I have been a lifelong hockey fan, however, my serious interest in hockey really only picked up at the end of high school and into my University years. I can still remember learning about Pro Line, and being the Starving Student that I was thought to myself “if I just put $5 a week on all the long shot games, I could easily put together some money to spend”. So I would wait all week, and on Saturday mornings, I would walk to my local Convenience Store and place my bets. Among the choices, I always remember the option of choosing a tie. This always seemed like a ridiculous option. After all, who hopes for ties (looking at you soccer… err, sorry football). Nonetheless, choosing a tie almost always paid higher, meaning that I would choose that every so often, me being the starving student that I was. Then I would go home and wait…
Surprising almost no one, I would never win (in fact I don’t think I ever won, Casino’s must love guys like me). I would often complain about ties, and the fact that a game like hockey shouldn’t offer ties anyways. Enter the 2004 Lockout and the changes that came in the aftermath. At the time I remember being a huge fan of the Shoot Out. Finally NHL games will have a conclusion. I still remember the first game in which I saw a shootout. January 19, 2007 Buffalo Sabres vs Vancouver Canucks. At the time Buffalo was a team on the rise and Vancouver had continued to be a well established Western powerhouse. From what I can remember, Buffalo sent the game into O/T late in the 3rd period, with the game culminating in a shootout.
It being my first shootout, I must admit to nostalgia likely clouding my memory on this, but I do remember the crowd immediately buzzing as the Zamboni’s scraped the ice through the middle. The goalies each skating to their respective benches, players scrambling over one another to give tips on shooters tendencies, it was definitely a dramatic affair. The crowd obliged to the intensity as the goalies returned to their creases. Each attempt had the crowd buzzing one way or the other, in the end with Miller shutting the door. The crowd went wild with the result. (In fact I just watched the video on YouTube, the crowd went every bit as crazy as I remember.) As far as I was concerned, it was a change for the better, and the NHL had got something right.
It’s funny how things change over time. I have developed a cantankerous attitude towards shootouts. More specifically, the loser points associated with them. I don’t know when I started to notice, but some time in the last 5 years I have noticed that some games going into the final couple of minutes that are tied tend to have a lackluster effort. Was this because teams were both hoping for the points associated with overtime and the shootout? Why were teams being rewarded for losing in the first place? It seemed strange to me, and after listening to countless hours of sports talk to radio, I knew I wasn’t the only one (it is a topic that creeps up more often than not). One possibility is that this is a ploy to create a sense of parity in the league. After all, if bad teams can just get to overtime, they are still getting points to remain competitive.
For example New Jersey went to a shootout 13 times last year, AND LOST EVERY ONE! Yet they were sniffing around for a Wild Card spot until the bitter end. By and large because of the 13 points they “earned” through the shootout. That hardly seems fair when you look at teams like Columbus that had a legitimate winning record for the first time in what feels like forever. Can you imagine how GM Jarmo Kekalainen would feel about the Shootout last April if his team hadn’t qualified for the Playoffs? Nevermind how Lou Lamirello would have felt if the Devils had made it in. This is probably why no one says anything. Even though a team may get burned by this every so often, they also want to benefit from it. In fact benefitting from it must feel like winning the lottery. The money a team makes from playoff home games is significant. Some teams have reported earnings over $1 million per game (Toronto Maple Leafs 2001). It’s easy to see why GMs would choose to keep this as a part of the game as it is most likely perceived as just another tool to get a team to the playoffs. My next entry on Monday will explore the effects of the loser point on last year’s standings, playoffs, and the draft.