10 times per game. The last two periods of the Habs vs. Bruins game was great, the Isles/Rangers game was so entertaining I was looking at the centre ice package $$ to tune in to game#2. So long as they keep calling the rulebook, it's going to be a great season...I just wish more hockey was in high-definition.

I consider myself a hockey purist, but do enjoy the shootout. Debatable that a team game is decided by a one-on-one skills competition, but I think it's entertaining.

At 11:29 AM, Anonymous Bryant said...

My Predators are now 6-0 with half of those wins coming in the shootout. I still don't think it's right that they have 12 points in the standings. It looks like this topic is going to keep coming up until the NHL either does something to balance the affect of the shootout or gets rid of it. I think there is a way to keep the shootout but reduce the importance: an old post with the details of how I think a 3-point system would work.

At 12:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't worry about Leaf fans at the ACC. They are far tamer then the drunken horde that invades the Corel Centre.

At 6:58 PM, Anonymous David Johnson said...

Philadelphia is also on a 1 game in 9 night stretch. The scheduling in the NHL is horrific.

As for the shootout, I dislike it too. It is just not hockey. Last night in the Leafs-Hurricanes game in OT the game went back and forth with both teams getting chances. When Klee finally scored with 16 seconds left, the crowd erupted with cheer and excitement. The fans went from edge of your seat tension to jumping out your seat joy in an instant. That kind of feeling just can't be recreated by any shootout.

What people have against ties. Is it really such a bad thing?

At 7:39 PM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

The problem with ties is that fans pay good money and I think they deserve a real outcome. Because the reality is, with 82 games, it's tough to convince people that each game is meaningful. At least giving them a winner and a loser makes it something.

At 9:39 PM, Anonymous David Johnson said...

Personally, I think that is a bogus arguement. They don't go to movies because movies are meaningful. They don't watch CSI because CSI is meaningful. They do those things because they are entertained by them. They go to hockey games for the same reason. If the game is entertaining, then I don't think they care if the game is 4-3 or 3-3. And personally, a 3-3 tie is more meaningful than awarding points for a skills competition.

At 3:10 PM, Anonymous Romanswinter said...

I personally like the shoot out and get very excited while watching it unfold. To call it a skills competition is a cheap way to demonize it as a legitimate way to resolve a game. You mention the NFL often will make rule changes and unmake them from time to time. Well the thing with the NFL is that when they do make a rule change, you bet your ass that each and every one of those NFL teams does what they have to do to their roster, coaching staff, facilites, front office...whatever, to ensure they are competative in these new rules.
Now with the new rule issues as a shoot out, if teams cannot adapt, if they do not spend time with players practicing this part of the game, if goalies dont work on the one v one game, well those teams will sink. To think that all this is just and individual responsibilty on the each player is absurd. Sure there are natural goal scorers in this game, and their are natural goaltenders who are great at this area of the game. But teams have to understand this is part of the way the game is played now. They have to be responsible to acquiring guys who are good at this, as well as spend time in practice working on this part of the game.
According to your theory, the "face-off" should also be removed because its a skilled competition. Well we know thats BS, and we know how imporant it is to have guys who are good on the face off, and how important it is to practice winning face offs. Guys have made careers out of being face off specialists. I think in the future, if teams adapt accordingly, we will see people make careers from being shoot out specialists. Those who have a natural, and well coached ability to score on the shootout, or goalies who are exception facing skaters 1v1.
I just dont see what all the anger is about this anyway. Two teams are given 65 minuets to settle a game bettween them. With all the penalties in the game, there are enough odd man opportunities to score goals and decide a victor. If after 65 mins, no winner is clear, you take 4 guys (3 skaters and 1 goalie), make them go one on one, player vs goaile, head to head to decide who wins the game. Just like a field goal kicker in football can decide a game all alone with his foot, or a pitcher in basbeball can shut down every player late in the 9th ,or a free throw in basketball at the end of the game.... should those be removed as well because they arent "team oriented" to decide the victor?

OH and btw, im tired of everyone saying the game was crappy the last 10 years. I love hockey and have always thought it was far greater sport then any other out there, including the big ol NFL. Sure the "new NHL" is even better. But I was just as an admirer and fan of the game then as I am now. The game wasnt "bad" the last 10 years, it was great, and it just got better.

At 4:02 PM, Anonymous davidjohnson said...

Well, lets instead of having a shootout decide the winner of the game, lets have 3 players face off, and the winner of 2 of the 3 face offs win the game.

Hockey is a *team* game but the shoot out is a is a contrived situation to test an *individuals* skills. You might say that break-aways happen in the game, but they happen because of one *teams* defensive breakdown or another *teams* smart transition game. Once you take the team game individual, it isn't anything more than a skills competition.

In your examples, the team had to get the ball in good enough field position so the field goal kicker can make the attempt and the team must hold off the oncoming defensive players and stop them from reaching the field goal kicker before the ball is kicked or blocking the kick.

The 9th inning pitcher needs a catcher to call pitches and to catch the pitch and more often than not requires his defense to catch the ball and make outs.

But what if MLB brought in a rule that if a game is tied after 10 innings that there will be a home run contest to decide the winner. Each team will put up three batters who will each get 3 pitches from their own pitching coach and the team with the most home runs wins the game. Do you think there would be outrage from baseball fans? Of course there would. Who would want an actual baseball game decided by a skills competition.

At 4:04 AM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

They go to hockey games for the same reason. If the game is entertaining, then I don't think they care if the game is 4-3 or 3-3. And personally, a 3-3 tie is more meaningful than awarding points for a skills competition.

That's assuming the games are entertaining. What if they're not?

That's why the shootout was brought in, I think. The league figured, if the games still stink, at least most of the fans will be entertained by the shootout.

Now, with the quality of gameplay way up, it's not necessary, as they get their excitement the old fashioned way.

But it's still new. We'll see if games are this exciting in three months.

At 8:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just an observation of the shootout from the first rangers-islanders game......every fan in the stadium was on their feet. I think it adds excitement for the hockey purists and for the occasional fan. And for the sake of the league it is the occasional fan that they are trying to grab the attention from and therefore the shootout helps.


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