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Widening Nets Won't Solve NHL's Entertainment Problem

I'm a traditionalist. My hockey team scores 40 rods to the hog's head, and that's the way I likes it.

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Ian Tomlinson/Getty Images

NHL hockey has changed a lot over the years.  In some instances the changes have been made in dramatic fashion over short time periods, but the larger changes that have altered the nature of the game have come about very gradually.

You might think of the NHL's 2004-05 lockout as a "dramatic" shift. It was a disruption to more than just the continuity of hockey: it changed a lot of the game in very short order, cracking down on obstruction, changing the position of the blue lines, introducing some idiotic new rules, etc., but with time, many of these changes have either eroded  to the way they were before, or been overcome by shifts in coaching strategy to amount to roughly the same product.

The net effect is that we now have a bunch of silly rules (the trapezoid behind the nets, for instance) and still haven't made the hockey any more fun. Looking back at pre-lockout games, however, it wasn't just the number of penalties called or the number of pucks shot over the glass that changed things, it was the entire flow of the game.

What I am hoping to highlight in this piece is that the gradual changes wrought on the game by improvements in things like conditioning, player size, defensive coaching, and goalie technique have produced a more predictable, and therefore less entertaining, brand of hockey.

Widening the nets won't change ANY of that.

A Bit Of History First

Look at the example below of some 1975 NHL hockey. There is no backside pressure. There isn't really even much in the way of forechecking. As soon as the other team gets the puck players just turn around and skate back. Players just waltz out of their own zone, and yes, waltzing is probably a good term to use, here. These players in motion more closely resemble whirling dervishes than they do today's NHL automatons. The entire aesthetic of the game was different. It flowed more freely and was more unpredictable. It was mesmerizing in a way that the NHL isn't anymore, and yes, it was more entertaining.

Moving ahead 10 years to 1985, it's easy to see the increased structure and defensive expectations. If you were unfortunate enough to be facing Wayne Gretzky and the 1985 Edmonton Oilers, I hope for your sake that you had a better idea of how you were going to defend. There is more forechecking and more grinding along the boards, but most teams' approach to offence was downright whimsical compared to what we see today. There was obviously more positional play on special teams, but at 5-on-5, you could basically do anything you wanted once you got over the other team's blue line.

The other component to both of the above-linked videos that was a total wild card is the goaltending. They came way out of the net, weren't square to the shot, were stumbling on chipped ice, and slid way out of the crease to surprise shooters. They did, of course, also still get beat regularly by shots coming from the blue line. If this all sounds a bit unpredictable, add it to the list of reasons why hockey was more entertaining in bygone eras.

Here's another thought: remember fighting? Not staged, goon fighting. Fighting that actually happened between angry people? It used to happen all the time! It used to happen because fans of two neighbouring cities would get riled up, create an actual rivalry, and then they would encourage their favourite hockey players (indirectly) to act out their brutal dreams on one another. Fighting used to be a part of the narrative of a hockey game that was relatable to fans, and although you might hate it, you can't argue with its popularity.

Look, I don't want the NHL to bring back team brawls, but you're lying to yourself and others if you say that it makes for bad TV. At the time, the NHL was worried about hockey being too violent for casual, American viewers, but given the popularity of other violent sports like UFC or WWE, it seems like it would only help today - but only if it adds to the drama/narrative of the game.

Moving forward another decade or so, there is an increase in all the things previously mentioned. There is more structure in the breakout, more forechecking, more time spent digging for pucks along the boards, and yes, better goalies. There were no more all-out brawls, and yes, there was plenty of clutching and grabbing. But there was still enough remaining of that old-time hockey to make this entertaining.

Perhaps in part because referees were more lax about calling obstruction calls, or maybe because so many big hits (that would be illegal today) still happened in the league, or again because goalies weren't as good, this still looks like a wild game to me. It was brutal, and it was fast, and yes, and it was sloppy. Defensive coaching still hadn't overtaken the game, and watching Curtis Joseph flop all over the ice making saves was fun, and so was watching Brendan Shanahan (one of the game's great stars) absolutely staple some Leaf to the boards early in that clip. The fact that Bob Cole and Harry Neale were at the top of their game didn't hurt, either.

