Hockey: The new soccer

OK, it hasn't gotten quite that dull, but maybe the sludgy Stanley Cup playoffs will goose the NHL to do something about all those goose eggs.


The NHL has lost me.

I’ve been getting e-mails since October from hockey fans wondering why I haven’t written a single word about the sport, and my answer has tended to be that I just haven’t gotten to it yet. I consider the NHL’s regular season to be, much like the NBA regular season, a sort of extended exhibition schedule, with the real competition beginning at the start of the playoffs. Wait till the real season, I told my faithful correspondents, by which I meant the postseason. I’ll get to hockey.

I didn’t exactly plan for my recent short leave of absence to coincide with the NHL playoffs, but I can’t say I was disappointed it worked out that way, because the fact is that hockey, my second favorite sport after baseball, has all but driven me away. I can barely sit through a game.

My problem is that I’m an unsophisticated idiot. I like goals. I think scoring is a good thing, and while I can appreciate good defense and snappy goaltending as much as the next unsophisticated idiot, a little of it goes a long way. I like bright, shiny objects. Hockey rinks come equipped with this red spinning light that flashes on when someone scores a goal. That light makes me happy. I miss that light.

NHL teams averaged a combined 5.31 goals per game this year, a slight improvement over the 5.24 goals per game of a year ago, thanks to a league mandate for referees to actually enforce rules against interfering with the progress of offensive players who don’t have the puck, a mandate that was obeyed less and less as the season slogged on. A decade ago, in 1993, teams averaged 7.25 goals per game.

Let me put it another way: Another decade before that, when the average game netted 7.61 goals, the best offensive team, Edmonton, scored 5.3 a game. Now, those ’83 Oilers were freaks — they outscored the next best team by almost a goal a night — but more than a third of the league’s teams averaged four goals that year. This year’s best scorer, Detroit, averaged 3.3. All but four teams scored more often than that 20 years ago.

It gets worse in the playoffs, where defenses tighten up and teams with good, or at least hot, goalies tend to play on. Through the first three rounds this year, the average game has had 4.7 goals, total. The average time between goals is nearly 14 long, grinding, clutching, grabbing, defensive minutes.

I hear you out there, hockey fans. You’re saying, “Your mind-numbing three paragraphs of statistics don’t tell the whole story, slide rule boy! If you had any appreciation for hockey you’d realize that tough, tense, low-scoring playoff battles are thrilling entertainment. What about the dazzling goaltending of Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguère and New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur, the two goalies in the Finals? What about the nail-biting excitement of sudden-death overtime? When goals are at a premium, each goal is that much more exhilarating. Get a clue, abacus breath!”

To which I say: Wake me for the World Cup. At least there I know not to even hope to see any scoring.

I don’t disagree with any of those sentiments, hockey fans, except the one about my breath. There’s no doubt that a 1-0 game can be fantastic, but I’d turn that rarity argument around: 1-0 games get more exciting as they get more scarce. When an average game is 4-3 and a 7-5 game isn’t uncommon, 1-0 can be a treat. When 1-0 is common and 7-5 is beyond the realm of possibility, a 1-0 game is just another snoozefest.

A 1-0 baseball game can be exciting because yesterday’s game, and tomorrow’s, might have been 13-11. And also because every single pitch represents a chance to score. Scoring opportunities create excitement in the form of a goal or a great defensive play or a spectacular save. Those opportunities are lacking in the NHL.

The league has come to be dominated by trapping defenses such as the one employed by the New Jersey Devils. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks don’t trap as much, but they too are a defensive-minded team that hopes to shut down the opponent and capitalize on whatever rare scoring opportunities present themselves.

Anaheim’s star, Paul Kariya, has gone from a 40- or 50-goal scorer to scoring 25 this year, and not because of athletic decline. Kariya, one of the game’s great skaters and playmakers, is only 28. But first-year coach Mike Babcock’s system calls for him to be more of a grinder, to play tough, two-way hockey at the expense of his trademark offensive gifts. Kariya, the team captain, has happily accepted his new role and led his longtime sad-sack franchise to the brink of the Stanley Cup. Good for him. Good for the Ducks. They’re a great Cinderella story and Kariya is an admirable fellow.

It’s just boring as all hell.

As I write this, the Devils and Ducks are a few hours away from Game 1 of the Finals. They’ll probably play a 13-11 red-light festival just to make me look bad, but even if they do, the NHL needs to do something about the offensive drought that plagues the game. (Postgame update: The Devils won the opener 3-0.) Cracking down on neutral-zone interference was a nice start, but only a start.

As many inside the game and out have suggested, the two-line pass rule has got to go. It’s as antiquated and fusty as the no-forward-pass rule that football jettisoned early last century. By outlawing long passes, the NHL denies its fans the hockey equivalent of the home run, the bomb, the knockout punch. Neutral-zone traps wouldn’t be so deadly if they could be beaten by a skater streaking up ice without the puck. Even this change, helpful as it would be, wouldn’t remake the game. The offside rule would still apply: That streaking skater can’t precede the puck into the attacking zone.

I’d actually be up for a modified offside rule that would somehow allow a coast-to-coast pass, but one step at a time, I suppose.

Removing the two-line pass would go a long way toward restoring the excitement to hockey, but as long as we’re tinkering, the rink should be expanded to the size used in international play. Players have gotten bigger and bigger while the rink has stayed constant. The NHL acknowledges this with the rule that removes a skater from each side in regular-season overtime, designed to create more skating room. Olympic hockey — which also allows the two-line pass — shows how fluid the game can be when played by mostly the same players on larger ice.

Of course, that would require team owners to remove some premium seats, which would cost them money. Investing in the future of the game by sacrificing some short-term cash isn’t something professional sports team owners are known for. Let’s not hold our breath.

And in the meantime, in case you can stay awake, a multipart prediction: Devils in seven, with at least three games going to overtime, and at least one going to more than one overtime.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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