By: Dan Bender
Growing up as a kid in Buffalo, NY, hockey was king during the winter due to the local popularity of the Buffalo Sabres and the opportunities for pick-up games on frozen ponds during the cold weather months. I think it’s a shame that most other areas of the United States do not share the same love and passion for the game that Buffalonians do, however, I can’t blame them. Hockey is often inaccessible given the high costs of equipment and ice time which drives more kids to play sports like basketball that do not require high start-up costs. Despite this, I think there could be a few tweaks to the NHL game that would boost the sport’s popularity across the country even for those who do not play. Here are 4 mostly feasible and 1 strictly hypothetical suggestions for a better on-ice NHL product:
1. Use the Olympic Sized Rink: The current measurements of an NHL rink are 200 feet long by 85 feet wide for a total of 17,000 square feet while the Olympic rink is the same length but another 15 feet wider for a total of 20,000 square feet. The Olympic rink features a neutral zone that is 8 feet longer, defensive zones that are 6 feet shorter, and has 2 extra feet between the end boards and goal line.1 The overall size difference rewards faster and more skilled players who can make use of the extra room which goes hand in hand with the style of play the league is currently promoting. The shorter defensive zones would make it easier for defenseman to close the gap on shots from the point, but would also shorten the distance of the shot to the net. The added width would increase the size of shooting and passing lanes which would enhance scoring opportunities and therefore create a more entertaining product. If the NHL is trying to remove itself from the era of the neutral zone trap (as made famous by the New Jersey Devils), the clutching and grabbing of huge defenseman, and the overall slower game of the 90’s and early 2000’s, wouldn’t it make sense to move to a bigger rink that demands greater speed and agility?
2. Have a Longer 3 on 3 Overtime Period and End Shootouts for Regular Season OT: Perhaps one of the best rule changes the NHL has ever instituted was the 3 on 3 overtime period back in 2015. It’s a great way for the league’s elite players to show off their speed and skill which the NHL needs in order to gain popularity. But why is it only 5 minutes long? I think 10 minutes may be excessive since the extra ice and previous 3 periods of play can be exhausting, especially over an 82 game season, so I would suggest meeting somewhere in the middle around 8 minutes. As a fan who has watched NHL overtimes for as long as I can remember, the 3 on 3 game is the most exciting format and I would much rather see more of the playmaking it requires than a shootout. Shootouts are much further away from the regular 5 on 5 team play of a normal game so I don’t think they should decide who gets the extra point, especially since these can be critical for any team fighting for a playoff spot. I would rather see each team get 1 point for a tie after 7-8 minutes of scoreless 3 on 3. Although ending games in ties may not be as satisfying for some, (“There’s no ties in football, what is this, soccer?2”) I think it’s the fairest format as hockey is a true team sport and the occurrence of such a result would be somewhat of a rarity with the extra 2-3 minutes of 3 on 3 play.
3. Time Limit Threshold for Offside Challenges: Although I think the NHL took a step in the right direction by assessing penalties to teams that incorrectly challenge offside calls, I think it should go further and institute a time limit threshold where the play cannot be challenged once the limit has been surpassed. For example, if a goal is scored after 30-45 seconds of continuous play following a questionable offsides, I do not think it should be challengeable. I think it’s logical to assume that the 30-45 seconds of play that elapsed since the offsides in question occurred significantly reduces the likelihood that the ensuing goal was a result of the no call. This is because the natural progression of play will have allowed any defenders to regain their proper positioning and fend off the attack. Conversely, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that a goal scored shortly after a controversial offsides likely correlates to the absence of such a call, so it would make sense for it to be challengeable in that situation. Getting the right call is important, but when an offsides is so close that it likely won’t give the offensive team an unfair advantage if they don’t score right away, why disallow the goal, especially in a league that is trying to promote offense?
4. Let the Scrums Go: As I mentioned earlier, the NHL is trying to promote speed and skill as much as possible and I am fully on board with that. The jaw dropping, silky hands of Jack Eichel and the unprecedented speed of Connor McDavid are truly amazing sights that will attract a wider audience than the slower game of hockey’s past. However, there is something to say for the intimidation factor of some players that enable them to emotionally change the direction of a contest. While I don’t believe there’s a place in today’s game for the designated enforcer who lacks NHL caliber skill (ie. Andrew Peters, Donald Brasheer, etc.), players like Milan Lucic and Evander Kane are great for the game. They are skilled enough to score and occasionally dangle, but they also stand up for their teammates and won’t tolerate any bullsh*t. It pains me to see the rapid disappearance of the old grit ‘n grind that once was a major part of the game. As a former player, my favorite part of hockey was its unwritten rules that allowed a little scrap and chirp after the whistle. Obviously, there are lines that should be drawn, but far too often these days do I see the referees rush to the commotion at the front of the net to ensure nobody drops the gloves. I understand the NHL is attempting to enforce its rules more, but why try and eliminate an aspect of the game that not only makes hockey unique, but attracts fans? Cracking down on hooking and holding will allow the skilled elite to prosper, but eliminating post-whistle grittiness won’t. Good, clean hits and a few scraps should always be a part of the game as they represent the raw emotion and toughness that was and should always be required to play hockey.
5. Move Away from a System-Based Game: I recently read the autobiography of Bobby Orr titled, “Orr: My Story.” In his book, Orr takes the reader through his hockey career beginning on the ponds of his hometown in Parry Sound, Ontario through his legendary NHL career with the Boston Bruins and brief stint with the Chicago Blackhawks. Orr recognizes how he was unique, especially for his time, as an offensive defenseman. His playing style had him taking calculated risks by carrying the puck up the ice and joining the rush which required the abandonment of his defensive post. Orr’s style was truly magical to watch and he notes that we don’t see enough of that free-flowing, pond hockey-esque style of play that was more common during his playing days because today’s players are restricted by certain coaching systems (though not all, see Erik Karlsson). These systems often require risk averse behavior like making defenseman flip the puck out of the zone instead of allowing them to carrying it up in an attempt to avoid getting caught out of position. This is also true for some gifted forwards like Jack Eichel who, and rightfully so, was critical of former Sabres coach Dan Byslma’s system. Eichel blamed Byslma’s system for “handcuffing” him and not enabling him to be the smooth and creative player he is. (Perhaps this is a reason why he is often not mentioned alongside Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews?) Again, I know it’s not feasible for the NHL to establish rules that say you can’t run a system. I am merely acknowledging that I’d like to see a return to hockey’s roots with a freer-flowing game which I think would be more entertaining and would attract a wider audience.
It is unfortunate that the NHL is such a poorly run league as hockey is a fantastic game that in my opinion is far beyond the often predictable NBA in terms of excitement, but that is an argument for a different time. There are loads of ideas to improve the NHL and show the rest of the US how great of a sport hockey is, however, with the league’s current leadership I think we are still a long way off from bringing the game to its proper pedestal.
- Quotation by Peyton Manning in the 2017 ESPY awards