Three weeks after the stock market crashed in 1929, North America was forced to address another major crisis. Scoring was down in the NHL. The league’s top executives came together and found a solution. After 12 seasons, they allowed forward passing in the offensive zone.
It was a bold move, and it worked. Scoring nearly doubled. Hockey’s rebirth led to the game you see today, only there was less hooking, clutching, grabbing and mauling 85 years ago. For generations that followed, although faster than ever, hockey looked like the game our forefathers designed.
Well, it looks like hockey for the first 60 minutes before morphing into a ridiculous pickup game of kids playing on the backyard rink. Three-on-three in overtime has turned hockey into a carnival, a circus act. It’s bound to desensitize the masses and have the opposite effect than was intended.
Four-on-four in overtime was one thing. At the very least, it resembled the game you watched on a given night when each team has one player in the penalty box. Shootouts get people out of their seats and help determine the outcome, but they’re another gimmick that doesn’t work.
Three-on-three in hockey happens in regulation, but it’s extremely rare. Can you imagine if baseball took away two players before going into extra innings? The game is tied through nine innings, folks, so we’re removing the shortstop and center fielder to move things along. Hockey purists must be shaking their heads.
“It’s not really hockey,” Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson told reporters last week in Ottawa. “It’s about who holds onto the puck the longest, who cheats the most, stuff like that. It’s kind of boring.”
I’m not sure it’s boring, actually. There are more scoring chances in overtime than you see in any five-minute stretch in regulation. It gets people out of their seats, gets the adrenaline pumping and generates energy in the building. It’s entertaining, but it’s also not professional hockey.
It’s a Band-Aid for a bigger problem. The NHL could have, and should have, experimented with other options to increase scoring and therefore the likelihood games are decided in regulation. If the game needed such a drastic change to determine the outcome, it’s in worse shape than first believed.
What to do?
Here are a few alternatives that could help restore a great game:
Four-on-Four for 60: The players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever, but they’re playing with the same 80-by-200-foot sheet that has been used for decades. A larger ice surface would be great, but it’s unrealistic. Teams aren’t forking over big money to reconfigure arenas because the league has scoring problems.
If they played four-on-four, players will have enough room to roam and use their ability. They wouldn’t have enough room to play keep-away. Plus, penalties would create four-on-three opportunities, leading to more scoring chances and more games decided in regulation.
No Parole: Penalties should be served no matter how long or how many goals are scored on the power play. A two-minute penalty is a two-minute penalty. It would also help clean up the game. And while we’re here, eliminate free icing for the team killing penalties. These days, teams with a big lead late in the game are willing to take a penalty because they can kill time by icing the puck.
Bigger Nets: The average size of a goaltender is 6-foot-2, according to TSN, and growing. They’re three inches taller than they were 20 years ago. Ben Bishop is the tallest at 6-7. Anders Lindback is 6-6. Robin Lehner and Steve Mason are 6-4. Bigger goalies lead to bigger goalie equipment.
Goaltenders take up so much net nowadays, it’s amazing that anyone scores. They’re not getting any smaller. How long before some team signs a sumo wrestler to play goal? Expand the nets.
Keep Red, Dump Blue: Good coaches more than anyone have contributed to the decline in scoring and scoring chances since the high-flying days of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Coaches don’t care about excitement or whether games are decided in overtime. They care about one thing: winning.
The congestion in the middle of the ice remains a problem. Looking to rid hockey of the dreaded neutral-zone trap? Eliminate the neutral zone. Dump both blue lines, creating only offensive and defensive zones. Blue lines still would be used to contain play once the puck enters what is now the offensive zone.
If forwards start hanging toward the red line, they will take defensemen with them and open the ice even more.
Scoring System: Teams are given two points for a win, one point for a loss in overtime or a shootout. You want more games decided without gimmicks? Place more emphasis on winning games during the course of play. Two points should be awarded for a win in regulation or overtime, one point for winning a shootout, zero points for any loss.
All of the Above: Combining everything would open up the game without taking away from hockey itself. The NHL is loaded with talented players who aren’t allowed to use their speed and skill. It would take time for players to adjust to the new rules and coaches to find ways around them.
Sure, it’s bold. It’s what people said about the forward pass back in ’29. Anything is better than three-on-three in overtime.