April 12, 2007

NHL Shootout Rule Breeds Controversy

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Sir Winston Churchill once said “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
In admiration of Winnie’s wisdom, somewhere Gary Bettman ’74 is smiling. Hockey purists, not so much.
On the dawn of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup playoffs, professional sports’ most intense and passionate quest for glory, Bettman isn’t worried about his doubters. History tells us that he’s had his fair share of critics and his fair share of enemies. After taking over as commisioner of the NHL in 1993, he watched as his league lost billions of dollars in revenue and four franchises filed for bankruptcy, eventually leading to the infamous season-long lockout two years ago. Since then, Bettman has helped revamp Canada’s game, most notably by ditching the two-line pass, establishing goalie no-touch zones and most importantly, by instituting the shootout to settle ties. All was in the name of creating a more fan friendly game with increased speed, scoring and action.
In essence, his plan to reinvent hockey was working to perfection — that was until last Sunday night.
Despite months of debate as to whether the NHL should implement the shootout into the “new NHL,” it took only two years to spark that debate right back into action. It was just a simple Wade Dubielewicz pokecheck on New Jersey’s Sergei Brylin. A deke and an AHL goalie’s effort to stop a single 1-on-1 in a period invented to make an ancient game more appealing to a mass market of once abandoned fans. After an 82-game season, all it took was one pokecheck to squeeze the Toronto Maple Leafs out of this years playoffs. So much for old-time hockey, where the original six teams dominated the hockey scene. This is the new NHL, where parity is truth and youth with talent previals over all.
The debate as to whether the shootout should determine a playoff spot is a tricky one. On the one hand, the three-man shootout has been lauded by fans. The NHL has made the game more appealing, has made strides in becoming more global by tailoring to a more European style of play and has even had so much success that major cable networks have started to make bids for regular season games. That’s why casual fans haven’t heard much from hockey as of late — all of its programming has been on local access networks or Versus, previously known as the Outdoor Living Network.
However, the new rules have made it possible for more vicious open-ice hits to occur. Add that to how it doesn’t make much sense that a team be left out of the playoffs because of a rule implication that won’t be used in the playoffs. Instead of shootouts to settle ties, teams will be forced to play sudden death overtime to settle affairs that end tied in regulation. If it is going to be that way, why give teams two points for a shootout win and still one point for a shootout loss? The question resides to as to how much the shootout is really worth. For Toronto, it seems to be worth a season.
When Bettman and the NHL players association signed the new rules in to effect, they didn’t anticipate it deciding the seeding for hockey’s holy grail. Still, it doesn’t mean they didn’t think about it. It surely doesn’t mean it will never happen again. Regardless of what happened this past Sunday, fans and critics can debate all they want, but it’s something they won’t be able to change. The chips just happened to fall the way they did.
Although concerns waver back and forth, the shootout is something that has been embraced by hockey. Although it used to be something associated with minor league hockey, along with bench brawls and 10-0 games, it now has its place in hockey’s elite — all for the better. People that were against it have now warmed up to it. Although it cost Toronto its season, it has to be mentioned that Dubielewicz and the New York Islanders did beat the New York Rangers, Toronto, Philadelphia and New Jersey to back their way into the playoffs down the stretch. Down that same stretch, Toronto played semi-inspired hockey, most notably surrendering a 4-1 lead in the third period only to lose a game against Buffalo on March 23. So what’s the Islanders’ reward? Nothing but the same Sabres team which won the President’s Trophy for the first time in NHL history.
Despite the debate, you can’t argue with the “new NHL.” It’s hockey at its finest, and finally with the start of the playoffs, the world will get to see what the NHL has been up to for the past six months. Shootout or no shootout, the game is bigger, faster and stronger than ever. Call off March Madness or Opening Day, the quest for Lord Stanley’s cup is without a doubt spring’s most exciting event.
Tim Kuhls is a Sun Senior Writer. That’s Kuhls Baby will appear every other Thursday this semester. He can be reached at tkuhls@cornellsun.com.