The shootout is a hit with fans of Gary Bettman's NHL, so why play a different tune? (Robert Beck/SI)
By Allan Muir
Gary Bettman's a smart guy and all, but he missed the chance of a lifetime when he agreed to that Stadium Series photo op with the legendary rock band KISS. Instead of grinning and posing, he should have been taking notes.
Say what you will about their musical legacy, but Gene Simmons (who has the commish in a headlock) and Paul Stanley (on the far left, in the photo) are financial titans. They're still filling arenas around the world 40 years into a career that started with a gimmick. And if there's a buck to be made from their devoted legion of fans, it'll turn up in the band's bank account in a New York minute.
Long ago, KISS figured out a simple truth: You can reinvent yourself as often as you'd like, but ultimately the smart thing to do is to shut up and play the hits.
In other words, give the paying customers what they want, and they'll keep coming back for more.
Seems simple enough, but that logic is lost on some of the tall foreheads who are gathering to discuss the state of the NHL during the next three days in Boca Raton, Fla. Topping the agenda: minimizing the impact of the shootout.
The league's general managers are on the verge of making a terrible mistake -- they are addressing hockey in competitive terms first when they should be thinking about the game's entertainment value. If the shootout isn't universally popular, it's pretty close. The NHL's own surveys routinely return fan approval ratings between 70 and 80 percent. As Bettman himself admits, that's "an extraordinarily high number on any question."
Are there fans who hate it? Sure, just like the KISS Army is split on the band's classic power ballad Beth. But KISS keeps playing the song because Simmons, Stanley and company won't ignore the fact that it topped the charts.
And that's the kind of thing that the league needs to keep in mind when talk turns to extending four-on-four play from five to 10 minutes (yes, by all means, let's make games longer) or adding a period of three-on-three play before settling things in the shootout. (Will losing via that gimmick somehow be less demoralizing?) Diminishing the shootout won't make losses any easier to stomach, but it will diminish the overall product.
Of all the changes that have come from the relentless tinkering with the game, none have struck a chord quite like the shootout. It's the ultimate fan engagement tool, a chance to generate high-octane and easily digestible moments of skill and edge-of-your-seat thrills that are the fodder of highlight shows, social media and water-cooler talk. That epic skills-session showdown between the U.S. and Russia at the Sochi Olympics was received rather well.
But instead of reveling in success, the talk in Florida will be inspired by the tragic possibility that some team might miss out on the playoffs as a result of a shootout failure. Of course, that overlooks the fact that those losers already had 65 minutes to secure a victory -- and 81 other nights to get the job done -- but hey, competitive integrity, blah, blah, blah ...
And that's why change is all but certain to be recommended today. I'm guessing that the proposed adjustment will be something simple like having teams switch ends after the third period in hope that the occasional moment of chaos induced by having to make longer line changes -- as during the second period, when goalies switch ends of the ice -- might lead to a game-winning goal once every 10 or 15 games. If that's the case, fine. No harm done.
But anything more drastic would be as foolish as KISS removing their makeup. The shootout might feel like a novelty, but it's one hit that the league should keep playing.