What do you get when you mix southern heat, southern humidity and a few adult beverages? If you’re Scott Brand, president and GM of the Federal League’s Carolina Thunderbirds, the tongue-in-cheek answer is an alteration to the rulebook that is sure to raise the ire and boil the blood of hockey traditionalists.
This weekend, when the Thunderbirds host the Port Huron Prowlers at Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex, an interesting interlude will occur between the final notes of the Star Spangled Banner and the opening faceoff of the first frame: a shootout.
“Everyone talks about the shootout and how great it is, but now with 3-on-3 hockey, we had it once last year, and I don’t even know how many times the league went to a shootout. Not very much,” Brand said. “So, I thought, ‘It’s too bad we can’t have a league where shootouts happen regularly because the folks like it.’ And then it just dawned on me, ‘Why don’t we just do the shootout first?’”
This isn’t some simple, for-fun skills competition to get fans introduced to the action in a non-traditional market, either. No, it’s a potentially meaningful head-to-head between the players and goaltenders that will eliminate what has become the, ahem, traditional format that sees the shootout decide contests following overtime. This is to say that there’s honest-to-goodness potential for either the Thunderbirds or Prowlers to fire home the game-deciding goal on Friday or Saturday night before the first period has even begun. Seriously.
This isn’t Brand’s first foray into rulebook modifications. During his tenure as the USHL’s Director of Hockey Operations, Brand wanted to make a change to icing rule but strike a balance between the old big-league touch rule and the no-touch rule predominantly used throughout minor hockey and on the international stage. The solution? Hybrid icing, which gained traction and made its way into the NHL by the 2013-14 season.
The reasons for this new (admittedly wackier) rule change, one that Brand has been working on throughout the summer and one that will only impact Carolina's home games, are twofold.
At its core, Brand admits it’s a marketing tactic, a chance for some flash and showmanship. The pre-game shootout is a way to ensure fans in a market where the game isn’t ingrained in the culture see some lamp-lighting action each time they come to the rink. While he first bristled at the idea, Thunderbirds owner Barry Soskin came around by comparing it to the opportunity to witness a home run at every single baseball game. That helped Brand get the green light. “If I had skill and talent and I was in Toronto or Montreal, I can sell hockey in Toronto and Montreal on skill and talent,” Brand said. “Here, I need to bring a little bit of NASCAR and WWE into it.”
But Brand also sees the rule change as a way to legitimately impact on-ice strategy. While acknowledging the obvious excitement of 3-on-3 hockey, Brand pointed to the slow-play undertaken by some teams during the late stages of overtime in order to try their hand in the coin-flip that is the post-overtime shootout. In particular, he said, that’s the case with teams that know they can’t skate stride for stride with a better club. However, losing the pre-game shootout might see a team push for the game winner before 3-on-3 expires knowing they won’t get a second point in the shootout. The winner of the pre-game shootout might go into all-out defend mode.
Especially interesting about that theory of increased overtime intensity and modified 3-on-3 strategy is that the FHL doesn’t have a rule that would discourage a team from pulling its goaltender for an extra attacker during the extra frame. In other leagues where 3-on-3 overtime is utilized — Brand noted the USHL, though the NHL and AHL have the rule, as well — a team that pulls its goaltender for an extra skater and gets scored can kiss the so-called “loser point” goodbye. They skate away with nothing, while the victor gets the full two-point win. (The FHL uses a three-point system, but an overtime or shootout victory is still worth two points.)
As for the feedback Brand has received, it’s mixed. Some Thunderbirds players, who were told about the rule before it was announced, thought it was “stupid,” and you can rest assured that a goaltender who allows a few shootout goals against before the start of the first frame is going to have some serious issues with the whole thing. As for the fans, who will get the opportunity to vote on the rule change after the season (if the team or league doesn’t scrap the idea before then), the response has been much the same.
“Fifty percent think it’s a good marketing idea and they’re interested,” Brand said. “Then I’ve had some that have called me and asked me if I’ve lost my mind. I don’t know if I would walk into a rink in Canada after coming up with this rule, but again, we didn’t know the icing would work until we tried it.”