About the Author

Bob McCown

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McCown's Law

100 Greatest Hockey Arguments
also available: Paperback
tagged : hockey
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1. Looking for an argument? Then let’s talk hockey. Bob explains why hockey is the ultimate sport to disagree over.

try this experiment the next time you watch a National Hockey League game.

Afterwards, listen to what they say about it on sports talk radio, to the opinions of your co-workers in the office the next day and to the views of the pundits on television or in the newspapers.

Chances are you’re going to encounter more opinions than you can count. And you’re going to think a good number of them are nonsense.

I mean, is there another sport where two fans can sit side by side, watching the exact same game, and then completely disagree about who played well, who didn’t and why one team won and the other didn’t?

No, there’s not. Only in hockey is so much of what occurs in the eye of the beholder.

It’s the same thing when fans talk about a particular team or a problem in the game and how they think it should be addressed. Everyone has a different solution, because everyone sees something different.

Heck, even the stakeholders in the National Hockey League can’t agree about what goes on in the game. One week late in the 2006—07 season, you had the league’s general managers voting to recommend an increase in the number of instigator penalties required for a suspension from three to five because the fighters need more room to do their jobs. Then, a few weeks later, the league’s director of hockey operations, Colin Campbell, says it’s time to look at taking fighting out of the game entirely.

And then the commissioner, Gary Bettman, comes out and disagrees with him!

Is it any wonder there is so little consensus in this sport?

Fans can’t even agree on how hockey should be played. Just think for a moment how much time and energy is spent discussing ways to improve hockey. Sometimes it’s the rules that must change, sometimes the officiating and at other times it’s the equipment or something else. It makes you wonder how in the world a sport can have any fans when it’s so imperfect that people are always trying to turn it into something else.

Football fans don’t sit around debating whether a field goal should be worth three points or four. You won’t hear baseball fans discussing whether a walk should be awarded after five balls or whether tie games should be settled with a home run contest. And the height of the rim in basketball is just fine where it is, thank you.

But in hockey, about the only thing everyone can agree on is that the game should be played on ice.

Part of hockey’s charm is that so little of it can be captured in a boxscore.

In baseball, basketball or football you can look at a box­score and get a pretty good idea of what happened. Get a more detailed summary of a game in any one of those sports and it becomes hard to argue over what took place.

But in hockey, there’s no such thing. You hear coaches talk about chances, but what’s a “chance”? Shots on goal are only one small measure of a team’s effectiveness. And as for hits and some of the other garbage statistics the NHL has come up with, they’re completely useless.

Sure, power-play and penalty-killing stats are helpful. And so are blocked shots. But beyond that, how do you statistically measure a hockey game?

Which is why you can pretty much argue anything you want in hockey. Who’s to say you’re wrong? The only thing you can be sure of is that someone is going to agree with you and someone is going to disagree.

And yet, hockey is enveloped by a culture that demands that everything be rationalized or explained.

Just consider what gets said to the media after a game. After a loss, players usually mumble something about “not skating” or “forgetting to keep their feet moving” or not “playing as a team” or “working hard”–which, frankly, could mean anything. And when they win, it’s because they “got pucks on net” or “moved the puck real well” or “got some big saves” from the goaltender.

All of those things could pretty much describe any hockey game at any time, anywhere, at any level from peewee to the pros.

And it’s hilarious the way fans react when their team loses a close game. You’d swear the players couldn’t do anything right. And yet, when the same team wins a game by a one-goal margin, it’s showered in platitudes.
So here’s an experiment I’d love to perform sometime.

Let’s take the tape of a five-year-old NHL game–any game–in which the score ended 3—1. Now, let’s edit out the goals and leave all the rest, so that about 59 of the 60 minutes are there to watch.
Now show it to an audience of hockey fans and see if they can guess who won.

I bet they couldn’t, because aside from the moments in which the goals are scored, an awful lot of hockey games are nothing but back-and-forth flow, the trading of chances and puck luck.

To have some fun, let’s try the same experiment with a bunch of reporters. Then let’s show them the stories they wrote about that exact game.

Most nights in hockey, both teams skate hard, check hard and go to the net. They both create traffic in front, are tough on the penalty kill and forecheck like mad. And one of them has a puck hit the post and bounce into the net. And the other hits a post and watches it bounce wide. On more nights than you’d believe, the difference is as simple as that.

You’d be hard pressed to find that analysis in the newspapers the next day or expressed by the many pundits who cover the sport. But it is the truth in far more hockey games than is ever acknowledged.

In fact, I would say that puck luck, as it is often called, decides roughly half of the close games in the National Hockey League. That’s right: a bounce here, a deflection there, a puck that skids off a post and away from the net at one end of the rink, then catches the corner of the top shelf a few moments later.

Look, hockey isn’t football. It’s not the coaches who win individual hockey games–it’s the players. Hockey is a game of flow, of action and reaction, far more than it is of programmed plays and tactics like post patterns and wheel routes. In hockey, nearly every play is a broken play. In fact, the game is kind of like one long broken play during which players must constantly adapt.