And then a funny thing happened: the players and coaches got better, and the game lost a lot of its entertainment value. Let's take a look at some of the factors that lead to this:

The players' conditioning improved dramatically. Although we might hear about just as many (or perhaps even more) players gone wild, out drinking and partying, I suspect that this has more to do with the ubiquity of cell phones that take photos and video than it does the players' actual physical shape. Most former players seem to agree that conditioning is all-around better now, and I'm inclined to agree, if a guy like Steve Larmer could smoke a pack a day and still have a long NHL career. From the article:

Back in Larmer’s era, the ’80s and early ’90s, there were often a half-dozen smokers on every team. The players lit up on the way to the rink and between periods. Many were stars of the day: Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy, Rick Vaive among others.

The fact that conditioning is much more consistent throughout the league basically means that teams all have players that are capable of about the same things. The differences between good teams and bad teams are often so trivial that good ones can even miss the playoffs entirely if bounces don't go their way - L.A. Kings, anyone?

Players got bigger and stronger. Although this trend is already reversing itself, the fact that players are so much heavier and taller means that goalies cover a lot more net, and this leaves a lot less room for under-sized players with skill. Again, I recognize that this is changing, but let's face it, the only two current Leaf regulars under the height of 6'0'' are Leo Komarov and Matt Hunwick, so it's not like it's happening overnight. Most players are about the same size. With less variation in conditioning and now also size, the players begin to look more and more alike, and play that way, too.

Defensive coaching got a lot better across the league. Realizing that "playing defence" didn't begin and end in the defensive zone was a revelation. Watching defencemen in the 70's, there wasn't even an inkling of what we call gap control, and even Jacques Lemaire's dreaded neutral zone trap looks downright quaint next to what Babcock is making the Leafs do this year. Today, defence begins the moment the opponent has the puck, even in the offensive zone, and teams try almost as hard to force turnovers in their opponents' end as they do their own. The thing is, every team not coached by Randy Carlyle-types is doing this, now.

When you watch the game now, it's almost entirely a series of systems working the puck from one end of the ice to the other. Is there even a single team that never employs the 1-3-1 on the power play? If watching the 70's Habs or the 80's Oilers was like watching whirling dervishes, watching the 2015-16 Leafs is like opening the hood of your car to watch the motor work. It's boring, but it works, so you're happy, I guess.

Goaltending has come light years from where it was. From the butterfly, to blocking, to the hybrid, to whatever the heck James Reimer is doing now, goalies are more positionally sound than ever. It's amazing to watch goaltenders in even the early oughts do their job:

I mean, even knowing as little as I do about goalies, I can look at this footage and think: what the heck is Cujo doing? He's sliding all over the place, making all sorts of wild saves, and boy, it looked impressive to me then, but now? I would say immediately to get that guy off the ice.

The sad part, I guess, is that by improving goalies, we have taken another element of unpredictability out of the game. We can talk about different schools of goaltending, and it's true, there are different styles, but are they as different as the styles of Curtis Joseph and Dominik Hasek? Or Ron Hextall and Felix Potvin? Is a positional save as entertaining to watch as a spawling, flailing scramble?

Just like the rest of the NHL, goaltending is too good for the popularity of the sport, and that isn't something you can fix with bigger nets.

So What Now?

At this point, there seems to be a lot of consensus that more goals would make the NHL more entertaining, but really, the problem runs much deeper than a lack of goal-scoring because all the stuff in between is boring, and even the way in which goals are scored can be pretty repetitive. All the teams are roughly as good as the next, and play similar systems. The entire league (and in a trickle-down way, the entire sport) has been sanitized for the sake of hoping to win the hearts of casual American viewers, and although it has worked to a degree, the league is now left with a bland product and only cheap gimmickry left to bring people in, and surprise, surprise, they've hit a wall.

A part of me thinks that if you don't like hockey now, you're unlikely to love it if the nets get bigger or if a million more penalties are called because in essence, the game won't have changed other than to have more gimmickry. So I guess I think that if you don't like hockey now and you're unlikely to love it later, why bother disfiguring my beloved game any further for your sake? I don't care if hockey is popular in the United States or any other country, for that matter, so why not just keep it the way it is for the ones who are actually still watching?

Perhaps all this league parity stuff is partly to blame. If the NHL abolished the cap system in favour of some sort of luxury tax and stopped rewarding bad teams with great draft picks, it's possible that a greater talent gap would at least stand a chance of developing. But even if all that were to magically come true, there is no guarantee that the resulting talent gap would actually make for more entertaining hockey, and even if it did, the desired changes would likely take years to yield results. Despite the difficulties inherent in making these types of changes, it's the kind of long-term thinking that the NHL has to do now in order to salvage something of its remaining entertainment value, because all the shootouts and new "3rd" jerseys in the world won't be enough to sell this game if something of the old spark doesn't come back.