There seems to be a belief amongst NHL fans that the game is in a state of disrepair and far be it from me to disagree in some respects. There are far too many power play opportunities in the “new” NHL with much too little constituting a holding or hooking obstruction whilst the leagues marketing department has all the longevity of a kamikaze pilot on payday, but that isn’t what most have been preoccupied with this season.
No, the picture perfect execution of trap driven puck possession hockey demonstrated with such aplomb by the Stanley Cup winning Detroit Red Wings has got a considerable number of onlookers in a flap over the success of defensive hockey and the subsequent knock-on-effect in the high scoring game treasured, in generalist terms, as a staple of North American pro sports. Of course I don’t want to attest to a narrow predilection in differing sporting cultures, I mean after all the comparatively low scoring sport of soccer is eating into hockey markets all over the US whilst dominating the two sports in TV coverage. So how can we mend the “boring” NHL?
I’ve seen a number of suggestions pop up on a variety of hockey forums, chat rooms and blog spots and they go from the often touted to the plain ridiculous. We have people prescribing to the reduction of goaltender equipment, the increase in goal size, the expansion of the ice surface to Olympic specifications and the banning of the trap, or left wing lock.
Naturally the goaltenders will get it in the neck with fans baying for 10-14 score lines. The discussion over goaltending equipment is as much a shoe in at every GM meeting as Nicklas Lidstrom is on a Red Wings team sheet and of the suggestions it would seem to be the most manageable on a level playing field.
Coming out of the winter GM get-together where the subject of goalie equipment was familiarly tabled, former hotshot Brett Hull was spitting blood at the NHLPA after making a lengthy presentation on behalf of the Dallas Stars. Hull’s dissatisfaction was aimed at NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly who brushed the discussion aside noting that some changes would be made but would not be pushed for anything definitive. The result was the suggested creation of a committee chaired by the NHLPA and NHL encompassing GMs and goaltenders both past and present. Naturally the important word is “suggested” as the whole subject is swept under the carpet for the next meeting.
The whole monotonous debate stems less out of the size of equipment as opposed to the ways in which goaltenders are circumnavigating NHL rules to gain an advantage.
Clearly the best way to negate such unsportsmanlike conduct would be to eject goaltenders abusing the rulings, I can’t imagine after a few months of having to continually ice backups any organization would be stubborn enough to support repeat offenders rather than correct any equipment issues.
Off course goalies will point to personal protection as a sticking point and at this level it’s the leagues duty to create a detailed scale of pant and chest shield sizes that encompass all possible measurements within reason. Such a measurement table could be applied as the letter of the law with regular checks insuring that no player is breaking the ruling, meting out sizeable fines and bans to goalies that choose to infringe the measures. As a means of creating more scoring, tightening up equipment rules is clearly the most favorable when compared with the alternatives.
Speaking at the aforementioned GM’s February meeting, a decidedly fed up Ken Holland, who had previously quoted his disdain for the goaltender equipment debate, suggested that if the problem wasn’t corrected then goals would have to be increased in size to make the game more exciting. Later talk began of a two inch increase both horizontally and vertically that had been discussed by the NHL as far back as the early millennia. Now does anybody else see the fault in this idea? The goalies abusing equipment size rulings will still garner an advantage even if you make the goals soccer sized. Furthermore where the new NHL has killed of larger obstruction/goon style players on the ice, in the net, increased goal sizes will finish any goaltender under six foot tall. Meanwhile the game won’t be more exciting as there will be more goals but less scoring with the use of the trap mushrooming to nullify scoring opportunities as the punishment for teams displaying an attacking mentality will be greatly increased.
Moving away from goaltenders, one suggestion tabled over a decade ago seems to have come back in vogue as an answer to the neutral zone trap, what many see as the true bane in NHL excitement. Recently tapped at an IOC meeting in concerns with the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the decision was made to maintain NHL sized rinks in opposition to the huge costs required in refitting General Motors Place. For many, this was a missed opportunity to test run Olympic sized rinks in the NHL’s backyard.
A full 15 feet wider and a descendant of European rinks, Olympic dimensions are seen as a solution to open up the NHL thus negating defensive strategies. Falling short of ludicrous calls to ban the trap, those calling for Olympic sized rinks are lured by the superlative width measurements as opposed to the reality of the European game that spurned the need for larger ice surfaces in the first place.
Where much of the NHL’s draw comes from physical board play, dump and chase and aggressive zonal defense, the European game is characterized by low physicality, high open ice possession and man to man coverage. The realities of more ice surface may, on one hand spread a neutral zone trap, but the style of play will have to gear towards finesse as opposed to checking. Subsequently dangerous open ice hits will increase and the quality of puck retention will be greatly decreased at first as NHL franchises clamor for four lines of silky European puck handlers signaling a death knell for grinders, a role little used in corner less Euro Hockey. Not only will the game completely change but many of the staples of NHL hockey will be lost.
You know, I was told the NHL was boring and yet I didn’t notice. Strategic evolution, like Jacques Lemaire’s sleep inducing neutral zone trap, is part of a continually developing sport and one that people should learn to appreciate. Hockey is a comparatively young sport in an organized form and there may be an attacking minded coach who will provide the antithesis of Lemaire.
Whatever is trying to fix hockey just drags us further from the days of Gretzky and the free scoring Oilers of the early 80’s. Putting in little boundaries here and there is just sticking an old semi-adhesive band aid over the game, mothering it whilst mocking what made the game great in the first place, admitting that the traditions of the game were based on an incorrect footing whilst toadying to the sole concept of entertainment in the face of competition.
People are determined to solve the NHL, and yet the ideas brought forward are just knee jerk and short sighted. Increasing the goal count does not make the game more exciting, only in increasing scoring chances can that be achieved and it requires brave coaches to challenge those determined to employ the trap, to develop and nurture an offensive forechecking gameplan. I hate seeing lopsided score lines and yet creating larger nets or minimizing goalie equipment beyond a fair point will create 4+ goal advantages day in day out whilst reducing the competitiveness within the league exponentially.
Sure stop goaltenders from cheating and tighten up equipment rulings. But stop treading on the game and strategic evolution, all you achieve is stunting the growth of the sport like a pre-teen smoker.
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