Wednesday November 10th, 2010

My name is Mike, and I'm a shootout-aholic.

(Hello, Mike.)

I first realized I might be a shootout addict at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994. Peter Forsberg made the Swedish postage-stamp dangle (borrowed from Kent Nilsson, the Magic Man, who had unveiled it five years earlier at a world championship) to beat goalie Corey Hirsch and Canada in the gold medal shootout. The Forsberg move was part timing, part cheek, and all skill. It burrowed into the brain like a 1960s Johnny Rivers ballad.

I didn't see anything amiss about the biggest single-elimination tournament in the sport being settled by a shootout. Soccer's World Cup would end with the same deal later that year when Italy's Roberto Baggio airmailed a penalty kick over the Brazilian goal -- but when you are smitten with something or someone ... what do they say? Love is blind?

Then came the 1998 Olympic semifinal shootout in Nagano between Canada and the Czech Republic. Patrick Roy vs. Dominik Hasek. (For those of you without a drop of hockey romance in your blood and who swallow whole the NHL owners' plaints about the fortnight break in the schedule every four years, just remember the 2010 Stanley Cup Final goalie duel: Antti Niemi vs. Michael Leighton. Thank you.)

Wayne Gretzky, only the greatest scorer in the game, never left Team Canada's bench in Nagano. (Spare me tales of his middling success on breakaways throughout his career. This was Gretzky. Of his 940 NHL and WHA regular-season goals, I recall at least one or two coming on breakaways.) But coach Marc Crawford instead used Theo Fleury, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros, Brendan Shanahan and Raymond Bourque. There is a story -- it might even be true -- that Team Canada's management basically pressured its coaches to include Bourque because he was a perennial wizard at breaking targets in the NHL All-Star Game's most accurate shooter competition. If there is an ounce of veracity to that explanation, at least it proves that someone pays attention to the All-Star Game. Anyway, Hasek proved to be impenetrable, but that was merely one aspect of the most dramatic five minutes hockey has known.

After that Olympic semi, I was mainlining shootouts.

Then came that fateful November 2005 night, just after the NHL had returned from the lockout with the shootout, a pretty gift for its fans. Capitals vs. Rangers in New York. Fifteen rounds. Rangers defenseman Marek Malik, never mistaken for Mario Lemieux, went between his legs to score the game-winner, then raised his arm like Lady Liberty. Give us your tired, your bored, your huddled hockey masses yearning to breathe free. This was the best 15-rounder at the Garden since Ali-Frazier. If memory serves, the end of overtime until the conclusion of the shootout took almost 20 minutes, and the paying customers stood and the arena rocked like at no time since the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.

This is what NHL general managers discussed taking away when they met on Tuesday in Toronto.

I know there are shootout haters out there.

The shootout is a skills competition, you sniff. Damn right, I say. The shootout has allowed some superb skaters and goaltenders to display their gifts one on one. Jussi Jokinen (click for video). Jonathan Toews (video). For a shootout-aholic, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The shootout is a gimmick, you moan. Sure, I say. Of course it's a gimmick, but it's hardly any more of a gimmick than the devolution of overtime from four-on-four to three-on-three, the proposed solution to the shootout blight that has been offered by Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland. Three-on-three isn't a gimmick? When was the last time you can recall watching three-on-three NHL hockey?

Right, I thought so.

The shootout is supposedly a drag on the game because teams sit back in overtime and try to get to the skills competition. GMs have parroted this line for so long that maybe they even believe their own tripe. Given the absurd dearth of shootout drills during a typical week of NHL practices, it is hardly a priority for teams that don't put pedal to metal. The reasons why so many games aren't settled in five minutes of four-on-four OT are the same reasons why scoring is at post-lockout lows: teams are innately cautious and goaltending has consistently improved.

The shootout gets blamed because these same conservative GMs, whose idea of daring would be eating an After Eight mint at 7:30, never truly believed in the concept in the first place. They endorsed it only as a sop to fans, an offer of a definitive result plus a little value-added entertainment after a season aborted by NHL owners. And they were right. Judging be the reaction in arenas, paying customers seemed to like the shootout just fine. They probably still do. (In a recent photo gallery poll of sports issues, 80 percent of respondents (as of this writing) had voted in favor keeping the shootout. (See question 14.)

Put it in another context. One of the arguments used to buttress fighting's place in the NHL is that no fan has ever left his seat in the arena during a fight. Well, fans are not exactly streaming to the exits during the shootout, either. Even Ottawa GM Bryan Murray, who hates the shootout as much as children hate lima beans, once admitted that he hoped the out-of-town OT games he watched on TV would eventually be settled by a shootout.

The problem never has been the shootout. The problem is that NHL 2.0 didn't go far enough with them. Only three shooters per side? Big mistake. Often, you hardly find your rhythm as a fan because the shootout is over so quickly. The league should have instituted a five-per-side format, like a major soccer final. If nothing else, a five-round shootout would have been a partial antidote to the argument that individual competitions are determining the outcome of a team game by involving a mere one sixth of the 18 skaters.

The loser point further undermined the shootout. There should have never been a soft landing spot, the convenient out of getting to the end of regulation time and reaping a reward. The four-on-four overtime and subsequent shootout should have been winner-take-all. W or L. No hedging. This would have made shootouts even more dramatic, with the ancillary advantage of allowing the NHL to ditch a standings table that is as dense as Ulysses. That would have deprived a Maple Leafs fan of the chance to claim that his team is playing .500 hockey -- I heard one say that last Sunday -- even though Toronto, then 5-5-3, had won only five of its 13 games.

I don't know what will cure my shootout-aholism when the NHL prohibitionists decide that the gimmick is too much fun to continue and put an end to it, possibly as early as next season. (The GMs will discuss it further in March.) Maybe I can get behind the vast open spaces of three-on-three or whatever solution the haters devise, but that's my problem.

The NHL's problem is finding a way to say without looking foolish that its wondrous innovation of five years ago is just no damn good.

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