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Dear NHL: please stop changing the greatest game on Earth…

This week, the National Hockey League is holding it’s Research, Development & Orientation Camp. It’s here where the NHL toys with ideas on how to change the game and alter the rules.

Some of the more famous “potential” rule-changes you might remember from yesteryear’s are “larger nets,” “bowed goal posts” and, this year’s doozy, “one face-off dot in each zone.”

Now I get the idea that they only want to help the game. I get that the league doesn’t just want to change for changes sake. I understand that the ultimate goal in any rule change is to help improve the product. The problem is, they’re changing things too fast and they’re over-compensating for past-issues.

For example, the NHL didn’t want to send fans home without a winner. They figured, if a fan is spending $80 a ticket (for example), they don’t want to watch two teams tie. So, before the 1999-00 season, they came up with the idea to “fix” overtime by opening up the ice with a little 4-on-4 hockey. But that wasn’t enough. They knew that teams would do what they normally do at the end of the OT session: hang on for the tie so they can get the one point. So, to “fix” that, they decided they’d give the winner an extra point. Which, in turn, means giving both teams one point just for going into overtime. Not only does that reward a losing team with a point, but now we see teams “hang on” at the end of regulation so they can – you guessed it – at least get the point, thereby, not fixing the problem at all.

Side note: If a team lost every single one of their games in overtime, they’d still finish the season with 82 points. And, in 2002-03, the New York Islanders went to the playoffs as the eighth seed with 83 points. Which means, in theory, a team going 0-0-82 would’ve finished one point out of a playoff spot.

Wrap your brain around that.

So, after a conversation with Twitter user @R_Smith6 via the @PredFans group, I have been motivated to blog on the non-stop altering of the greatest sport on Earth by the NHL and the rule changes I would amend, abolish and keep. Besides, aren’t I one of the league’s target demographics? A 30-something male who’s a season ticket holder and NHL Center Ice subscriber in a non-traditional hockey market? I think the powers that be are too close to the situation and need to listen to fans for once.

So, with that motivation in mind, I randomly selected four recent/potential rule changes and came up with a verdict.

RULE #1: The Removal of the Red Line
When players returned to the NHL after the lockout in 2004-05, they found that the two-line pass no longer existed. If you don’t recall, the two-line pass was a form of off-sides. It basically stated that the puck couldn’t cross over the blue line and the red line before being touched by a member of the attacking team. Mario Lemieux had been arguing for the removal of the red line for almost his entire career. Too bad he was only able to experience it for one season; his last. Either way, the game is much more open now and, arguably, a lot more exciting. There’s nothing quite like a homerun pass from Shea Weber to a breaking Steve Sullivan in overtime to bring an entire building to it’s feet.
Verdict: KEEP

RULE #2: The Shootout
Americans want to see winners, period. Soccer, the world’s game, has ties all the time and you don’t hear anyone complaining in Europe, Africa or Asia do you? By contrast, of the four major sports in North America, only hockey had ties. The NHL saw this as a problem when they decided to expand into non-traditional hockey markets like California, Florida and Georgia in the 1990’s. Finally, in 2005, the league decided to implement the shootout after their other bright ideas for overtime (the 4-on-4 hockey, the extra point up for grabs, etc.) didn’t work. But do you think they got rid of those other bright ideas? Nope. They just went ahead and threw another log on the fire. So now, a 65 minute game, has become a 60 minute game with a 4-on-4 overtime session, with an occasional skills competition at the end, where the loser still gets a point.

So much for simplifying the game for those new fans, eh?

Now I’ve heard the argument, “do you see anyone leave during the shootout?” No. As a matter of fact, everyone’s on their feet, myself included. But don’t translate that to mean that everything’s fine with the system. It’s not. The shootout, be it on an NHL rink or a tennis court with a bunch of young roller hockey players, is exciting as hell. It’s pure skill against pure skill. The problem is, that skill is not necessarily why the game is tied, thus, shouldn’t be used to determine who gets a full two points in the standings.

