May 04 2009 01:29PM
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.
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.