By Jason Menard
It was inevitable, of course. The whispers of discontent regarding the new version of hockey are slowly working their way up to a dull roar. But the danger is that we’re not seeing the forest for the trees – and clear-cutting the whole region is not the answer.
You put certain media types together in a confined space and the cynicism comes out. In their hypercritical, hyperbole-friendly manner of existence sports reporters – especially the bad ones – tend to go overboard in their reactions either one way or the other. That’s why it comes as no surprise that a pair of reporters covering a recent London Knights contest were trying to outdo each other in their negativity.
“So much for that crackdown on holding,” says Mr. Cynic.
“Yeah, it was just a matter of time,” replies Mr. Curmudgeon.
“Look at that – that hook would have got you two minutes at the beginning of the season,” opines Mr. Cynic.
“Yep, it’s back to the old hockey,” concurs Mr. Curmudgeon.
Now, let’s rewind to the beginning of the year when the complaints would have been like this:
“Wow, he just tapped him with the stick and it’s a penalty,” Mr. Cynic notes.
“Yep, you can’t even breathe on a guy without getting sent to the box,” Mr. Curmudgeon replies.
“How can you play defence like this? What’s next, looking at a guy’ll get you five?” retorts Mr. Cynic.
“Yep, this new hockey’s basically pond hockey with boards,” concludes Mr. Curmudgeon.
So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But beyond the hypercritical who see every missed hook and every minor hack that gets ignored as evidence of a return to the dark ages, today’s game is better than it was just two years ago (well, for the NHL – last year for everyone else.)
After an early feeling-out period where defenders were overcompensating for the stricter enforcement of obstruction-type penalties, players, refs, and coaches alike appear to have come to terms with the new NHL. Refs may not be so quick with the whistle, but that’s in large part to the better mutual understanding of the game.
What we have is a faster-paced game, with more offence. Defence is still a part of the game, but it has to be based on intelligence and positioning, not just goons getting their big meat hooks into approaching attackers. We have games where fans know that even if their team is two or three goals down in the third period, there’s still the opportunity to come back. We have more end-to-end rushes and more counter-attacks. We have, in essence, the game for which we’ve been asking for the past few years.
So why the complaints? Why the grumbling? Simply put, fear. We’re afraid of letting the game deteriorate to the point that it was two years ago. We let the game deteriorate on our watch, and we’re wary of letting it happen again.
What’s worked? What hasn’t? It seems that listening to fans, players, and general managers paid off for the NHL brass. Shocking that those most directly involved in the game would have the most insight into how to fix it.
Simply put, the NHL has scored on most fronts: the elimination of the centre red line has opened up the flow of the game and eliminated the countless – and pointless – offside calls. The restriction on the size of goalie equipment has not turned all goalies into human sieves, nor has it unnecessarily put their lives at risk. Even the contentious no-goalie zones in the corner of the rink has worked out, reducing, but not banning goaltender involvement in puck control. Best off all, we’re enjoying a faster game without having to impact the size of the ice surface. The game got faster without the rink getting wider, so purists – and money-conscious owners – are happy.
Overall the game is faster, the skill players are showcasing their wares, and fans are being treated to a level of hockey they haven’t seen since the late 80s/early 90s. The old/new NHL is working – but it’s not time to rest on its laurels.
The league must do something about making visors mandatory. Fans pay good money and invest in their heart and souls in these players – the least they could to is protect themselves. As well, something has to be done to encourage hitting. While speed is a big part of the game’s resurgence, the body check should not be phased out as a result. Because of overzealous refs and a lack of understanding about how the rules would be enforced, many players shied away from laying the body. But that has to change.
Hockey at its best is fast-paced, hard-hitting, and intense. We’re part of the way there – it’s not time to stop now. For the first time in year’s the NHL is creating a buzz. Now they just have keep on keeping on, and not ruin the momentum.
But for a league that’s long been known to shoot itself in the foot, will reaching this successful height prove to be too dizzying? Fans everywhere are holding their breath (but not their opponent’s stick!) in anticipation.
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