Jan 16, 2014

2014 Already Full of Burning Questions for NHL

Even though we’re only 16 days into 2014, it’s been an interesting year for the NHL. The critics of the shootout have become a little more vocal, the players have been a little more sensitive, and the 2013 momentum of some teams has diminished significantly. A lot of the kafuffle has gathered around the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but whatever the derivations may be, all of it has provoked some hockey fans to ask some important questions. Here are a few:

·         What’s with all the thin-skinned hockey players? – Everyone understands that athletes have a lot of pride. And it’s no surprise that most human beings take an inherent dislike to being criticized. But acting dejected because you didn’t make an elite selection of athletes for the Olympics flies in the face of the toughness reputation most pro-hockey players enjoy. I wouldn’t appreciate being labeled “un-intense” either… but as HBO’s 24-7 Winter Classic series demonstrated, it’s far from the worst thing a hockey player has ever been told. The scathing blue streak of ass-rippings endured by every player in those dressing rooms shown would make a Mongolian drill sergeant feel like they went too far. This is the equivalent of being stabbed, but complaining about the unpleasant demeanor of the assailant. One would think, (and it’s been said by other commentators) that hockey players would be a little tougher than some have demonstrated lately. Suck it up boys – did you think they passed on you because you were completely awesome?

·         Why do “the media” eat their own? -  When a journalist gets embedded behind the scenes, like Scott Burnside did with the U.S. Olympic Hockey team selection process, one would assume the point is to get the real story and pass it on to the public. The effort is made… the money is spent… the questions are asked… but when the truth finally comes out, and the answer isn’t some milquetoast pap, the first ones to cry foul are the other members of the media. Hearing Kathryn Tappan ask a player, for the umpteenth time, “how important is a win on the road?” is not my idea of compelling journalism. Softballs like this should be saved for children under six. To hear media members saying they are shocked that the NHL didn’t have editorial control is like being angry at your doctor for telling you that you have the clap. If the media wants to bury their head in the sand, or live in a Pollyanna-ville where nary a discouraging word is uttered, then stop wasting everyone’s time - and your own money - shoving microphones into the faces of the players and management. We live in a world where reporters spend hours asking players what’s wrong with their team, and then, the rare time a player says something like, “Because our coach and owner suck eggs!” a veritable platoon of other reporters spend the next 72 hours chastising them for “speaking out of school.” 
      So you have to ask, “Why the hell did you pose the question if you only wanted a BS answer?

·         Why do some people get so upset about folks second-guessing the Olympic hockey team selections? – Yeah-yeah, I know, it’s a woefully difficult job to select an elite Olympic team roster from a wealth of NHL talent. Sure, sure, second-guessing is easy. But lighten up, Francis, it’s just a discussion. Some hockey fans LIKE to do it. It’s fun for them. There’s a giant industry built around talking sports. (Though sometimes I wonder why) Let the fans have their giggles and grumble about who should and shouldn’t have been snubbed. Either that, or tell us, honestly, why certain players were picked and others weren’t. (See previous question) I’d seriously like to know. Treating this like the old sausage proverb is gutless. Why wasn’t Claude Giroux selected? Tell us the truth – the speculation will decrease. And even if it does not – who cares? Call off the fun police. At least the topic has gained relevancy… the NHL would complaining much more if it didn’t.

·         If you have to make even more changes to the overtime format, then isn’t it a failure? – There’s a lot of people in high levels of the NHL who don’t like the shootout, but the Politburo at the league offices have scared them into relative silence. I’d love to turn the light off on this glowing puck, but let’s face it; the fans seem acceptant of the gimmick so they’ll likely never get rid of it.  Still, complaints continue to be muttered under breath in all corners of the game. The “confusion of the OTL point” complaint. The “skill competition” complaint, etc., Which leads me to wonder, if you have to start discussing the possibilities of pulling more players off the ice, or changing the rules again, then what did the format really solve? In the same way that eliminating “clutching and grabbing” through the neutral zone has raised new problems (a higher incidence of injuries some believe) the gimmick of shootouts in the NHL has posed new criticisms. After some time under the shootout format, the benefits are underwhelming. In short, there’s still a problem. Do we need to go with international size rinks to open up the play and reduce injuries? Do we go 3-on-3 in overtime play? What’s wrong with a tie? It works for Soccer!? Or how about counting shots on goal in the five minute overtime frame – sudden-death rules, but in the event of no goal… the team with the most shots on net wins? There are almost as many suggestions as there are teams in the league, and that by itself, the most revealing thing about the "solution."

·         The NHL has changed the rules to provoke higher scoring, but why not its mindset? – Over the last decade, the NHL has done number of things to hobble the goaltender position, all in an effort to increase scoring. (And I’ve made fun of those things before.) But unfortunately for net-minders, the coaches, fans, and pundits have not changed their expectations for statistical success in that position. Coaches still pull a goalie for letting in three goals. The league limits the size of pads and the goalie’s play zone… yet the teams still expect a 91+ save percentage. Do we want higher scoring or not? No – evidently that’s just a loose aspiration.  What seems more important is to raise the bar for goaltenders and keep the scoring as low – or perhaps lower.

·         What good is it to go to an outdoor hockey game, if you are essentially watching the game on a big screen TV? – It’s probably cool to soak in the big audience atmosphere of an outdoor hockey event the size of the Winter Classic. But how many of those fans (and you could ask the same question of any fan watching a Dallas Cowboys home game) could actually see the game on the ice? If you weren't braving sub-zero temps and doing your best to develop a good case of the piles, I might see the whole thing as positive, but under the circumstances, it seemed to add up to all the fun of watching an ant farm… from 50 paces away. Hey, whatever floats your boat! Who am I to judge? I enjoyed the game, too… from my couch… in Dallas.
There’s sure to be more controversy involving the NHL between now and June, and again, much of that will likely revolve around the Winter Olympics and the Department of Player Safety. But most importantly, many of these questions will remain unanswered. Like a whack-a-mole game that keeps adding holes.

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