But we rarely acknowledge that, among all the skill and decision making, a good portion of what occurs isn’t anyone’s fault or the result of anyone’s genius. It’s just the spontaneous bounces of a frozen rubber disc on ice.
But that kind of analysis doesn’t make for good copy. And if writers wrote the truth every time a game came down to dumb luck, we’d all tune out.

I know that the next time the Stanley Cup final is on, someone will be able to explain that the team emerging with a 2—1 win in Game 7 did so because of a speech the coach made back in September. Or because an assistant coach whispered an inspirational message to the goaltender after the second period, or because of a hit a defenceman made that sent a message to his teammates back in the first period.

Those types of things make for wonderful storylines. And, from my point of view, they’re mostly a bunch of crap. No doubt someone reading this will disagree with me.

2. For years, hockey persistently avoided assessing penalties with a game on the line. The league didn’t want the officials to decide the outcome. Now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Bob weighs in on who’s right and who’s wrong.

hockey is the only sport in which, for years, officials had to keep more in mind than just what they saw happen in front of them when deciding whether to call a penalty.

They had to be aware of which team was winning and by what margin, and how much time was left to play. They also had to consider at what time of year the game was being played and how important it was to each team. And if it happened to be a playoff game . . . well, then there was a whole different set of standards.

Only by weighing all of those factors was it possible for a National Hockey League referee to make the right call.
All of which made the NHL pretty unique in the world of professional sports. It may be inherently more difficult for an official in any sport to make a tough call in the dying seconds of a close game. But only in hockey were officials encouraged to alter the standards used to call a game, depending on the circumstances.

In football, the definition of holding or clipping has always been the same in the first quarter as the fourth. In basketball, a foul or goaltending is the same from tip-off to countdown. And no, the strike zone in baseball doesn’t change when you get to extra innings. And a player is either called out or safe without the umpire glancing at the scoreboard.

But for some reason, in hockey, the expectation had always been that the referees should back off when a game was on the line and “let the players decide it.”

Television commentators, led by Don Cherry, were the worst offenders when it came to encouraging this. When a penalty occurs late in a football game, you’ll never hear the broadcasters criticize the official. You’ll hear them come down on the player who committed the foul. It’s “How could that guy block from behind on the runback?” Not, “How could the official call him for blocking from behind on the runback?” Same thing in basketball. Yet in hockey, when a player made a flagrant hook or slash with only a minute to play, somehow it was the official’s fault if that guy gets sent to the box.

Thankfully, the National Hockey League has lately gotten off this archaic horse and, for once, is actually backing its officials for showing some balls. But it’s pretty incredible to watch the league brag about its new, more consistent officiating standards when for years it was complicit in allowing officials to make themselves nearly invisible with a game on the line.

Of course, there are still those who don’t like to see penalties called late in close games. There are those who insist that the game is only pure when you “let them play.”

I’ve never understood exactly what “let them play” means. I mean, it’s an incomplete thought. What comes next? Let them play . . . and kill each other? Let them play . . . and do whatever they want? Let them play . . . until no one is standing? How far are you willing to go with this argument?

If letting the players decide a game is such a good idea, then why have any officials at all?

But the thing is, in addition to being stupid, the argument that when the refs put away their whistles late in the game the players decide the outcome is simply wrong anyway.

That way of thinking assumes that when a referee calls a hooking penalty early in scoreless game it doesn’t affect the final result. But think about it. Let’s say an official makes a call that leads to a power-play goal early on in a game that ends 1—0. How is that different than making the same call in a 4—4 game with three minutes remaining? Among the many flaws in the NHL’s old way of thinking is the notion that only those penalties called during the late stages of the third period or overtime affect the outcome of a game.

In fact, all penalties, no matter when they are called, have the same potential to affect the final result.

I’m not sure what it was that finally made the NHL decide that enough was enough and to get in line with the way the rest of the sports world is officiated. But thank God it did. And here’s hoping the whiners are never able to turn the clock back.

3. It’s the oldest hockey argument there is: does fighting belong in the National Hockey League? Bob says to find out, just look at what happens when the games matter most.

the long-standing debate about fighting in the National Hockey League is really two arguments. The first pertains to whether the NHL needs fighting to attract audiences in places where hockey isn’t part of the culture. The second involves deciding whether fighting actually has a role in the game–that is, does it help teams win, and is having enforcers on the ice necessary to protect the so-called stars?

First, in terms of marketing, I think you have to recognize that fighting in hockey has shrunk to the point where, on many nights, there aren’t any fights at all. In fact, you can sometimes go through an entire week of games for some teams without seeing a fight.

It’s not like the old days of the Broad Street Bullies, when Philadelphia Flyer fans could go to the Spectrum knowing they were almost assured of seeing blood.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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