A Solution To The NHL's Stagnating Play: Good Things Come In Threes
Gary Bettman’s World Cup of Cash is coming down to the ending it richly deserved. Canada against… um, a team representing about six different European nations. Team Bouillabaisse. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck..
The problem— as we’ve been saying since this smoking mess was revealed— is that the NHL really needs a World Cup. Just not this novelty version with Team Bouillabaisse and the NHL version of the Jonas Brothers masquerading as nations. As the international marker for the sport known around the world. Debated and savoured by its fans. This 2016 version accomplishes none of these things.
Speaking of the Jonas Brothers— er, Team North America— they did remind fans what elite hockey can look like if the NHL would just allow coaches to take the top of the box. Maybe it was knowing that there was no media pack snarling at his heels, but Team Jonas coach Todd McLelland let his young hounds run free with his under-23 stars in the tournament. The skill and dash made you laugh out loud.
Yes, Team NA did not make it to the semifinals to remind fans what hockey can look like when it’s free and inspired. Had they gotten that far, they’d have probably been shut down by the suffocating coaching of Mike Babcock behind the Team Canada bench. Still. The NHL and the IIHF needed Team Jonas to restore a little of the inspiration to this sport.
How stultifying is the box the NHL has allowed its coaches to construct for the game? Here’s one of the game’s true creative geniuses, Russia’s Pavel Datsyuk, on the state of the game as the tournament and the NHL began. “There are not many creative players now… It’s less and less every year. There’s lots of talent, but teams are playing more systems… Hockey is so different now.”
Nice, eh? One of your elite performers— who’s hightailed back to Russia this season after amazing fans in Detroit from 2001 to 2016 — tells the ticket buyers that the sport is just one coaching symposium on how to take the fun out of their sport. Maybe more damning is that few if any voices rose to contradict Datsyuk’s analysis of the state of the game.
In fact, the NHL’s only response to Datsyuk is to do more: Add more teams, dilute the talent more, spread out the creative players more. Is anyone listening in New York? Silly… this is Gary Bettman we’re talking out. Once he shook down the Canadian TV networks for a new deal, it was auto pilot in Gotham till he can play King Muckety-Muck in 2017, the NHL’s centennial.
At the moment when they should be listening to Datsyuk and the creative people in their game, they’re looking for more system hockey to frustrate flow, deny chances and limit scoring. The best example of this can’t-trust-the-inmates mentality was the Montreal Canadiens trading their free-spirit defenceman P.K. Subban to Nashville because he couldn’t— or wouldn’t— fit into the stymying schemes concocted by Michel Therrien, a coach they’re likely to fire within the year because his system hockey numbs his players and bores the fans.
If the NHL is serious about capturing the excitement created by Team Jonas in the World Cup, it might contemplate a few wrinkles. First, fire Therrien and anyone who coaches like him. Okay, that’s impractical but really… incentivize coaches to coaching offence. Stop letting defencemen and forwards stand in front of the net as if it’s a bus stop. Stop players blocking every shot. Stop letting goalies lie sprawled on the ice across there net.
Perhaps the way to do that is to stop expanding the number of teams while diminishing the chances of superstars playing together or against each other. Again, this is not something that will happen as along as Bettman runs the league. He’s a one-trick pony about expansion, and that will never change as long as it’s his best way to make owners money.
But hey, Gary… here’s one way to put a little zip in your league. Did you happen to watch the Rugby Sevens portion of the Summer Olympics from Rio? A sport that’s been around since the 1830s wasn’t afraid to shake things up to please fans. Sevens is the traditional rugby on speed. A game of movement with seven, not 15 players on the field. Played in tight seven-minute segments. A game played by men and women to rave reviews in Rio. It was... entertaining.
With the NHL already using a three-on-three format (three skaters, one goalie) for overtime, how about taking a page from rugby and creating a Hockey Threes for the Olympics, the All Star Game and perhaps a bi-annual tournament of NHL teams?
In a time when families are giving up hockey for the cost and the health risk, why not create a brand that promotes speed, not body contact? That doesn’t require large rosters to play? That allows women and men to show how skilled they are?
That would be leadership. Something conspicuous by its absence these days in the NHL.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).