Wednesday, 1 October 2014

A few simple rule changes could do away with dump-and-chase and the neutral zone trap, and improve hockey.

I used to think the dump and chase was an intractable problem, one that would endure forever now that coaches had discovered the neutral zone trap and begun to stack all their players at the blue line, a Maginot Line of Anti-Hockey.  For years I sighed and understood that I'd never again see a Guy Lafleur or even a Stéphane Richer in full flight down the wing, entering the zone and unleashing hell at the goalie.

But, a few times I've been forced to watch soccer, and thought it had abysmally stupid offside rules.  I understood why the rule existed, that you didn't want a player standing in front of the opposing goalie when the ball was all the way in his defensive zone.  Without the offside rule, this player would twiddle his thumbs, waiting for a clearing pass from his team's defenders to spring into action.  The game would descend into a succession of punts.  As soon as the defending side got the ball they'd hammer it down the field to their waiting striker, loitering near the goalie.

Surely the defensive team would counter by assigning a defender to stay back and cover the loiterer, so a bright coach would clue in and now leave two striker-loiterers, countered by two defenders eventually, and the game would descend into a different kind of more-boring gridlock, a tennis match of clearances.

So the offside rule has a good reason to exist, it addresses a potential problem, but the solution arrived at that nobody can be behind a defender to receive a pass causes just as great a problem.  It causes players to 'defend' by not moving, standing still, or even running away from their net, to put the opponent offside.  They defend by not defending.  They loophole themselves out of a jam.

The defunct NASL had for a couple of seasons a very relaxed offside rule, to open up the game, produce more attacking play, more offence, more spectacular playing styles, but the dispensation they got from applying the rule as it exists everywhere else in the world was only temporary.  I remember the Manic's GM or some other representative explaining during an interview that this exemption was about to expire, but that he was optimistic that FIFA would extend this exemption and help promote soccer in North America.

Realize, this was FIFA he was talking about.  Of course they didn't extend the exemption, they wanted the rule strictly enforced, and the NASL complied, they were fearful if they didn't that their players would be barred from any FIFA events in the future.  Remember this was in the day of the boycott of South Africa, of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain.  This was a real threat, a common method of doing business.  So yes, the NASL returned to the old offside rule.  And remember, this is the defunct NASL I'm talking about.

At the time, I thought soccer was pretty stupid to not help a new league in a new market sell the game.  At this same time period, the NFL was liberalizing its rules to favour a thrilling passing game, so that the classic Lynn Swan acrobatic catch would become a once-a-week event, rather than a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

The game wanted to move away from the soporific 'three yards and a cloud of dust' strategy epitomized by Woody Hayes' Ohio State Buckeyes, and toward a more fan and TV-friendly aerial game.  Rules were enacted to help the offence thrive.  Offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms and use their hands to block.  Defensive backs like Jack Tatum and their celebrated savage style were reined in to a five-yard bump zone, after which they couldn't impede the progress of a receiver.  Other (Raider) defenders (cheaters) like Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes were brought to heel, with a prohibition on stickum, for example.

Passing and scoring exploded, and so did the game's popularity and ratings, which soared.  The NFL blew past Major League Baseball as the national pastime of our neighbours to the south.  The Chargers' 'Air Coryell' attack was succeeded by Bill Walsh and Joe Montana's West Coast Offence, which ushered in the age of John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.  Realizing that they'd stumbled on a gold mine, the NFL subsequently continued to promote an exciting, open kind of game, as opposed to an impenetrable running game that coaches and purists love.

Meanwhile, hockey has been unable to get out of its own way.  Naming a succession of lawyers and suits who don't know or love hockey as Commissioner has definitely not helped.  John Ziegler to Gil Stein to Gary Bettman, none of these culprits have a sense of what's good, what's right for the game, they've been more concerned with their coiffe or the strict bottom line, with no vision for the actual sport, the product they're selling.

Improvements to the game has largely been left to the GM's, conservative, some might say reactionary types, in the truest sense, former worker bees who believe that the team ethos and tight checking that ruled and won championships in their day is, by divine decree, the 'right' way to play hockey.  Not those circling styles those Commie Russians employed.

So the neutral zone trap, which they profess to want to eliminate, is actually impregnable in their myopic eyes.  They tried everything else, the put in the trapezoid, and they futzed around with the size of the zones, so what are you going to do?

