Monday, October 24, 2005

The Obstruction Crackdown Debate

Last week, I posted about the obstruction crackdown and why I am skeptical but still undecided about its merits. The media on the other hand has been largely for all of the changes that Gary Bettman and his ilk. However, there are more and more voices of dissent being hearn in the press.

At first, I planned to show the difference between what was being written a couple of weeks ago with what is being written today, when Cam Cole wrote something today that is strongly positive toward the obstruction crackdown. That shows that the media as a whole are not changing their position - merely that certain members who have dissenting positions are being heard. For the most part Cam Cole's argument is that the NHL is better than ever because scoring is up (as though high scoring games are the most important way to measure if hockey is any good). He argues that the game is faster and lets the skilled players have more chance to succeed.

So now, speed is up, goals are up, third-period scoring is up, play is going back and forth in line rushes, scoring chances abound, and we are complaining about . . . what? Not enough hitting?

That is exactly the point. There is little physical play any more. The battle in front of the net, which was one of the most exciting parts of hockey (at least in my opinion), is no more. This significantly reduces the apparent intensity level of any games.

Tom Benjamin does a very good job is debunking Cole's article. Benjamin argues that the team that scores first in a game is no more likely to win in the "new" NHL thedn they were in the "old" one. When Cole argues that this change comes with short term pain, Benjamin complains about this short term pain is not worth the "results" that we are promised but at this point must take on faith.

I think this is the problem with Cole's argument. Cole assumes that the "new" NHL will turn out exactly as Gary Bettman promises and we must have faith that it will. Is there any evidence that Gary Bettman's changes have been good for hockey in the past? Is there any reason we should have faith in him? From early games, it is clear that we are trading off physical play for more speed. Hopefully, the extra speed will one day lead to better flow - as long as it isn't slowed down by excessive penalties (which it has been so far). It is argued that eventuially players will adjust to the new rules and the penalty rate will decline to give us consistent flow again. Although this claim is far fetched, they are already calling penalties when a player trips over another player's sitck or when a player follows through on his check a split second after the puch has changed hands. I do not think it is possible (with consistent refereeing) to make these kinds of penalties ever dissapear. Entire games are played with very little physical play (players are afraid to play physically as they will get penalized) and nevertheless penalties are way up from last year. I don't think we can have a return to the flow uninterupted by penalties with this set of rules. Players will adjust. We will see more smaller faster players and less big tough forwards and defencemen. We will see more 5'6" players who shun physical play and less 6'6" power forward types. Is this an improvement?

As I stated earlier, not all the media is sold on the obsturction crackdown. Ken Fidlin has a good article that is daring to speak out against the obstruction crackdown. It is refreshing to see some diversity of opinion in the mainstream media - this didn't exist during the lockout. Fidlin writes:

As a hockey fan, close your eyes and imagine some of the tong wars between the Flyers and Leafs in Stanley Cup playoffs past. Now try to imagine the same kind of physical intensity in today's environment. It doesn't compute. Hockey fans accustomed to seeing players ratchet up their physical intensity in the playoffs will have to make do with something a bit more sanitized, a bit less passionate.

I think the discrepancy is between the Gary Bettman position (which has been echoed by much of the mainstream media) and your own eyes. Who would you believe? Your eyes must be lying to you if you don't see that the lack of physical play and constant stream olf penalties is an improvement. This is obvious to enough professional hockey writers that some are reporting what their eyes are seeing even if it doesn't agree with what the story the NHL wants to see printed.

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