If you want to have the shootout, fine. Like I said, it’s exciting. But make it for one point. The loser shouldn’t be rewarded with anything anyway and the winner has won in a skills competition implemented only so the fans can go home with a definitive result. Additionally, think about it, you’d have both teams fighting for the entire 60 minutes as opposed to just hanging on for overtime to “at least get the one point.” Then, in overtime, both teams know that, if they go to a shootout, one of them is going home with only a single point while the other one goes home with nothing. You want to see 65 minutes of motivated hockey? Try that.

EDIT: Apparently they’ve been running 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 overtime sessions at RDO Camp because they think “there have been too many shootouts.” Gee… I wonder why. (see above)
Verdict: AMMEND

RULE #3: Line Changes After Icing
One of the most underrated rule changes in professional sports in the past decade. Players used to have the mindset of “I’m tired, so I’ll ice the puck and get off the ice.” This would slow the game way down, almost to a grind sometimes. Not anymore though! Now those tired legs have to maintain defensive zone strategy while looking for a way to get to the bench. Not only does it further penalize a team for slowing the game down, it inadvertently led to a rise in scoring chances, which is what the NHL’s been trying to do since the mid-90’s. Attacking forwards know they can pin their tired counterparts deep in their own zone and generate a better attack due to fatigue. In turn, this wears down the goalies who have to bail out their tired teammates again and again until they can finally muster some sort of attack that gets them to the neutral zone where they can change.
Verdict: KEEP

RULE #4: Hybrid Icing
I’m glad I picked this one as it seems to be the hottest topic of the RDO Camp. Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke told “I like the hybrid rule. They have used it in the USHL for a couple of years with success.” Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said “I like the concept but the reality is we’re trying to create all these rules to speed up the game and no-touch icing really slows it down. I think some type of hybrid might be good.” Even Predators GM David Poile weighed in telling “I really like the hybrid icing situation. I may be in the minority but I just think there’s too many potential injuries (with the current icing rule).”

If you’re unaware, the hybrid icing rule basically states that, if the defending player will reach the puck first, the linesman has the discretion to blow the whistle (a la the current icing rule). But, in the rare event that there’s actually a race for the puck and the forechecking player may be able to reach it first, the linesman is instructed to let the play continue. The “point of no return” is the face-off circles. If the players reach the face-off dots and the defending player is ahead or it’s a tie, the whistle will be blown. In theory, this is supposed to prevent the accidents that occur when two players go racing after the puck to both touch-up on and negate an icing call.

The problem with the hybrid icing? It doesn’t prevent collisions, which is the entire argument for no-touch icing in the first place. As a matter of fact, the lineseman is specifically supposed to pocket his whistle when there are two players going for the puck. How exactly does that help the problem?

Yes, it will help the defending player as they typically stop playing after touching up while the forechecking player comes barreling into them trying to stop. (As witnessed when Kurtis Foster broke his femur on a similar play). But it doesn’t prevent collisions as a whole. Say the linesman deems it a race, what do you think the attacking player’s going to do in a dead heat to the puck? He’ll be in the same delicate position the defending player’s usually in and there’s going to be an ugly collision behind the net, possibly resulting in injury.

I agree with Yzerman that no-touch icing would slow the game down. But, you know what Stevie Y? If that’s what it takes to protect the players, than so be it.
Verdict: ABOLISH

Bottom line: Whiel I would prefer to see the NHL do the things I think would benefit the game, I understand that there are others who probably have exact opposite opinions as I who feel just as passionately about them. Either way, the NHL needs to stop toying with the sport. Only the NFL is in the news more for wanting to implement rule changes but, if you’ll notice, most of their newsworthy changes are for the safety of the players. Quite frankly, only the hybrid icing rule falls under that category with the NHL at this point.

Leave the game the way it is. You can’t change the game every year and expect casual fans to keep up. Plus, it’s already the greatest game on Earth so, really, it’s kind of like the National Anthem. You can either sing it as it’s supposed to be sung, or you can screw it up.

Please don’t screw it up anymore.