Charlton's NHL
Dissecting the Game
June 17th, 2003

Rick Charlton

A rising crescendo of voices can be heard throughout hockeydom, all suggesting the NHL must do something and soon to save itself from the stranglehold of tight defensive hockey.

Even those committed to letting any perceived problems work themselves out seem agreeable to certain minimal alterations.

"I've been in this business a long time and everything runs in cycles," says a pragmatic John Muckler, GM of the Ottawa Senators. "I don't ever say that the offensive days won't come back. Nobody ever thought that defensive hockey would come back. I've heard a lot of people say that nobody will ever break Wayne Gretzky's record for 92 goals in a season. I'm not sure about that."

As of this date there seems to be only two remedies that all sides of the debate - crusty traditionalists versus TV lapdogs - can all agree upon. Reducing the size of ballooning goaltender equipment is the first and moving the net back three feet to its 1990 position, ten feet from the boards, would seem to be the only solutions that cross all interests and merit general agreement on all sides.

Those lobbying to have smaller equipment for goaltenders have an unlikely ally, Devils Martin Brodeur, the most recent winner of the Vezina Trophy.

"You have to be able to protect yourself and that's what our equipment is for, but you look at some goalies, the size of them in their net, and you can see they are taking advantage of the rules," said Brodeur after Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals. "This is something that has to be looked at. One thing we should consider is fitting equipment to each individual, coming up with standards that way depending on his size. It's ridiculous that a guy who weighs 175 pounds has a size 60 jersey that's cut loose and just hangs out there while someone who's 6-3, 220 has the same size that fits tight."

Scotty Bowman, the greatest coach in NHL history, agrees with looking at solutions that don't mess with the traditions of the game.

"Streamline the goaltender's total equipment," Bowman told The New York Times. "I don't want the net any bigger. It's too good a game to monkey around with. That would be like making bigger golf holes."

A philosophical Bryan Murray, GM of the Ducks, agrees with reducing goaltending equipment but admits it may not matter.

"Maybe that's the key," he told the National Post. "Maybe we thought we had to have better goaltending so we went to 12-inch pads, and maybe we need to go back. When you look at the old tapes, goaltending equipment is a huge difference. So maybe that's the first step. Our guy, (goaltending coach) François Allaire says that wouldn't make one bit of difference. Goaltenders are so good now that whether it's two inches smaller or not, it won't make a difference. I kind of think it might."

Paul Kariya, a frequent critic of today's game, at least until recently when he suddenly became a convert to team oriented defensive hockey, says enlarging the net is not an option.

"You do that and you have to redefine the record book and what's happened before," said Kariya. "You'd have asterisks. I like the idea of (Allaire) better. He says bevel the goalie posts so pucks that hit the posts would have a better chance of bouncing in."

That last suggestion might also gain some weight this summer since any average game seems to have two or three pucks rattle the iron.

Devils GM Lou Lamourillo plans to suggest that a two minute minor be served in its entirety, figuring the effect might be to lessen the liklihood players will foul or interfere with each other knowing the price could be more severe than they might be able to tolerate.

"It would definitely open the game up and also create more goals," Lamourillo told the New York Times. "You would do away with the clutching and the holding. If a penalty became more important, if a guy holds a stick and costs his team two goals, he's not going to hold a stick again. I'm going to talk about it. I'll bring it up."

Former NHL great Guy Lafleur certainly wasn't speaking for the NHLPA when he suggested reducing roster sizes.

``Teams have four lines and six defencemen now,'' Lafleur said recently. "Just cut down to three lines and five defencemen and you'll see a difference. People say take the red-line out and play like in university. If they did that, there's a few guys who wouldn't be able to play in the NHL. The red-line should stay, just cut down from four lines to three.''

Don't get Brodeur started on the subject of making the nets bigger.

"They're going to open a door to a different league if they do that," Brodeur said. "How can you justify a guy that had a great career like Wayne Gretzky and scored so many goals in a net that's a certain size?"

Andy Murray, coach of the Kings, believes fans should get used to what they're seeing.

"`The reason teams favour the defensive side is that they want to win and they want to keep the percentages on their side,'' Murray said. "If they can stay in the game, their goaltender might make the difference.

"A version of (the trap) has been played for decades," Murray added. "But to me, you can play a trap, a lock or what I call a wedge, but it's the execution by the players that makes the difference. The two that have executed their system the best and who have had the best goaltending are in the Stanley Cup final now.''

In other words, winning is the motivator for the style of hockey we see today and maybe there is little, at its root level, that can be done about that simple fact.

Even ardent traditionalists, however, concede the game is open to some alterations and there are certainly no lack of suggestions, all delivered with a great deal of passion.

It would seem the obligatory sacrificial target this summer will likely be goaltending equipment as well as a decision to move the net back to its original position. Anything else might be considered but traditionalists will probably still carry the day, avoiding more radical moves to eliminate the red line, increasing the size of the net, move the bluelines forward, etc.

And then we'll sit back and see what happens.

"IF WE CALLED A PENALTY EVERY TIME THERE WAS HOOKING, HOLDING OR INTERFERENCE, you'd have thirty-five to forty penalties a game on those infractions alone." - King Clancy, then an NHL referee, speaking in the 1940's as quoted in Dick Irvin's "Tough Calls." Just another reminder that many of the issues being brought forward these days regarding interference aren't exactly new.

AS VITRIOLIC AS THE CRITICISM OF THE NHL GAME HAS BEEN there has also been much complaining about the just concluded NBA playoffs.

Interestingly, the objections have a certain familiar ring.