To me, after watching soccer again this summer, and seeing if for the sordid mess of diving and cheating histrionics and anti-sporting behaviour that it is, it is quite clear that the problem isn't the neutral zone trap, or dump and chase hockey, or obstruction or lack thereof (as in, "We have to slow down these forecheckers somehow to prevent defencemen from getting murdered.  Let's allow some hooking, or the bear hug, something...").  The problem is the blue line itself, and the requirement that the puck must go into the zone first.

How many times a game does the flow, the play stop because a player went offside?  A promising rush is developing, a three-on-one or a two-on-two, but one player is an inch inside the blue line before the puck comes in, and the whistle blows and the fans and audience are let down.  Now we have to sit through a boring faceoff, with all the messing around, the players in the circle ignoring the rules and trying to gain an edge, with one getting tossed, then complaining about getting tossed, then timorously heading to the winger's spot, while the winger coasts in, digs in with his skates, adjusts his helmet, then his elbow pads, digs in some more, before the process is stopped by a referee, because the two other wingers are now having a slashing battle.

Any method used to reduce the number of offsides and tedious faceoffs, and to get rid of the neutral zone trap in favour of puck possession, stickhandling, passing, and talent has to be an improvement right?

I know it will verge on heresy to bring this up, but why not allow attacking players to rush into the offensive zone and get open for a pass?  And to do so even before the puck has entered the offensive zone?  That would instantly make the stacking of defenders at the blue line obsolete.  No team would line up that way to defend and allow Steve Stamkos to get behind them and streak to the net, waiting for a pass.  Now teams would have to play a kind of man-to-man defence, or some kind of zone defence, but scattered inside their own zone, without their current massive advantage of the blue line being a barrier to entry.

For discussion's sake, here are a couple of ideas, and concepts we'd have to nail down.

1)  Once the defending team gains control of the puck in its own zone, they are allowed to pass the puck forward as they are now, up to the blue line, or effectively what's known now as a two-line pass.  The change would be that, beyond a line drawn let's say from the top of the circles, or even maybe through the dots, a pass can travel the length of the ice.  So you can make a long-bomb pass, but can't just whack at the puck from behind your goal line and clear it the length of the ice, that wouldn't really be a skilled play.  You actually have to control and advance the puck within your zone to a certain point to 'unlock' the opposite blue line.

2)  Another alternative is that any pass of any length through however many zones is permissible, as long as it doesn't hit glass or boards.  It must be tape-to-tape to be legal.  This would prevent a Josh Gorges or Hal Gill from just banging the puck off the boards in the hope of connecting with someone down the ice, in a happy accident.  Instead, a player would have to skate with his head up and anticipate and sync up with a teammate to find an open lane and hit him in full stride.  Again, this concept would favour offence, spectacle and talent over brawn and steady-eddie safe boring play.

3)  We probably would need some type of illegal offence rule, like the NBA's illegal defence call, except ours would take care of the loiterers.  As I've written before, this could be called the Pierre Larouche rule, and would legislate against being in the offensive zone when the puck is in the defensive zone.  Maybe you have to be in your own zone and 'tag up' before you sprint ahead for a pass.

4)  Let's examine whether with any rule we come up with, any strict interpretation is absolutely necessary.  Instead of blowing whistles every time someone is an inch offside, either with my new proposed rules or any of the existing rules, maybe we let things slide until you can't ignore it, until a team clearly gains an advantage.  We use this type of standard for too-many-men on the ice penalties.  There's a tolerable limit that is flexible as to how far from the bench players have to be before they are considered to be in breach, or how soon they can play the puck.

Similarly, Canadian Football allows players to cross the line of scrimmage a beat before the ball is snapped, if it's not too flagrant.  While this leads to some disputes, it is a much better approach than the five false-start and illegal procedure penalties that are called every game in the hidebound NFL.  I wonder sometimes when I read of a fan falling from a balcony at an NFL stadium if it's not an accident, but an exasperated fan who jumped because he couldn't take another marginal call, another stoppage of play because there was a wide receiver a half-step off the line of scrimmage.

Let's have offside calls be a 'spirit of the rule' breach rather than a technical, stipulative absolute standard that's more killjoy than enhancement of the game.

And that's my modest proposal to do away with dump-and-chase hockey, and the neutral zone trap.  Let's just allow players to enter the offensive zone when their team is in clear possession and control of the puck.  No rule will be perfect, there will be missed calls and arguments with the new rules.  The qualitative change to the game however, the tilting of the ice away from defence and hulking players who can slash and elbow and fight but can't play with the puck or skate, and in favour of artist and magicians and snipers, will make the sport much more exciting, and will grow revenues by offering spectators a sport that isn't just for the initiates and the self-proclaimed 'defensive hockey' buffs.

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