How Did The NHL Become So Boring?

Professional sports, or sports in general, are appealing to the public who want to see on display athletes competing and showcasing their skills. Fans pay big money to fill stadiums and arenas for the sake of being entertained and to get away from the daily stressors. In order to do this, people have the choice of attending sports events or going to concerts, or other similar entertainment. Well, that held true prior to 2020 showing its ugly face with this whole COVID-19 pandemic.

We love hockey because it’s a fast game, one where players make split second decisions at high rates of speed. We love the stick handling, the deking, the skating, the body checking, the goals and the saves… and yes, we love the rough stuff. Oh there are a few very vocal people who will claim to whomever wants to give them the time of day that fighting doesn’t belong in hockey. The truth is seen when a fight breaks out and you see the crowd standing up and cheering. Yeah, they hate it don’t they?

A boring game

As we’re watching this COVID Cup tournament-style, it has become painfully obvious that the game that we grew up loving has changed. And unfortunately, it’s not for the best. Players are in better shape than ever yet, the entertainment value of watching hockey has never been this low. At least not since the dead puck era.

It’s getting to the point that if you allow the first goal, you might as well turn off the TV, the game is over. Every single team now practices one form or another of the trap. Players make defense, shot blocking and middle of the ice congestion their goal. And who can blame them? That’s what seems to be winning games… if you’re lucky enough to score first that is.

Oh there are some exceptions, some games where scoring and/or exchanging scoring chances are more prominent. Unfortunately, it has become the exception and not the rule. Since the COVID Cup started (the return to play in August), here are some interesting facts and numbers, at the time of writing these lines:

  • There have been 21 shutouts
  • In 22 of the games, there were a combined three or fewer goals scored in total
  • There were 80 games where one team score two goals or less

Why is that?

We could go a long time brainstorming about the reasons for this sad turn of events. Let’s focus on the principal ones, at least in my humble opinion, explaining how hockey just isn’t as entertaining anymore.

Over-expansion

The NHL uses expansion as a source of revenue. In spite of having teams struggle, the league keeps expanding instead of relocating franchises. It has been reported that the Arizona Coyotes were late at paying their players just recently. That’s the team that the NHL purchased in order to insure that an owner wouldn’t move them! Instead of strengthening the foundation, the league piles on top.

While there was some truth about expansion decades ago, when European players came to North America to play, the talent wasn’t diluted as new talent was joining from other leagues. This hasn’t been the case for decades now. Any expansion results directly in the dilution of the talent pool. Oh there are still great players but they don’t have anyone to play with. Guys who should be in the AHL are in the NHL by need to field teams. Yes, goaltenders are better than ever but shooters as a whole aren’t as talented. Your fourth line and third pairing of today would have never seen the ice in the 70’s or 80’s. And I’m just referring to caliber here. Imagine if today’s third line was in fact the fourth line with another line better than them!

Refereeing

The two-referees system is failing miserably.

The officiating in this league has been horrible for years now. The expansions mentioned above created more games, therefore creating a demand for more referees to be promoted. That alone is a stretch but to make matters worse, in their wisdom, the NHL then decided to double up on the number of referees!

I don’t care what anyone will say to defend that ridiculous idea, it’s not working. You’re bringing in guys who are either not ready, or simply not competent enough to do a good job at that level. Further, by adding two judgements on the ice, you create horrible inconsistency in calls not only between games, but within a single game. Players, coaches, fans don’t know what the referees will call as it’s terribly inconsistent. But not only does the league (and owners) turn a blind eye, they fine any coach, GM or player who dares speaking up against the mediocre performances by the officials.

Technology

As if coaching hadn’t become technical enough during the dead puck era, with video coaches and traps being developed, the league then decided to add coaches’ challenges and video replay to the game. To ensure that the eye test wouldn’t fail, they added TV screens for coaches to decide if they will challenge a goal or an offside.

We’ve all seen times when the referee waits before dropping the puck, looking at the coach to see if he’ll challenge. And we’ve all experienced the countless delays while they’re reviewing the plays. What ever happened to human error? At the very least, remove TV’s (or iPads) from behind the benches and give your officials a time limit to render a decision!

Players’ benches

Putting both benches on the same side is ridiculous. Not only does it create havoc on just about every line change, but you have offside calls because the bench door is inside the zone! Why can’t such smart hockey people see that it’s not working? So what if the home team has the penalty box on their side for half the game in a season (home games)? They’ll be on the road half the time too and it evens out at the end.

Rule changes

No-touch icing

Some rule changes were for the best. Most however, have created bigger monsters. The no-touch icing was brought in for player safety and it has worked. I wish they went a step further by calling it regardless of who wins the race. Most of those calls are a coin flip anyway and rarely does the offensive player wins the race. By calling it immediately, you’re taking the judgment (or lack of thereof) call away for the linesman, which is a good thing.

Penalizing results instead of infractions

Penalizing the results of the infraction instead of the infraction itself… a pet peeve of mine. Why blood equals four minutes is beyond me. If you’ve played hockey, you’ll know that a hard slap from the blade (flat) on your face won’t cut you but a lesser nik from the tip will cut the skin. Which one is the worst infraction between the two? Same goes for boarding, or hit to the head. The referees are waiting to see if the player in injured before making a decision. Why? What’s keeping someone from faking it when the stakes are high? How was the hit? Legal or illegal? Was there intent by the penalised player or not? How premeditated was the action? That’s what should be penalised. Not based on how tough the victim is or if a bit of blood is showing.

Instigator rule

Ah the famous instigator rule. You see, you have a very loud minority who hate fighting in hockey and they’ll let you know if you dare going against their belief. Yet, most NHL players, former players, coaches and GMs understand the importance fighting has (and has had in history) in the game of hockey. The referees are showing on a daily basis that they’re not capable or willing to protect players on the ice with proper calls. The NHL Player Safety has proven time and time again how incapable and unwilling they are to do what they’re supposed to do: protect players.

Rats are running wild in the NHL.

Much like in today’s society, there’s no accountability in the game of hockey anymore. Rats run the show, hiding behind a rule that could give their team a 5 minutes powerplay and a player kicked out for 17 minutes if they dare retorking to a cheap shot. The league has tied the players’ hands behind their back and are sending them to war under the poor excuse that they will ensure to protect them. Bull…

Status Quo expected

All of these changes contribute to fans’ frustration with the product presented by the league. Combined with offering a sub-par product on the ice by both players and referees, dilution of talent, with overcoaching, useless delays and horrible calls and punishments. I feel for those who haven’t been able to watch hockey when it was fun to watch, back in the 70’s (Habs’ era), 80’s and early 90’s (Oilers, Gretzky/Lemieux era). If this is what you think hockey is all about? You couldn’t be more wrong, at least not in comparison.

This isn’t hockey. This is all about money, corporate decisions for the sake of money and money alone. I mean, who would decide to play with empty stands if not for money, right? The decisions taken in the Bettman era have not been good for the game of hockey itself. “Oh look how he grew the game”, some claim. It’s been good for the corporate side, allowing riches to get richer, sometimes in corruption, at the expense of entertainment and the good of the fans. It’s been using expansion as a source of revenue. The NHL’s corporate focus has managed to make soccer look exciting… and that says a lot!

How I wish some owners, particularly Canadian teams’ owners, got together and stood up to the NHL. Speaking up against the changes made, speaking up against the unfairness of having your revenue in Canadian dollars and your expenses in American. But that’s for another article down the road. Go Habs Go!

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