The story of the FHL's pre-game shootout, the controversial rule change that lived and died in one weekend

Scott Brand's brainchild had potential to change the pre-game proceedings forever. Instead, one loss led to angry fans lobbing "things close to a death threat" at the minor league GM.
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V. Khouri - Carolina Thunderbirds

V. Khouri - Carolina Thunderbirds

By his own estimation, Scott Brand got to spend about 24 hours as the most brilliant man in hockey history. Then he spent the next 24 as the much-maligned pseudo-mastermind behind one of the worst ideas the sport has ever seen.

You see, Brand, president and GM of the Federal League’s Carolina Thunderbirds, had himself an idea during the off-season, one that could change the game forever. It was a simple modification to the rulebook, too: he wanted to move the shootout to the pre-game proceedings, ahead of the opening faceoff, with it holding all the usual implications should a game remain tied following overtime. It took some convincing — of the league, of Thunderbirds ownership, of his players and coaching staff — but eventually Brand got the green light. And one weekend in late-November, the pre-game shootout made its debut when Carolina hosted the Port Huron Prowlers in a back-to-back set.

On that first night, the idea was a smash. Fans ate it up. Players did, as well. It was hard not to, too, when the Thunderbirds rolled to a 4-0 victory and the pre-game shootout was entirely inconsequential to the outcome. But the Saturday night meeting was a different story. After Port Huron won the skills competition, the two teams played to a 4-4 draw through 60 minutes. Overtime solved nothing. Thus, the Prowlers earned the 5-4 victory in what Brand called “the best worst-case scenario.” The reaction from the Thunderbirds faithful was decidedly unpleasant.

“I got probably things close to a death threat,” Brand told The Hockey News, adding he was shocked at the vulgarity directed his way. “People really being nasty about it.”

That’s not to say Brand doesn’t understand. He does. He gets the emotional investment fans have in the outcome of the games. But Brand sticks by the idea and what it can do, in theory, to inject added excitement into the contest in a non-traditional market. He said the period leading up the extra frame during the 5-4 loss to Port Huron, when Carolina knew they had to either score in the dying minutes of regulation or rely on an overtime winner, was thrilling hockey that required a departure from normal strategy. The coaching staff made adjustments. And that led to an overtime free-for-all that those with the best seats in the house enjoyed.

“I can tell you the players liked it,” Brand said. “They thought the last three minutes of that overtime was the most intense hockey we played…We pulled our goaltender, there were three goal-mouth scrambles in the last minute and even our coach said it was playoff intensity. So, I got it, the players got it, the coaching staff got it, but unfortunately, the fans didn’t get it.”

Nor will they have the chance to understand, either. Three weeks after the rule was instituted, Brand and Co. made the decision to shelve it indefinitely. In a sense, it was Brand sticking by his word. He said at the time the pre-game shootout was announced that the Thunderbirds would strike the rule change if the fan response was overwhelmingly negative. It was. And so the ill-fated pre-game shootout met an early grave.

That doesn’t mean the rule was an out-and-out bad idea, however, nor that it’s about to go the way of “Charles Finley and the white skates or when the AHL made the bluelines two-feet wide,” never to be seen again. The hybrid icing rule in the USHL, which Brand implemented and has since been adopted at the NHL level, wasn’t universally beloved when it arrived. So, maybe there will be a revival for the pre-game shootout, one that comes when fans are willing to be a bit more open-minded about the results. And why not, particularly when, in Brand’s mind, it didn’t necessarily have any impact on the final score?

“People will say, ‘Oh, it cost you two points!’ It didn’t cost me two points. It cost me one. And that’s assuming we would have won the shootout, and our team is awful in shootouts anyway,” Brand laughed. “So I have nothing to lose there.”

If the pre-game shootout comes back, though, would Brand make any changes? Not quite. In fact, looking back, he seems to have only one regret.

“If there was a mistake made it’s that I probably should have just stuck with it and kept trying it for another two weeks,” Brand said. Then he paused, moved his mouth from the phone receiver and hollered to someone in the background. When he continued, he was chuckling: “And we have yet to have a game go to overtime since then and we’re on an 11-game winning streak. So, I’m single-handedly taking credit because of that for our 11-game win streak. So, I think it was a great rule.”

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