Thursday, April 16, 2009

NHL Hockey -- Just As Crummy as Ever

Yawn. Our local team, the Washington Caps has had one of the best years in their history, so I tuned in to watch them take on what is supposedly the worst team in the playoffs from their division, the New York Rangers. Of course, the Caps lost, even though they were the top seed and playing at home. They usually do go down versus the more hockey-crazed towns of New York, Philly, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Their Russians and their Quebecois somehow always get the measure of ours.

More than that though, I was hoping to be impressed with the sport. I wasn't. HD TV was supposed to be hockey's salvation, but it is only marginally more interesting on television now that it was back on standard definition tubes. I watched the last Winter Olympics and thoroughly enjoyed the hockey play. Olympic hockey is fast paced and free flowing. The NHL has supposedly tried to become more like Olympic hockey. It has largely failed.

The Caps have far superior talent to New York, hockey experts assure us. Then why might they lose? Because since 1988, tired of the continual domination of hockey in serial fashion by four franchises, the Montreal Canadiens, the Philadelphia Flyers, the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers, hockey engaged in what Glen Sather, coach of the Oilers called "hockey socialism."

They took deliberate and intentional aim at handicapping the Edmonton Oilers and their star, Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky would never win another title. The Oilers and Canadiens would win one more each, but neither has won in close to twenty years.

The NHL removed their product from ESPN, at the same time, opting for something called the Sports Channel, surely one of the stupidest business decisions in the history of major league sports.

Hockey's popularity, already marginal in the United States, began to plummet.

The NHL had ended the reign of the dynasties which had propelled the sport for fifty years. The New York Rangers, the Chicago Cubs of the NHL, even succeeded in winning a title, even as the sport became dreadfully boring, with rules and tactics that deliberately punished high scoring teams and rewarded teams that played a hockey version of Italian soccer, where 1-0 is considered a resounding victory.

One of the hardest things to achieve in any sport is the balance between skill and random events. Sports become boring if one player or team wins all the time and they can become equally boring when anyone can win at any time. As long as they are not overwhelming, dynasties promote sports, as do rivalries promote sports. ESPN knows this. The NFL knows this. MLB knows this. Why doesn't the NHL?

Duke and North Carolina are currently in symbiosis in basketball, as are the Yankees and Red Sox in baseball. College basketball began to prosper when teams besides UCLA were finally able to win a championship and yet, at the same time, college basketball still has its royalty of schools that are always near the top. The NBA went twenty years without a repeat champion and many years in the 1970's without good rivalries. But it was only when the Lakers and Pistons and Bulls became dynasties and repeat titlists, that the NBA peaked.

Basically, the NHL now has Detroit and everybody else. One year, Detroit will win, probably this year, or was it last year, and the next year, some team you have never heard of before, like the Florida Hurricanes, oops, Carolina Hurricanes or the Tampa Bay Lightning get the prize.(Apparently, it helps to invoke the weather to garner an upset title). Then, that upset-winning champion will fail to even make the playoffs the next season.

The Rangers, Washington's opponent, are one of those throwback teams still stuck in the first Clinton term, where clutch and grab hockey was all the rage. I still can't root for teams like the Rangers because they are anti-hockey. They are the same types of players and coaches who began killing the sport back in 1988. If NHL Hockey is about anything, it is about making sure that the guys with the least talent have a great chance to win, and that every single team in the league has a winning record. Only hockey has found a mathematical way to do this. Don't ask me how.

Perhaps the most maddening part of NHL Hockey is what I will call the "mad sandtrap dance."

During fifty percent of every game, there are three or four guys from both teams hacking at the puck behind the nets like a high handicap golfer in a sandtrap. They all swing from the hip, all hoping that the puck might pop just in front of the net, in the same way that a week-end hacker hopes his wild sand shot will hit the pin. They almost never do, in either case.

After failing to pop the puck out from behind the net, the players from both teams, then attempt to trap it with their foot against the boards. This is extremely exciting, watching a guy on skates hold a tiny puck against white boards with his skates, until a big guy from the other team smashes into him and then finally, maybe the puck goes down to the other end of the rink and the same dance continues down there for a while.

Olympic hockey is a beautiful sport and really shows the possibilities. In Olympic hockey, the larger size of the rink and rules of play might it possible for talented players to actually pass the puck between themselves with some regularity. NHL Hockey is more like pinball action, or if you have ever watched one, a soccer game between five and six year olds. Yes, goals are scored, but you never know where the puck is going and a series of completed passes is largely wishful thinking.

The NHL seemed to be making steps in that direction but basically, hockey has lost its momentum again. They need to adopt the Olympic rules and then maybe it will be watchable.

Oh, and by the way, last night was the first hockey game I have watched all year and that was only during the third period, which either makes this article even more right about the current state of NHL Hockey, or completely off-base. I'll let the reader choose.


Anonymous said...

I like reading your blog as it is well-written, well-thought out and unpredictable. I don;t always agree with your views but enjoy it anyway. However your attack on the greatest sport in the world was off-base.

Yes, I know you weren't attacking hockey just the NHL but you were still off-base.

I can't disagree with what the NHL did to the sport in the Gretzky era. But they have done their best to make amends and when it comes down to the most exciting and difficult championship to win -- it is the Stanley Cup.

For close to two months, stars like Ovechkin to role players like Donald Breshear beat each other to a pulp every other day. They play through cuts and bruises. They play though injuries. Playoff hockey overtimes are intense and often like playing a double header.

Playoff hockey is synonymous with greatness -- great efforts; great skills and great games. Hockey takes more skill than all other professional sports we watch on TV. To be a true Hockey Player, you need to be a great skater, a great shooter, good at handling the puck while moving at high speeds, and able to take a hit- then throw one back! The more you learn about the game to more one understands how difficult it is to play.

You can take a guy off the street and put him in the batters box in a Yankee game and there is a chance he gets a hit.

Any shulb can throw a ball through a hoop.

But put an untrained person in skates and ask them to play one shift in an NHL game, and they might never make it back to the bench.

As great as the Capitals are they have a glaring weakness -- their goaltending. Can they win a series, much less a Stanley Cup, with Jose Theadore in net. Time will tell. After all, that is why they lace up the skates and play the game. And a great game at that.

Anonymous said...

Gods mill grinds slow but sure........................................

Anonymous said...