Penalty balks

We often hear about the beauty of sports, that soccer –aka “football” to most of the world– is “the beautiful game”.  The aesthetic pleasures found in sports vary of course.  Winning really helps, don’t you find? When you lose, things never look quite as rosy.

I’d like to think I can discuss this dispassionately, but then again that may be something I am particularly well equipped to be, as a fan whose teams are mostly out of the race.  I was remarking to a friend that the World Cup and the Stanley Cup are similar for Toronto Maple Leaf fans.  Just as Canada never seems to play the final tournament, so too with the Leafs.  Who I’m rooting for becomes a kind of academic exercise.  Ir’s not yet the All-Star Break but the Blue-Jays are already eating the dust of the division leaders: and that’s okay.  The Raptors gave us an unexpected thrill this spring, even if they were on the sidelines after a very closely matched playoff with the Nets.  Now it’s back to normal for Torontonians: watching the rest of the world play.

It’s been said we make great commentators.  We’re a country of observers, it seems.  Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, John Kenneth Galbraith, Glenn Gould..  Maybe this goes hand in hand with our relationship to our team sports: who –in Toronto at least– haven‘t won a championship in a long time.

I want to speak to one fundamental aspect of sport, namely justice.  Team sports have rules, and sanctions of some kind for breaking those rules.  I would argue that the aesthetics of a game are inseparable from the sanctions for transgression and the way rules are enforced.  Need I remind you that I live in a city where it appears to be okay to smoke crack or drive drunk, at least if you’re a rich political figure.  At one time I thought our society was fair because the rules were the same for the poor & the rich; silly me, how could I believe such nonsense?  I believe the enforcement of the rules is a system that makes beauty possible.

  • In NFL football if you break a rule you pay a territorial penalty: the position where the ball is scrimmaged is moved a certain number of yards, depending on the severity of the penalty
  • In NHL hockey if you break a rule you pay a temporal penalty
  • In NBA basketball penalties vary in severity, but eventually result in opportunities to score: free-throws
  • In FIFA soccer penalties vary in severity, but penalties in the penalty area are near-certain opportunities to score: penalty kicks

I’m falling out of love with hockey, tired of

  • a macho culture that substitutes thuggery for skill (if you need someone to explain this to you ask Don Cherry, the apologist for hockey players who substitute toughness for real skill: something like Cherry himself come to think of it)
  • rule changes that are touted in the autumn (when the season begins) but never enforced come springtime (aka playoff time)
  • a tendency to call the game differently at the end of the season.

Imagine any other sport working this way.  Can you imagine a baseball game where the strike zone is different in October than in April?  A football game where pass interference or holding infractions are defined differently in the playoffs than at the beginning of the year?

But that’s exactly how hockey works, which is why I find it hard to watch in the spring.  Not because the Leafs are out.

And so, in the interest of making hockey a bit more like the sports that I can count on –NFL, NBA, baseball, even FIFA soccer– here are some modest proposals.

  • Overtime in the regular season?  Why not make it 3 on 3 (goalie included)?  Surely the goal should be to reward skill. Teams that skate would prosper in that scenario.  And while you imagine that, imagine that the referees will actually call penalties: every penalty all season long.  Now picture that 3 on 3, when a team gets a penalty, and the power-play team pull their goalie (three skaters against one + goalie).   Unfair?  Or is it simply the way it works in those other sports –such as soccer or basketball– where penalties are understood to lead to scoring, are understood to bring about –wait for it– justice.
  • Here’s a way to make every NHL team a bit more prosperous with an easy rule change, something with a precedent.  At one time hockey was played with seven skaters a side (goalie plus six), and then they changed it from seven to six.  Players are bigger and stronger, right?  Some are having issues with concussions from the bone-jarring collisions.  What if the NHL were to again reduce, from six to five?  Suddenly every rink would feel bigger.  Suddenly skating ability would matter more, and body-checks would be harder to do.
  • Sometimes a team gets a couple of penalties, and — gasp — the team is then two men short.  And at this point, do the players suddenly stop committing infractions?  Of course not. Often you’ll see a play where two or even three infractions occur all over the ice within a few seconds time.  The referees seem to be prisoners of a kind of political correctness, not wanting to interfere in the outcome of the game.   It’s madness, when they enable a culture of thuggery and rule-infraction.  The penalty box will have two people in it, and subsequent infractions seem to be invisible. Referees don’t call the rules.  But what if they did? What if you escalated penalties, in fact making it anathema to commit a third penalty instead of something one can do with virtual impunity.  You have two penalties, and when the third happens, why not really clobber the perpetrator?  How about a penalty shot on the spot?  How about a two-man penalty shot, given that single man penalty shots are far from certain of scoring..?  Just as FIFA penalty kicks are almost certain goals, NHL penalty shots should be something to be feared, a genuine deterrent to the infraction.  Or what if the third infraction were required to sit in the box, awaiting the end of the previous penalty before the clock even starts…?
  • Fighting should be eradicated. It’s unhealthy for the poor guys who get pounded on.  Stick infractions should be treated as a priority foul. There should be no such thing as two minutes for high sticking.  Do we put people away for six months when they commit murder?

Okay I’m dreaming.  This isn’t’ meant to make Toronto a winner. This is meant to make hockey fun to watch again given that I always watch the playoffs, with the Leafs on the sidelines.  The NBA and the NFL are truly fair, which means that they are genuinely beautiful to watch.  While there are stunning moments in the NHL it could be so much better.  Clutch and grab hockey is really a way to allow mediocre talent in, because there aren’t enough good players.  It’s a bit like deciding to hire singers with bad voices, people who sing flat in a musical or opera, because you can‘t afford good voices.

The World Cup is coming soon.  It’s a beautiful game because it’s just, fair.  Same with baseball & basketball & football.

Would that it were so for hockey.

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4 Responses to Penalty balks

  1. Edward Brain says:

    Well said Leslie. I’d love to see the shootout eliminated from hockey. A tie is a tie.

    But I am not going to stop watching hockey any time soon – it would be too ‘un-Canadian’ not to watch hockey.

    • barczablog says:

      Ahhh yes how i hate the shootout. While we’re busily Americanizing hockey why not have a dance-off, perhaps a line-dance-off doing country music moves? Or a cage-match at centre ice between the biggest nastiest members of each team. A shootout is no less irrelevant and as poor an indication of who really won as a cage-match. No wait, a beauty contest. Make each team parade around in their garters. THAT would help them finish the darn thing in regulation time.

      Can’t wait for the world cup.

  2. I think part of the problem is that North American pro sports play to special rules whereas in virtually every other sport the same rules apply at all levels of the sport and are determined by the international governing body. The English Premier League can’t just decide it is going to make the goal bigger or something! This is just compounded in hockey by desire to create a product for an American TV audience that couldn’t care less. It’s closer to Roller Derby than a real sport.

    • barczablog says:

      Agreed (especially about the pandering to an American TV audience)! And all the shenanigans haven’t really sold the product very deep into the USA. Dallas & Los Angeles (two unlikely sites) were sold by winning teams & skill, not thuggery.

      John Lennon could have been addressing Gary Bettman when he said “Give peace a chance.”

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