Training camps open this week across the NHL, with the exhibition schedule getting started over the weekend. And you know what that means: Every player in the league has never worked harder in the offseason, is in the best shape of his life, and is primed for the greatest season of his career. Yes, literally every player. Once this guy starts doing crunches, it’s officially unanimous.
And since everyone in the league has apparently spent the summer becoming the very best versions of themselves, that means it’s our turn now. With just three weeks until opening night, now is the time for hockey fans to make some new season’s resolutions, in an annual rite of passage in which some idiot sportswriter tells you what to think a nice man shares some helpful ideas for self-improvement.1
As always, your personal list of resolutions is up to you. But we do have a few suggestions to get you started.
Let’s Just Accept That Gary Bettman Doesn’t Always Tell the Truth
As NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman is the face of the league, and quite likely the most important person in the sport today. He is also somebody who bends the truth when speaking to the league’s fans with stunning regularity. And honestly, that really shouldn’t bother you.
Like him or not, Bettman has a tough job. He has to serve many masters. He has to juggle multiple competing priorities. And he has to do it all while pretending that he really, deeply, sincerely cares about making the NHL’s fans happy.
But here’s the thing: Gary Bettman doesn’t work for you. You are his customer, but you are not his employer, and telling you the truth is not in his job description. Oh, he’d certainly prefer you to be happy. It makes his life much easier, and it makes the lives of his bosses — the team owners — much easier, so all things being equal, he likes you and wants you to be a satisfied customer. But he has a job to do, and telling you the truth is not part of it. Sometimes, a little bit of spin, PR-speak, or even flat-out dishonesty is in the league’s best interest. And once you accept that, you’ll find yourself a lot less aggravated by Bettman’s existence.
So this year, don’t get angry when Bettman swears that all 30 markets are in great shape. Don’t be offended when he pretends that Las Vegas expansion hasn’t been a sure thing for the better part of a year. Don’t keep holding a grudge over all the times that he tried to act like his latest lockout had anything to do with ticket prices. And if the media reports that a team is about to move and he accuses the media of “making it up” and that team does indeed move just a few days later … you know, again … just roll with it.
That doesn’t mean you can’t hold him to some sort of standard. It’s OK for him to lie, but he’s supposed to do it while maintaining some small grasp on reality, so if he drops a truly ridiculous eye-roller like last year’s bit about fans not caring about player salaries, go ahead and mock him for it. But for the rest of it, don’t expect the whole truth and nothing but the truth from Bettman and you won’t be disappointed.
Remember, he’s not lying because he’s a bad guy, or because he doesn’t care about you as a fan. He’s just doing his job. Don’t take it personally.
Let’s Stop Calling the Puck-Over-Glass Rule ‘Black-and-White’
The NHL’s puck-over-glass rule is divisive. Many think it’s a dumb rule, one that almost always ends up being called on plays that everyone knows were purely accidental. Others like it, arguing that it prevents intentional delays and boosts offense by adding an element of risk to clearing the defensive zone. You’re probably already firmly entrenched on one side or the other, and I’m not going to try to change your mind today.2
I mean, Scotty Bowman agrees with me that it’s a bad rule, but don’t worry about that if you disagree. I’m sure you’re smarter than Scotty Bowman.
But there’s one thing we should all be able to agree on: We need to stop referring to the rule as “black-and-white.” That’s a term that always comes up whenever the rule is discussed, usually offered as a defense. We already rely on the referees’ discretion for almost everything else in the rulebook, the thinking goes, and we all seem to think that they blow those calls way too often. Whatever flaws it may have, at least the puck-over-glass rule is the one rule that gets called consistently across the board, with no room for interpretation or judgment calls. Which would be a decent argument, if there were any truth to it.
Here’s what happens when a referee calls a hooking penalty: His arm goes up, the player complains a bit and then goes to the box, and we line up for the faceoff. Here’s what happens when a referee calls a tripping penalty: His arm goes up, the player complains a bit and then goes to the box, and we line up for the faceoff. Here’s what happens when a referee calls a cross-checking penalty: His arm goes up, the player … well, you get the idea.
