Thursday, February 16, 2012

If Every Game Were the All-Star Game

The NHL is approaching a crisis point. The more we learn about concussions, and the more mysterious concussions remain despite our increased knowledge, the more pressure is put on the NHL to find ways to keep players safe. And, since the Marc Savard hit, the NHL has been doing a respectable job at changing itself; adding new rules, fining and suspending players who break those rules, and, in general, raising the awareness of hits to the head. For what it's worth, the NHL, from the commissioner to the coaches, to the players have bought in to the idea of changing the NHL.

Still the NHL is approaching a crisis point. Sidney Crosby is out again. So is Nathan Horton, on a late blind-side hit to the head that somehow didn't get called in the game. There is a chance, as was argued in this Grantland article, that the tweaks and changes aren't going to be enough to keep players safe, that hockey, as it is played now, with the speed and strength of the players now, is just too dangerous.

At the moment, I believe there is still room for tweaks. I think changes to the equipment, not just helmets, but elbow pads and shoulder pads, can help. I also think there's more room to wiggle in how the penalties are called and punishments applied. Furthermore, I think there has been a change in the game. Players are now letting up on their hits. There are still big hits, but fewer of them behind the play, and, it seems, at least to me, that players are making an effort to ensure that the primary point of contact is not the head. Also, I do believe the players enter into a contract that, at least on some level, accepts the risks to their health for playing. There are others who might stretch that idea further than it should go, finding permission for all kinds of things because “players knew the risk,” but I think there is an element of truth to it that needs to be considered as a solution is sought.

The fundamental problem for the NHL is this; how long are they willing to risk another Marc Savard (or worse) while it tweaks the game? At the moment, the NHL is comfortable with that risk, but what if another career is ended before the league gets it perfect?

Which leads to the title of this post. What if every game were like the All-Star game? Because that is what the NHL will look like if it needs to fundamentally change the nature of the game in order to keep its players safe. What if the NHL formalized the gentlemen's agreement that keeps hitting out of the All-Star game? How bad would that actually be?

First of all, how many highlight reel hits actually happen in a game? One? Two? Three? I think I've seen a couple of games over the years where there were four or five, but never more than that. (Pretty sure those were Bruins vs Flyers games.) Because of how hockey is reported, the role of big hits in the game is radically amplified. Most of those hits are only possible when a player makes a mistake, and at the NHL level, players don't make many mistakes. A lot of people talk about preserving the culture of the game and protecting a key element of it, and though big hits are a part of the game and a big part what is entertaining about the game, they really only make up a tiny fraction of how the game is actually played.

Secondly, even with big hits removed, games aren't going to all be 12-9 shoot outs because they won't all be played by all-stars. Defensemen and goalies will get the chance to practice their craft because they won't always have Malkin and Datsuk, on the ice at the same time, or any of the forward combinations that skated in the game. Furthermore, it wasn't just the big hits that were cut out of the All-Star. It was the intensity of all the checks, of, well, everything but goal scoring. Grinding it out in the corners. Hip checks along the boards. Fighting for position in front of the net. Pretty much everything that makes hockey such a gritty, tough, entertaining game, would still be there.

Finally, would a change from 3-2 to 6-5 be that bad? Hockey fans on principle consider the All-Star game a boring cardboard cut out of the game, and they have a point, but I find it hard to believe none of them found at least some of the skating, shooting, and scoring entertaining. I didn't watch the whole thing (I work on Sundays and didn't realize NBC Sports was replaying it that night until far too late) but seeing Sequin skate unhindered was pretty exciting. In some ways, a dramatic rule change could make the game even faster, as players could blast through the neutral zone knowing no one is going to clean them out from the blind side. The best players in the league would still be the best players in the league; even the best defensemen because they make their mark more on positioning than hitting. Tough teams would still be tough teams. Ultimately, the game wouldn't look that different.

At the heart of this problem is entertainment. Hockey players would play hockey no matter what; but they can play it professionally, and be paid a lot to do so, because other people are entertained by watching the players play. If fans stayed away because of fighting, the NHL would get rid of fighting. For all the concerns people raise about the safety of the game, economically speaking, the NHL can't take actions that will drive fans away, because that would destroy itself. This isn't an apology or an excuse for the NHL to construct a dangerous game, so much as it is a challenge to fans of the NHL. If you only tune in for the one or two big hits in a game or only to see the fights, then you are missing the best parts of the game.

And, it is your responsibility to learn how to see more in the game. How do you learn to see the whole game? If you watch the Bruins, watch Patrice Bergeron. He might be the most complete player on the planet. Live in a different market; Pavel Datsuk is the next best thing. I'm a big fan of the St. Louis, Lecavilier, Stamkos line in Tampa as well, though they haven't been having a great year. Dustin Byfuglien's 200ft game is pretty good too. One last aspect of this point, before I start sounding too preachy; I'm not sure hits-and-fights-only fans really exist, at least not in enough numbers that their loss would end the NHL. Unfortunately, there might be only way one to know for sure.

(One more thing before you go, NHL Overtime Live is pretty damn close to the worst sports show on television. God, I turn it on every now and again to, you know, see what's been going on in the NHL, but Jeremy Roenick is a talking aneurism. And the other guy spends most of the show paraphrasing Jeremy Roenick. I mean, there must be somebody else out there. Steal someone from the CBC for godsake. Though, this is the network that tapped Mike Milbury, so...)

1 comment:

  1. One of my criticisms of Adam Proteau's new book is that, while he offers a fairly cogent argument about how on-ice violence is ultimately detrimental to the game as a whole, and not just the concussed/injured players, he does not very well illustrate what the game would be like without the violence.

    Except for half a season back in the early '90s, I've only been watching hockey for about 3 years. I don't know what it was like during the "Dead Puck Era." I don't know how slow it was when the red line actually meant something. But I do know how much I enjoy the speed and physicality of the game as it is now. I'd be willing to forgo those rousing, exciting brawls as long as I knew the game would still be recognizably North American hockey, that it would be something worth watching. The All-Star Skills Competition was great entertainment, but to be honest, the All-Star Game itself was a snooze.