Goals are good, but the NHL still needs physical play
Posted: Thursday October 27, 2005 3:46PM; Updated: Thursday October 27, 2005 4:26PM
The Kings' Derek Armstrong (left) fires off a point-blank shot.
Last month, Sports Illustrated's Q&A wizard, Richard Deitsch, interviewed Chris Rock for an entertaining piece that ran in the Sept. 26 issue. In it, the comedian (Rock, not Deitsch) compared hockey to heroin: Neither is a recreational pastime, and aficionados of both tend to be single-minded in their devotion. If you're into hockey, chances are the intensity of your fandom lies somewhere between obsession and addiction.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would probably have gone with a different analogy, but the people who run the sport know what Rock was talking about. The desire to make hockey a more accessible gateway sport is a big reason we're all still trying to decipher a refurbished rulebook a month into the season. If it continues, the slew of goals and power plays will make the sport more palatable to dilettantes. It's certainly more attractive than the drudgery the league foisted upon us for the last decade.
There's one problem. Serious fans, the people who pay attention even when the puck goes a few minutes without entering a net, don't recognize their game. The greater number of scoring chances, the improved flow, the restored advantage that good skaters have over plodders -- those are all welcome changes. But to achieve them, the league has bled out the physical play and passion that gave the sport its edge.
We've seen a lot of speed-driven, 6-5 gunfights. But with players paranoid about drawing whistles, those games often look more like All-Star workouts than Slap Shot grudge matches.
"In spite of everybody saying 'Oh, I love the new game,' I don't love the new game," Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn said after a recent 5-2 loss to the Flyers. "I don't think it's hockey. ... You're not going to see the physical playoff style if everybody is afraid of penalties."
In the new NHL, even talking about taking the body draws a penalty: On Wednesday, Quinn was fined an undisclosed amount by the league for making those critical comments. (Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle was knuckle-rapped by the league as well.)
As an esteemed member of hockey's old guard, Quinn -- if given the choice -- might return to the days when goalies didn't wear masks. But he has a point. The pendulum has swung too far from the Dead Puck era. Offense has been restored to the game. Balance has not.
More than the larger offensive zones and red-line removal, the fear of penalties is what has opened up the game. You see it in front of the net, where defensemen are still trying to figure out how much leeway they have in clearing offensive players away from the crease. The answer, judging by the way many of them play: Not much.