November 04, 2008
Having appeared on his radio show a while back, I know Jeff Marek's a savvy dude. His blog today for CBC Sports about the shootout begins shrewdly, acknowledging its inherent gimmickry: "It's been a not only a thrilling element in the game but also a great piece of viral, online marketing."
He also advocates increasing the number of shooters from three to five, which is fine if we're stuck with this overtime nonsense.
And then he goes off the rails, exposing himself as a pro-skills competition zealot; the kind who would like to see the Stanley Cup awarded via this putrid artificial invention.
"Somehow taking a player off the ice for overtime gets a free pass in this argument (as if 4-on-4 hockey doesn't tear at the fabric of tradition as much as a glorified penalty shot)."
Four-on-four hockey has passes. It has defensemen and centers and wingers all playing their positions. It has offensive and defensive systems and plays, rather than individual blind luck. It's hockey, rather than a carnival game. That's the difference.
"It's not as if the shootout is a totally foreign element in the game."
Marek's making the case that the existence of the penalty shot makes the shootout palatable. This ignores what the penalty shot is: The nuclear option for referees in calling a penalty; a decision that strips away every semblance of team defense in order to increase the odds of scoring for the aggrieved party. But there are no aggrieved parties in a shootout; there are only two teams fat on a charity point, abusing a marketing tool to earn the same number of points as they'd earn in a regulation victory. It's a joke.
"Ask yourself at what point exactly was the sport 'pure?' Under what rules system was it played the way 'it should be?' This is a game that once outlawed the forward pass. Are we done with that too? Just stick handling and backward passing? How about the rover? Time to bring him back to protect the 'purity' of the game that the shootout is allegedly destroying."
Right, and take off goalie masks and play with a wooden puck.
Look, no one can argue that evolution for hockey isn't a good thing. The elimination of the two-line pass call opened up the game after the lockout, and there's no going back.
But that's an organic change that helped increase the flow of the game; the shootout is a forced change intended to produce an artificial winner and a few video highlights.
It has as much to do with evolution as breast implants; and, coincidentally, has similar aesthetic pleasures but ultimately fails to be as good as the real thing.
This last passage is found in nearly every pro-shootout screed, and it's always mind-numbing:
"Much like a fight, I've never seen anyone leave a rink or switch the channel when the shootout puck is laid at centre ice. And if you've ever been to an NHL rink when OT is finished there is a palpable buzz in the arena."
Truth be told, I have switched the channel, only to check back to see how it all turned out. I have never left the arena during a shootout, because if you pay for a ticket, you stay to the end -- something my father drilled into me as a young lad in the cheap seats.
But this notion of "a palpable buzz in the arena" for the shootout is either unique to Canada or an outright exaggeration. I've seen shootouts in several NHL arenas since the lockout, and it's the law of diminishing returns: The shine has come off the gimmick. Fans cheer each round, no doubt; but they'd be cheering if it were a fastest skater race. They'd be cheering if the captains were playing a hand of Texas Hold'em at center ice -- it's more about the finality of the game than the shootout.
The shootout continues to be an embarrassing addition to the NHL, especially when coupled with the current configuration of the standings. (Two points for a skills competition, two points for a regulation win. Sickening.) Credit goes to Bettman for vowing never to have it creep into the Stanley Cup playoffs; hopefully it's a promise he keeps.
The question I always ask of the pro-shootout crowd: How many new fans have come to the NHL thanks to the shootout, how many of them turned back to basketball when they discovered that real hockey isn't just about a shooter and goalie? And is it all worth it to have teams literally win division titles or make the postseason thanks to a gimmick?