Here’s what happens when a puck gets shot over the glass: Everyone on one teams start wildly pointing and waving, as if the officials somehow didn’t notice what just happened. Then everyone on the other team starts slapping their hands together in the universal sign for “It was deflected.” Then all the officials, referees and linesmen both, huddle up for an extended discussion, in which they attempt to triangulate the puck’s exact exit point to determine if it went over the end glass or the bench, since the rule treats those areas differently. Then they make a decision, skate over to each bench, and explain the verdict to the coaches. Then we watch a series of replays, none of which is remotely conclusive. Then everyone gives up, shrugs, and tries to remember what the score was back when this whole mess started.
That whole scenario is a lot of things, and if you want to argue that it all adds up to a net positive for the sport, then go ahead. But it’s sure not “black-and-white,” because black-and-white rules don’t require an all-hands-on-deck meeting of the minds every time they’re called. The puck-over-glass rule may have some things going for it, but simplicity and clarity aren’t on that list.
If anything, it’s just about the least black-and-white rule in the rulebook. Defend it if you must, but at least do it using words that make sense.
Let’s Try to Go Easy on the Tanking Talk This Year
Last year was the Year of the Tank. Any team that finished in the league’s bottom half was either blatantly losing on purpose to increase its odds of landing Connor McDavid or was at least being accused of it. It culminated in the ugly sight of Buffalo fans openly cheering against the home team in overtime, because a win would have made it harder to finish dead last. That scene went over about as well as you might expect. It was also the inevitable result of the reality of today’s NHL, where young superstars are the game’s most important currency and the draft lottery system doesn’t do enough to discourage losing for a better pick.
So after spending so much time picking apart the league’s tanking problem, we’re probably headed toward a sequel this season. There’s no McDavid in this year’s draft, but there is a consensus no. 1 in Auston Matthews. Suspicion will be high. And we had so much fun beating the topic into the ground last year that it will be hard to resist coming back for Round 2.
And, at the risk of pointing the finger at one particular fan base, there’s something else at play here: payback. Buffalo fans, we are all looking in your direction. By the end of last season, most Sabres fans were absolutely sick of the constant tank talk, and with the team expected to be much better this season, you know that they’ve been waiting for some revenge. Even the ones who acknowledge that management obviously tanked the season are still salivating for the chance to sarcastically accuse every team below them in the standings of doing the same. And you would, too, in their situation.
But as justified as vengeful Sabres fans might be, we should all dial down the tanking talk, for one simple reason: It’s just not a very good strategy this year.
Part of that is because of the talent available. McDavid and Jack Eichel were considered generational talents, while Matthews isn’t there yet. More importantly, the NHL changed the draft lottery rules for this season. The top three choices will now be determined by the lottery, meaning the team that finishes dead last isn’t guaranteed a pick better than fourth. Last year, only the top spot was determined by the pingpong balls, meaning last place would end up with no worse than the second pick.
Those two factors add up to a lack of incentive for blatant tanking. Last year, any team that decided to burn the season and aim for 30th overall was guaranteed a top-two pick in a draft with two franchise players. This year, finishing last only gets you a top-four pick in a draft with one. There are certainly teams that will be placing less emphasis on short-term success than others, just like there always are, but we’re not going to see a 1984 Penguins scenario play out. So settle down with the finger-pointing.
(And besides, if those reasons aren’t enough, remember one more thing: It’s all futile, because the damn Oilers are winning the draft lottery.)
Let’s Stop Using Players’ Twitter Handles in News Updates
This one’s on you, fellow reporters. There’s a time and a place to tag someone in a tweet. Breaking news is not one of those times. When you tweet out that you’re “Hearing that @snizzydawg27 could be asking for a trade” or “Just saw that @burpledurple98 has been placed on waivers” or “Currently watching @BigDaddyThimbleFingers161853 break into the referees’ dressing room and start beating them about the head and face with his blocker,” nobody knows who you’re talking about. And we’re sure not going to move our mouse pointer 3 inches and click on the name to find out, because what do we look like, triathletes?