"The dreadfully decaffeinated NBA playoffs are nothing more or less than the logical conclusion to what the NBA game has become - the minimalist, motionless game that reflects modern coaching mindsets that boil games down to games of two-on-two or one-on-one," writes the always grumpy Phil Mushnick of the New York Post.

Mushnick echoes themes many hockey fans are familiar with - players who have never been bigger, faster and stronger playing a stand around game, passing interminably on the outside as they wait for the shot clock to to wind down, blaming coaches for a conservative style of play that has seen league scoring decline some 15% to 20% over the last decade, an allegedly bogged down, defensive morass that left the NBA with its lowest playoff television ratings since 1982.

In other words, has the NBA fallen into the same "trap" as some accuse the NHL of having done, a league dominated by coaching strategies designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator?

"The NBA desperately needs coaches who are bold enough to coach something other - something better - than rebound, hand-it-to-the-point guard, then walk-it-up basketball," adds Mushnick. "Are centers no longer allowed to throw quick outlet passes after defensive rebounds? Or would teammates be too shocked to catch them? Do teams play better defense than before or is it that players on offense now find their man on defense instead of vice versa?"

Added San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who eventually won the NBA championship over New Jersey: ""We have definitely set back offensive basketball about 15 years, both teams. I think in many ways it reflects a lack of skill on the part of players these days. Fundamentally they can run and they can jump and they can be athletic, but skills are wanting. I think it's one of the reasons you see so many foreign players in the game now. I think so many of them come over with more of those kinds of skills than a lot of American kids."

And doesn't that sound familiar as well to the average Canadian who now sees about 75 fewer of his countrymen playing in a 30 team league than there were playing in a 21 team NHL in 1982.

There is also the Gary Bettman defence from the NBA heirarchy.

"(The NBA competition committee is) very happy with the way the game looks now," NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik told the Houston Chronicle. "They think it has improved dramatically. We really have curtailed isolation plays. You still see one-on-one play in the NBA and you still see a lot of pick-and-roll plays, despite the fact that some people said that wouldn't happen. But you don't see situations where you might as well have sent three or four of the offensive players into the parking lot to play one-on-one or two-on-two. We really think we have something now where all five players have to play and there's a lot more ball movement and it looks a lot better. This year, we've seen, as teams have gotten more used to the rules, we've seen a lot more interesting defenses, a lot more teams playing the zone more often, and we think it's really helped to make the game a lot more interesting."

But many NBA observors would disagree as to whether that explanation is a good thing just as many disagree with Bettman.

Is this a case of another sport beginning to debate, which is more important, winning or entertaining its fans?

"I'D LOVE TO HELP THE TEAM OUT OFFENSIVELY, but when the games are so low scoring, you can't take any risks. You gotta be smart, play well positionally and do the job defensively." - Paul Kariya, an offensive dynamo and long a critic of today's game, arriving at the same moment in time that the one-dimensional Brett Hull did as a Dallas Star under Ken Hitchcock, weighing the difference between having fun and winning.

HOCKEY SEEMED TO BE DOING FINE IN TERMS OF AUDIENCE APPEAL until the NHL, under Clarence Campbell, made the decision to look at aggressive expansion in 1965, the primary motivator being a desire to secure a national TV contract in the USA.

By 1967 the NHL had put that plan into action, doubling the size of the league from six teams to 12 in one year then adding nine more teams between 1970 and 1979. The most recent expansion period, adding nine teams between 1990 and 2000, was done with the express purpose of completing a "television footprint" across the major markets of the USA.

Ever since that fateful decision in 1965 it seems television has decided through various era's that the game is boring, too long with three hour games in the era of unbridled fighting led by the Broad Street Bullies in the 1970's, not exciting in the Oiler era of go, go, go hockey when John Ziegler asked HNIC executive producer Ralph Mellanby to chair a committee in 1984 to look at ways to make the game more interesting to USA television, not interesting enough when Gretzky was playing in major television markets like LA and New York in the late 1980's and early 1990's, not interesting enough when Mark Messier led the large market Rangers to a championship in 1994, and not dramatic enough in today's era when three-quarters of all games are decided by one goal.

So hockey continues it's seemingly never ending crusade to appease television when the right formula may never be found, where we might finally have to admit one day, after 36 years of trying, that generally hockey may never appeal to USA television until the game imposes itself on the culture of that country the way basketball and baseball have done.

It was Ken Dryden in his book The Game, published in the early 1980's, who stated with much wisdom; "There was never a bad game ever played on radio."

But there are apparently plenty of bad games played on television.

RALPH MELLANBY'S COMMITTEE IN THE MID-80'S, THE OILER ERA, the highest scoring period in NHL history, came back to the NHL with suggestions (according to a recent Toronto Star account) that ranged from "among other things, to have line changes only on the fly except after a goal or penalty. No-touch icing. Ties settled by a penalty-shot shootout. Removal of the red line. Quicker faceoffs. An end to interference in front of the net. A two-minute penalty to always last two minutes. And a ban on goalies leaving the crease to play the puck." The purpose, according to Mellanby, was "to create a free flow, high-speed, offensive game for the American market." At the time, the NHL was averaging about two goals per game more than we see today.

"WE MAY HAVE TO (change). I hate it. I want this to be an entertaining hockey team. But we want to win and I'm sitting here without a Stanley Cup." - Leafs coach and GM Pat Quinn talking about caving in towards a more defence oriented hockey style for his Leafs. Again, the conflict between entertainment and the need to win.

"FOR US, IT'S VERY IMPORTANT TO HAVE A SYSTEM where salaries are not out of sync with revenues. We think that's the future. I think that's what hockey has in mind and (the NHL is) facing a difficult collective-bargaining season." - NBA Commissioner David Stern.


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