August 20, 2011
(Ed. Note: If you read Puck Daddy, you know our feelings on the skills competition, er, shameless gimmick, er, "shootout." So in the interest of equal time, here is PD reader Mike Knerr, a history major at Colgate University and a Pittsburgh Penguins fan for 16 years, "in defense of the gimmick.")
By Mike Knerr
I really do understand and sympathize with a lot of the arguments against the shootout.
My feelings on the shootout are not unmixed, but I feel that much of the vitriol against them is unwarranted. Since it's become the popular thing on hockey blogs to snipe the shootout [no pun intended] whenever possible, I felt it was necessary for someone to play devil's advocate.
I think it's important to remember why the NHL instituted the "gimmick" in the first place. Was it a part of the same NHL campaign to appeal to new and casual fans that has earned similar scorn for NBC broadcasts? Sure. But as irritated as self-professed "true" fans get about these hockey neophytes, the fact of the matter is the game is achieving levels of popularity that seemed impossible during the game's nadir in 2004, or during the "dead puck era" before that.
Hockey "purists" (read: snobs) should pause before criticizing these attempts to bring in casual fans.
Getting more fans is an unquestionably good thing for the NHL. Besides, even these purists would say that the game is quite possibly better now than it ever was, and the shootout was part of that overall effort by the NHL to make the game faster and more competitive and, most importantly, to showcase its star players.
Hence the relentless marketing of stars like Sidney Crosby(notes), Alex Ovechkin(notes), Jonathan Toews(notes), Pavel Datsyuk(notes) and so on. Ultimately, such efforts have been successful in promoting the brand of the game and reinvigorating it.
The shootout came out of the same rationale — what would happen if we gave these stars an unimpeded path to work their magic? What kind of dazzling moves might they exhibit if given the time and space often not afforded them during gameplay? After all, penalty shots had been exciting fans for years.
Some may argue that the actual product doesn't always live up to that rationale. Sometimes the star players aren't very good in the shootout and other times the shootout may be the defining skill for an otherwise average player (I'm looking at you, Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Erik Christensen(notes)). Sometimes a player skates in clueless and shoots the puck into the goalie's crest. But despite all those times, what we remember are the gems from Linus Omark(notes), Pavel Datsyuk and Marek Malik(notes), as well as spectacular fails such as Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) losing the puck.
Even detractors tend to admit the shootout at its best can be an exciting and nail-biting display for fans. And isn't that better than a tie? Ties always felt to me like a waste of a game. There's no catharsis. No thrilling victory. No bitter defeat. No elation, no rage. They were one giant "meh" and I haven't heard a compelling argument to the contrary.
I just can't see watching players fight tooth and nail for 65 minutes only to stop at the buzzer, shake hands and walk away agreeing to call it a draw.
So if having SOME way of deciding the game is at least desirable, and since playoff format is impractical for the regular season, then perhaps instead of criticizing the shootout altogether we should attempt to improve it. Which is why I like what the R&D camp is doing.
I'm not arguing the shootout is perfect. Personally, I'd like to see five players for each team to minimize the luck factor. And I like the idea of extending OT and playing some 3-on-3 before the shootout. Reevaluating the shootout should also mean reevaluating overtime.
Another common argument against the shootout is that it's not "real hockey," that it's not really a part of the game that teams had fought so hard for 65 minutes to win, and that the skills needed in the shootout are different than those in the rest of the game.
Does that mean that penalty shots are also not part of hockey?
What about breakaways?
The shootout doesn't introduce any element to the game that isn't already there — it has the same skills showcased during the rest of the game, but in a rawer, more stripped-down form. There's just fewer players at a time. By the same rationale, 4-on-4 overtime is a gimmick because the prior 60 minutes were played 5-on-5.
My point is that for all those so quick to criticize the shootout, remember why it's there, remember what it's for, and remember what things were like before it existed. Games ending 1-1. Rare opportunities to see the game's top players on a breakaway. And an overall less exciting product.
The shootout is part and parcel of the NHL's post-lockout reform of the game. And the R&D camp is here to make sure the game continues to change and evolve, so that all fans — old, new, die-hard and casual — will continue to feel the blood-pounding excitement that hockey offers like no other sport - from beginning to end.
Mike Knerr is a history major and researcher at Colgate University, interested in religion, politics, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Follow him on Twitter at @ipenguin67.