Sunday, 22 May 2016

Experts can't agree: 'cycling' the puck is proof of Canadian Team's dominance or ineptitude at the World Championships.

I caught up to the France-Canada game midway through the second period on TSN, and watched the start of their second intermission. I wasn’t paying close attention, but Dave Reid’s analysis centered on how the French were doing a good job of keeping the Canadians to the outside, forcing them to the periphery and forming up as a defensive shell around their own net.

It was a little surprising that he would poo-pooh the blessed cycle game that is so prized in the NHL, that hockey analysts spend so much time lauding, that endless tedious grind along the boards, but Mr. Reid insisted that the Canadians were playing right along in the French’s strategy, were not effective as they should be penetrating to the slot area. And he had video to prove it, complete with a blue-shaded overlay, showing the Canadians cycling along the boards in the blue, and the French massed inside, in the white or non-shaded area.

Until TSN took a commercial break, at which point I remembered that RDS is also televising these World Championships. So I switched over to their telecast, just in time to see Vincent Damphousse offer his own analysis of the game so far.

Vincent, oppositely, praised the Canadian team for being superior with their puck protection, with their possession game, how they held on to it and the French team was incapable of stripping them of the puck, of gaining possession. And he had video as well, with the same region highlighted, except RDS used a red cross-hatch instead of a blue shading, but the action Vincent selected to replay was much the same as that which Dave Reid had, Canadian players skating along the boards, protecting the puck, cycling it among themselves, playing keepaway against the French.

It’s moderately surprising that two credible analysts can view the same game, witness the same strategy, from the same perspective about the same team, and come to completely different conclusions. One thinks the Canadians are displaying their superiority with that aspect of the game, the other believes it shows a weakness, that the same display is a result of the Canadian team being stymied, suffocated by their adversary.

There’s a saying in American football, that compared to the pro game, college football is more about the Jimmys and the Joes than about the X’s and the O’s, meaning that in college it’s not so much about coaching and systems and strategy, it’s about which team has the better athletes, does better at recruiting high school talent to come play at their school. So while in the pros, with the best football players in the world being concentrated in 32 teams, there is a relatively equivalent talent level between competitors, in college there exists vast disparities between teams, between a UCLA and a UC-Irvine, an Alabama and a Vanderbilt, a Miami and a Miami (Ohio), a gulf that can’t be bridged no matter what schemes the coaches come up with.

The fact that the focus during the France-Canada game fell on this aspect, on a somewhat tangential matter that isn’t reflected on the scoreboard, that can be interpreted in diametrically opposite manners by two analysts who have themselves played the game at its highest level, shows that hockey is coming to a crossroad, that there needs to be a fundamental change in how the game is played, kind of like basketball when it introduced the shot clock and the three-point shot, or football with the introduction of the forward pass or the rule changes in the Seventies to foster the passing game.

Hockey is being held back by its own traditions, its own rules. The game, its most talented practitioners, must be freed from the routine holding and crosschecking and slashing and hooking and mugging that is currently endemic, that allows journeymen to reduce the stars to their level.

The reliance of teams on defensive systems, the way coaches can utilize replacement-level players, fringe talent as cogs in a machine, a rampart massed at the blue line or around its own net, and make goalscoring an incidental, accidental event, rather than a true reflection of the flow of the game, the relative quality of the teams involved, has to be reined in. The blue line needs to be transformed from a difficult hurdle for the attacking team to negotiate, to a formality that must be met before entering the zone, one that prevents players from loafing in the offensive zone and waiting there for a long pass and a cheap goal. Rules must be put in place to prevent illegal defences, whereby teams jacquesmartin around their own net and merely try to prevent shots from getting through, play prevent instead of play hockey.

And goaltending gear must be reduced so that it serves its original function of protecting the goalie, rather than just add bulk and cover more surface area. Either that, or the surface area of the net must be increased to provide more of a target for players to shoot at. Goaltending shouldn’t be the mere act of standing, or flopping down in the crease, and allowing the puck to hit your pads. Athleticism and reflexes and spectacular saves should be the defining factors when defining excellence, not merely a goalie’s size.

The game must be tilted in such a manner that your fringe players, your fourth-liners are shifty types like Linus Omark rather than pluggers like Matt Hendricks, that you search high and low for players who can handle the puck and pass and skate and shoot, rather than guys who can thump and grind and finish their checks/commit interference-charging-boarding,who can be a picket in your formation.

Only then will hockey be exciting not merely due to the induced parity we see now, when games are being kept artificially close despite big disparities in shots, when games tend to go to overtime not because teams are so evenly matched, but because scoring is such a rare event.

To paraphrase the football saying, hockey needs to be less about the Hitchcocks and the Babcocks, and more about the Huberdeaus and Tarasenkos.

The game has to showcase its biggest stars, allow them to thrive like Gilbert Perreault and Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne used to in the '70's.  Teams have to have recognizable identities, distinct strategies and tactics that flavour the game, instead of everyone forced to form up in the same bland, boring defensive shells.

NHL owners see the NFL conquer all with parity, with the premise that every team’s fans has hope at the start of the season, how teams can go from worst to first in one season, how a Wildcard team can win the Super Bowl. They want some of that.

I’m more of the opinion that you can sell the game better, season to season, generation to generation, with teams that have the same players, the same characters from year to year. I grew up in the Seventies, so my thinking is that dynasties sell, they’re memorable and meaningful. For me, the NHL went from the Canadiens dynasty to the ugly Islanders to the beautiful Oilers team, there was symmetry and order.

Instead of the short-term excitement of a shootout or a lottery ticket win you get out of parity, you have the lifelong fealty of fans, affection/rivalry for various teams and their principal actors, drama and storylines that are handed down through the ages. The Don Cherry ‘too-many-men’ loss in the Semis to the Canadiens has emotional resonance even now, compared to the Brett Hull ‘toe-in-the-crease’ defeat of the Sabres, which is more a trivia matter, an accident of history, with no real backstory.

Since the arrival of parity, it’s more of a muddle. It’s kind of arbitrary which team won what year, it’s kind of a hodge-podge, with various Panthers and Canucks and Hurricanes teams making surprise and unearned visits to the Final.

Mark Cuban, even though he owns the Dallas Mavericks, or maybe because he owns the Mavericks, warns that the pro sports hegemony over television and culture isn’t immutable. He believes that there will come a day when VR technology will be good enough, cheap enough that experiential entertainment will blow spectator entertainment like movies and pro sports out of the water.

I believe that, if pro sports had any vision, they’d foster a deep meaningful connection with the communities and the fans they serve. If someone has a superficial relationship with their team of choice, if watching hockey is a way to pass time instead of a deeply held passion that you shared with your friends and family, it’ll be all the easier for a new generation to abandon it in favour of Halo 55.

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