The Return of Hockey
In addition to some of the new players, including the Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin and the Penguins' phenom Sidney Crosby, the much-balleyhooed rule changes also made their debuts, and the impact was felt immediately. One game went to a shootout (the Senators defeated the Maple Leafs) and the scoring went through the roof. The average score of the 15 winning teams was 4.1 goals, and only one of the 30 teams was shut-out.
Earlier, my buddy Dave wrote an entry in his blog where he blasted the rule changes. As is not uncommon, we disagree entirely. So, here is my counterpoint, and my explanation of why I think these rule changes are good, not only for the future of the game, but also in terms of making the game better.
First of all, hockey has not always been a low scoring game. In the 1980s, scoring was way above what you'd find in your rinks recently. The highest goal scorers in the league last year had 41 goals apiece - in the 1980s and early 1990s the goal scoring leaders always had over 60, sometimes over 70 and even a few seasons over 80. Now, mostly the goal scoring leaders were Wayne Gretzsky and Mario Lemiux, possibly the two greatest players ever to put on skates, but Jarri Kurri led the league with 68 goals in 1986 and Brett Hull put the puck in the net 80 times as recently as 1981. So it's not like the NHL is reversing a thousand years of tradition here - scoring used to be more prevalent in hockey, that's a fact.
It's also a fact that hockey's momentum is killed way too often. Every time the game seems to get into a flow, there's a whistle, play stops, and you have a face-off. If I wanted to watch a bunch of guys skate around in circles aimlessly, I'd go to the ice rink. Rules like touch-up icing and not allowing line changes on icing will keep the momentum of the game going, and drop this whole herky-jerky thing that has been plaguing the NHL as late.
The virtual elimination of the red line has double bonus effectiveness. Not only will it cut down on the number of play stoppages, but it also will open up the rink for long passes and award speed. Because to me, speed is what defines the NHL. I love watching hockey because the athletes fly around the playing surface much faster than they go in any other sport (NASCAR is neither a "sport" nor does it feature "athletes"). This facet of the game should be celebrated, not punished.
Saying the NHL changed the rink dimensions is misleading. The size of the surface of the ice is not affected (which is too bad, they ought to make it bigger - like the size they play on in international competition), but the lines have been moved to create bigger offensive zones (if you don't follow, don't worry about it - suffice to say the team with the puck now has more room with which to set up an offensive play). This will lead to more scoring opportunities, especially on the power play, thus giving talented puck handlers and speedy forwards better opportunity to showcase their skills.
The goaltenders pads have been reduced, which was necessary...I mean, look at this, and compare that to this. This will not only give the offensive players some goal at which to shoot (instead of increasing the size of the nets, which would have been a horrible idea), but it will also allow the goaltenders to be more flexible and showcase their athletic ability, rather than their ability to stand in front of the net and be bulky.
There's a rule about the goalies not being able to handle the puck in the corners, which I don't see making much difference one way or the other. If there is a purpose to it, great, because I don't see how it hurts, but I can't see the purpose.
The big rule change, of course, is a shoot-out, which normally I would hate. I hate it when games are decided by something that has nothing to do with the actual play of the game, like a shoot-out in World Cup soccer or the silly college football overtime. But the hockey shootout is acceptable to me, for two reasons:
1. The games don't mean as much. We're talking about regular season hockey here. 82 games. This isn't like college football, where one loss cripples your shot at a National Title and two losses kills pretty much kills your season. Or like the World Cup, where the winner moves on and the loser goes home (they even have shoot-outs in the final game of World Cup play, if it comes to that). When the hockey games really start to matter, in the postseason, they scrap the shoot-out and go to sudden death until somebody scores. If they keep it that way, then shoot-outs in the regular season are fine.
2. Even if you lose the shoot-out, you still get a point. So it's not like you're getting screwed for losing a penalty-shooting exhibition. you just aren't getting the full 2 points your opponent is.
So, all in all, I think the new rules are great. They'll really open up the game, when the game most needs opening up. Add in the growing popularity of HDTV, which will make more of a difference watching hockey than it will watching any other sport, and hockey might have a chance this time around. No more turning off the TV because your team is down 2-0 after the first period. This will make games more exciting, more fun, and just plain better.
And if you've never watched hockey because you thought the game was too boring or too confusing, give it another shot. You'll like what you see this time. Promise.