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Changing the Game: The NHL Hopes New ‘Tweaks’ Will Bring More Viewers

The NHL playoffs started on Wednesday. You should watch them. You will see large, angry men chasing each other at full throttle, hungry for the chance to obliterate someone against the glass. You will see them haul the puck to the net with iron will, and sacrifice their bodies to stop 100-mph shots. You will see the game in its purest, most authentic form, a sport pumped with adrenaline, shot through with lightning and fire. It’s Game of Thrones, on ice.

Watch, not least, because the NHL expects you won’t. Because the NHL is an insecure, slightly embarrassed league convinced you lack the patience to enjoy a sport with physicality, speed, strategy, and skill. It’s convinced you lack the curiosity to see the game as anything other than a gladiatorial death match.

That is the message I got, anyway, from the NHL’s latest debate. Last month, the league’s 30 GMs met in Florida to talk over the state of the sport and what they could do to raise scoring — with the aim, at least theoretically, of raising hockey’s appeal in the U.S. Most of their ideas were tinkering around the edges, but one struck me as patently ludicrous: 3-on-3 hockey. That is, in regular-season overtime, each team should field 3 skaters, rather than the usual 5. With all the extra space, the hope is, someone will score and end the game.

The stars appear lined up. The final decision is in the NHL’s hands, but the GMs are obviously for it. The players haven’t raised any real protest so far, and the fans — well, they crave only spectacle, right?

And I say it’s a damn shame, because 3-on-3 won’t do a thing for the NHL’s popularity. Instead, it’ll make hockey look like a sport so desperate for attention that it’s willing to debase itself with gimmicks. Again.

Last November, Wayne Gretzky was asked to share his thoughts on the new season. “I’m really impressed by the play of the players now,” he said. “The players are so good. They’re so fast, they’re so big.” This is the Great One speaking, the guy who single-handedly set all of the league’s scoring records, so high that no one has seriously challenged them. But it’s also the voice of perspective — someone who’s seen the game through its recent chapters.

Gretzky set his ludicrous records — like 92 goals in a season, 215 points in a season — in the 1980s, when the game was footloose and high-scoring. But by the late 1990s, when he retired, the game had slowed to a sludge. Referees were letting players get away with all kinds of interference. Goalies were wearing comically large pads. On defense, it was the era of the hulking, snarling rearguard who didn’t have to be fast — just unpleasant to be around. Here’s the kind of guy I’m talking about:

“I will eat you for a crunchy snack.”

So scoring dropped: NHL teams scored almost 8 goals per game in the ’80s, but by the late ’90s, they were barely cracking 5.

This got people thinking about how to open the game back up. When the NHL had a lockout season in 2005, opportunity struck. The league promised to call penalties tighter. Goalie pads had to shrink — 11%, to be exact. There were various other changes, but what’s important is their overall goal: to encourage speed and skill, to reopen the game for puck magicians and their tricks.

And it worked, pretty much.

Today’s NHL, in terms of star players and the level of play, enjoys an embarrassment of riches. From superstars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, down to the end of the bench, virtually everyone agrees that today’s game is an awesome blend of speed, physicality, and grace. The bogged-down sport of the late ’90s? A distant memory, thanks to guys like Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings, who did this Thursday:

His nickname: “The Magician.”

“The game’s in great shape,” David Poile, the Nashville Predators’ GM, recently told Yahoo! Sports. “Right now I’d say ‘tweak’ is more the operable word than ‘change.’ The skill is probably the highest it has ever been in the game.”

The downside: It hasn’t raised scoring. Per Quant Hockey, the NHL average is still about 5 goals per game. As it turns out, skilled hockey players are also pretty good at defense. They get even better when coaches, with iPads and fancy analytic tools, prepare them for all contingencies. Big Defensemen are out; Big Data is in.

That’s why 3-on-3 is a tempting “tweak” for the league.

Here’s how it would work. Today, in regular-season hockey, a tie game goes to 5 minutes of sudden-death, 4-on-4 overtime. If it’s still tied after 5 minutes, there’s a shootout.

It’s pretty fun, I admit, but it’s not really hockey, and the GMs have become concerned about how many games are being settled this way.

So what’s their idea? Take a guy off the ice. At least part of overtime, they propose, should be 3-on-3. To make this clear: that is 6 skaters ranging around an ice sheet that’s 200 x 85.

It’s clear that the NHL has a number of parlor tricks it can use to sex the game up. And who knows? Maybe this will get the audience’s attention as the shootout does. Go to a game and you’ll see what I mean: Shootouts get American crowds to stand up and cheer.

The question I’m asking is this: At what point does one cross the line that separates the NHL from the XFL? At what point is your game no longer adorned by gimmicks, but mutated by them? I don’t profess to know the answer to this question, but I do know it’s the right question, and it’s one that deserves more attention from the NHL’s bean-counters.

Every game must evolve, and many of hockey’s adjustments over the years have been productive. However, a few of them have dripped with commercial syrup — look no further than FoxTrax.

To non-hockey fans, such ideas scream insecurity. They suggest a certain shame about the sport and its lack of mass appeal. They cast a pall of commercial inadequacy over the sport and its century of heritage and stories.

The best hockey, in my lifetime, was the storied rivalry between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche in the late 1990s. Sure, it was the low-scoring ’90s, but it didn’t matter. These were two titans at their peak, led by future Hall-of-Famers on both sides of the ice, all looking to establish their places in hockey history.

Steve Yzerman against Patrick Roy; Joe Sakic against Sergei Fedorov; Peter Forsberg against Nicklas Lidstrom. They hated each other passionately; had years-long blood feuds; engaged in bench-clearing brawls, the war was so total.

It was Athens v. Sparta, Rome v. Carthage. It was epic in scale.

The best stories in sport can’t be engineered. They can’t be micromanaged or dreamt up by an ambitious kid in marketing. They don’t cost money and they don’t accept money in return.

They don’t spring from the game’s rulebooks or its commercial gambits. They spring from the very character of a sport, the DNA that brought people to play and watch it in the first place.

Those of us who want the game to thrive would do well to remember this — and become humble about what we can do. Hockey, in my estimation, is worthy of more love than it gets. But the game is, at long last, in a good place. The league should be proud of that — not searching for more “tweaks” that grab a few eyeballs but cheapen the game it has worked so hard to build.


thumb_Saqib-Rahim
SAQIB RAHIM | @SaqibSansU

Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. The 49ers losing, year after year, to Green Bay in the late 1990s. USA Hockey losing to Canada in the gold medal game of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – in overtime, no less. The San Jose Sharks perennially discovering new depths of failure, such as becoming only the 4th team in history to choke away a 3-0 series lead. But it’s all good. He’s over it. They helped make him the man he is today, and they made him curious about why sports are so engrossing and important to us. They helped him realize that sports are about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Saqib is 2015 Dat Winning fellow.

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