Playoff Memories (Updated)

The alternate title for this article is: the day Mike Brophy went crazy. In his column today, Brophy suggests a radical change to playoff hockey (though he says it isn’t radically) – add 4-on-4 overtime if the score is tied after a single period of overtime hockey.

I’ll quote the lead from his article:

A four-hour, 22 minute game in the NHL playoffs is not an epic battle. It’s an excruciating bore.

I thought back to my memories of watching playoff games over the years, and that’s just a crazy statement. One of my favourite memories growing up was watching Pittsburgh and Philadelphia go into the fifth overtime; it’s the longest game to take place in the NHL since the 1930’s, and it wasn’t exactly a high-scoring affair (finishing 2-1). Despite that – and despite the fact that I really wasn’t a fan of either team – it was incredible.

On the Flyers side, Brian Boucher was having a brilliant rookie season, and had taken the starters job over from John Vanbiesbrouck. He’s never been as good in any season since, but every time he took off his mask he was grinning from ear-to-ear, enthused and enjoying himself. He was easy to like and his performance in that overtime was brilliant (although Philadelphia, as I recall, did have the edge in play).

For Pittsburgh, Ron Tugnutt played even better; he was repeatedly tested, and stopped everything he saw. Ottawa had swapped him to Pittsburgh for Tom Barrasso, hoping to upgrade their goaltending, but Tugnutt was the better of the two in the playoffs. It’s a goaltending performance I’ll never forget; it’s been nine years (to the day) but watching him in net he seemed unbeatable.

Keith Primeau scored the winner. He cut in from the right wing towards the high slot with the puck and looked to far side of the net; then quickly, without even looking at the net he fired. Tugnutt was already moving away from his post; the head fake had gotten him to cheat to the middle of the net and he couldn’t get back in time to stop the shot. I remember it being a perfect shot, but I was young and it’s been years so I could certainly be wrong about that.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are renowned as the toughest championship route of any sport; and part of that is the incredible length of certain games. There’s a feeling to watching these exhausted players, anticipation as plays develop that can’t be replaced. During the Oilers 2006 Finals run, there was a save in the second overtime that anyone who watched the game remembers; Jonathan Cheechoo was sent in alone (he’d scored 56 goals that year) and even before he shot the puck I knew the game was over. Except it wasn’t – Dwayne Roloson made a brilliant save and the game continued, with the Oilers eventually winning early in the third overtime.

Brophy suggests that this would make the game more palatable to Americans, and to the networks, but while he’s likely correct that NBC would prefer a more definite length, this isn’t a good way to grow the sport. Every kid who watched hockey growing up has similar memories to the ones I have about that Pittsburgh/Philadelphia game – memories of being allowed to stay up and watch a game late into the night, feeling that every moment was epic and enjoying the emotion of every rush and every save.

Brophy uses some misleading arguments: since other changes have made the game better, this one will too, an argument that seems patently false. Each change must be evaluated on its own merits. He argues that it doesn’t really matter anyway (“For heaven’s sake, it’s just a freaking hockey game! The fate of the world is not depending on the outcome.”) but he’s wrong there too – for every kid who watches the game, the outcome is desperately important – at least, it was to me when I was that age. The events that transpire in overtime enter hockey lore; players’ reputations are made or destroyed and fans can still recall the events years later. In this instance, Brophy needs to take the time to stop viewing the game as an analyst, and try viewing it as a fan.

UPDATE

In the comments section below, CruJones was nice enough to pass along this link to the New York Times hockey blog.  Apparently, the NHL Competition Committee seriously considered suggesting the change that Brophy is proposing to the NHL Board of Governors; it only missed being passed by a single vote.

  • lj

    So, if I understand the argument, a shorter playoff OT will somehow attract this magical horde of people who are apparently just one rule change away from becoming a rabid hockey fan.

    But it's an argument based on assumptions that are obviously false. The NHL has been chasing after this magical horde since they initially expanded in 1967, and they're still waiting. They've desperately attempted to grab network coverage, placed teams in non-hockey markets, sometimes twice (Atlanta?) in the mistaken belief that if we build it, they will come. But, they never do. NASCAR dads and soccer moms are never gonna be hockey fans. It's never been part of the culture in those parts of the US and never will be. They then convince themselves that it's not that we don't have teams in these areas, it's that there's something wrong with the game itself. All sorts of ridiculous rule changes have been proposed, this being the latest, based on this assumption.

    There have been more changes made to the game since the lockout ended than there were in the fifty years before. Ironically, the one thing that had the biggest impact wasn't a change in the rules but rather the decision to enforce the rules already in place. But, has the shootout, 4 on 4 overtime, or other like minded changes brought in more fans? Nope. And this won't either.

    Here's a thought. Let's make sure rule changes are about making the game better, not trying to make it bigger.

  • lj

    I remeber todd marcahnts goal in 1997. My parents let me stay up late and wacth the game and I was so excited to wacth the game jumping up and down whent he oilers got close to scoring, and I would hate to see this leave hockey.

  • lj

    @ Robin Brownlee:
    When will people realize that pursuing mainstream america is the wrong goal. No one should care if NBC or any major network carries the game right now. What they should care is the growth of the regional markets. Get back on ESPN which has a lot of TV's under its umbrella (metaphorically) so the product has constant exposure and let the individual teams grow their markets. The original 4 american teams are doing just fine because they are staples in their cities. Patience is the key. Groveling for the almighty dollar is not going to work. That is a fact.

  • lj

    I remember sitting down for Pittsburgh vs Capitals way back when, was a playoff game Mario got thrown out in regulation that went awesomely long. Memories. If its your team then it makes it easier to watch a marathon. That being said a 6 period trapfest can tire non-hockey fans.

    Let them tweak the regular season rules all they want, but leave playoffs pure (minus 2 line passing is good).

  • lj

    I think the problem is rooted in the fact that Americans don't have any of those "I remember" memories. They didn't spend their youth whipping frozen tennis balls at a dented garage door and unlike most of us, didn't freeze their butts off as kids playing outdoors in community rinks dreaming of being the next 99. Hockey is a sport embedded in Canadian culture, whereas it's just not anywhere else.

    The biggest mistake the NHL made was overextending the game to the U.S. and assuming that the game would be accepted to the same degree it is here. That has never been possible. They're trying to sell the game down there as a cold version of the NBA and in doing so are failing miserably. Although I would give the American teams props for bringing in Ice Girls. My god the Ice Girls. *sigh*

  • lj

    If the League wants to grow the game they should contract the league and get out of the weak markets. It sounds contradictory, but it really isnt. Television is the great equalizer and the NHL doesnt have any TV draw. Why? Because teams like the Islanders cant even find a 20 goal scorer due to the fact that the league is so watered down. The league isnt as exciting as it used to be. Why is goal scoring down? Because every team has its Liam Reddox or Shawn Horcoff who is sucking up time because their respective team just isnt that good.

    Contract the league, have a contraction draft, then watch ratings grow as better players are put back into major markets like New York and Los Angeles. The NHL will never be able to tweak the rules enough to attract every region in the US. No one in Alabama can spell "Ice", never mind consider playing a game on it. Stick to the upper half of the continent and reach the rest through NBC and ESPN. Almost every kid in the world knows who Cristiano Ronaldo is despite never stepping foot in the UK or Portugal. The product is fine, there just isnt enough of it to spread across 30 teams.

  • lj

    Baseball goes hours into extra innings, no rules changed or proposed

    Basketball the other night went into 3 OT's fans loved it, no way they would change the rules.

    OT is the most exciting hockey to watch, everyone remembers there fav moment in a long OT game where there team won. Example SJ vs Oils in 06.