Let’s Play Hockey photo by Mike Thill
Let me make it clear at the start: I am not making an argument for how the NHL should enforce their rules for entertainment purposes. However, when they purposely ignore dangerous rule violations in the playoffs, hockey becomes a scarier, less skillful game at all amateur levels.
It is claimed by those who love the violence of the NHL game, “In the playoffs we don’t want referees to determine the outcome of the game with a soft call.” (Note: a “soft” call would presumably be one in which the infraction does not put the opponent in the hospital for six weeks). Of course, by “leaving the whistle in their pocket,” referees have already determined the outcome in favor of those who cheat.
Imagine if in the important playoffs for other sports – football, basketball, soccer, golf, tennis, track – someone in power decides that the rules should not be enforced to the same extent as in the regular season. At the Masters, the weakest player could cheat to defeat Tiger Woods, because, well, simply because Tiger’s skills are too good to beat by following the rules.
A big, fat sumo wrestler could jump the gun (by 9 seconds) in an Olympic track meet and beat Usain Bolt. He could tackle wide receivers at the line of scrimmage in the Super Bowl, grab onto Steph Curry in the NBA playoffs to prevent three-pointers (actually, I’m not sure a bear hug would hinder his shot). The officials would not punish these infractions because the games are just too important to make a call at critical moments. So, because of this trend in the playoffs, will the drafted players look more like the sumo guy than Johnny Gaudreau?
The chances for athletes with less skill would be elevated, and the Tom Bradys and Steph Currys would be diminished. But those sports have been smart enough to protect skills, not cheaters. This is why we need Wayne Gretzky and Pavel Datsyuk to be the TV commentators, instead of those who find it difficult to advise anything but “more hits” for the losing teams.
But, that’s the NHL, and I’d say nothing if it didn’t affect the potential improvement of the amateur game and safety of younger players. Take, for example, the “dump-and-chase” strategy in our modern game: “Get the puck deep, run the defenseman into the boards, and try to create a turnover.” That’s offense?
In case you aren’t old enough to have watched the sports mentioned above for a half-century, they’ve all gotten better while hockey has not. This, despite the fact that hockey players have gotten bigger and faster, and are at least as skillful. Five times in every shift, a big, fast wing dumps the puck from the center red line, skates full-speed 100 feet to the point along the boards where the defenseman will meet the dumped puck, then he checks him from behind into the glass.
It takes no special knowledge of geometry to anticipate where the puck and D-man will meet. It takes no courage to check from behind. No skill. It just takes adherence to “the system.”
“If we stick to the system and play physical we’ll win.” Fifty years ago, the solution was more like, “We need to make creative plays and get good shots.”
Defensemen are in a dangerous environment today, caught in the middle of a “collusion.” Dare I use a word that brings instant political divisiveness? The referees – who do what they’re told, but are capable of much better – collude with coaches who don’t teach skillful team attack, but require dump-and-chase “offense” from players who likewise are capable of much better.
The NHL is the de facto leader of our sport. It features incredibly talented players whose skills are often hidden in the playoffs, as football skills might be hidden if the Super Bowl were played outside in Warroad during a February blizzard. As the NHL continues to play the game without the written rulebook, charging, boarding and checking from behind are virtually ignored, making this the standard for youth hockey as well.
And we’re told between periods of every game this is what hockey should be. Please Mr. Gretzky, come out of retirement and add your perspective during televised games.