If you’re engaging in playful online banter with a player, tag away. They’re not going to reply to you, because they secretly hate us all, but no harm done. But if the guy just went face-first into the crossbar and is picking his wisdom teeth out of the crease, he’s probably not faving your tweet. Just tell us his name.
Let’s Just Enjoy 3-on-3 Overtime
This season, the NHL will introduce a fairly major rule change. Overtime games will now be played 3-on-3, down from the 4-on-4 that’s been the standard for years (and the 5-on-5 at which regulation time is played).
That means that each team will be using just three skaters and a goalie, creating all sorts of open ice. It’s going to be different. It’s going to be weird. It’s going to be fun.
Is it going to be good? Probably not as good as you’re hoping, to be honest. There will be times when all that extra space translates into furious end-to-end play that highlights the sort of jaw-dropping skill that the sport can offer at its best. There will also be times when it translates into sloppy play, halfhearted defense, missed passes that slide untouched into a distant corner, and something that’s only marginally closer to real hockey than the shootout.
And once that happens, and fans realize that 3-on-3 isn’t quite everything they hoped it would be, it will trigger the modern hockey fan’s natural instinct to complain about absolutely everything. Let’s resolve not to do that.
For one thing, we can all agree that anything is better than a shootout. The new format will produce more sudden-death goals, which means fewer silly one-on-one exhibitions deciding games. But more importantly, the NHL deserves credit here for at least trying to fix an obvious problem. And not with half-measures and tinkering that won’t really accomplish anything, but with a significant change that will be impossible to ignore.
It’s a risk, and maybe after a few years we’ll all decide that we hate it and want to go back to the old way. But let’s give it some time. For once, the NHL actually got off its collective behind and tried to fix a problem instead of doing nothing because none of the proposed solutions were absolutely perfect. The league deserves some credit for that.
Let’s Keep Calling That One World Cup Team ‘The Young Guns’
The 2016 World Cup won’t be played until next September, but it will be a fun running subplot of this season, as we try to figure out which players will get the call from their respective nations. Or, as the case may be, their non-nations.
Next year’s tournament will feature an added wrinkle that’s raised a few eyebrows. In addition to the usual Big Six hockey nations,3 the NHL has decided to include two new teams: One made up of players from the rest of Europe, and one made up of North American players aged 23 and under.
Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic.
That announcement immediately resulted in two things happening: Hockey fans fought the nagging feeling that this was a really dumb idea, and everybody started calling the 23-and-under team the Young Guns.
I’m not going to pile on the NHL about the new format, for three reasons. One, uh, I already did. Two, this is probably going to be a onetime deal and it’s too late to change the 2016 format now, so complaining won’t accomplish anything. And three, I just finished telling you to give the league a break on a potentially bad idea that at least shows some creativity, so I have to take some of my own medicine here.
But last week, the NHL unveiled more information about the tournament format, and one detail largely flew under the radar: They’re going to call the 23-and-under squad “Team North America.”
Hockey fans, this will not stand.
First of all, that doesn’t make sense. There are already teams from Canada and the U.S., which from a purely hockey perspective is basically all of North America. It would be like having All-Star teams from the Eastern Conference and Western Conference, then adding a third team and trying to call it “the NHL.”
But more importantly, “Young Guns” is a great name. It’s cheesy and ridiculous and makes you cringe a little, which is perfect because so does the entire concept. You can’t come up with an idea this goofy and then try to slap a nice, respectable face on it. You want to bring the silly, you have to embrace the silly. Besides, at least calling them the Young Guns answers the whole “What anthem do you play if they win” question that’s been going around. If the kids can pull off the upset and win the whole thing, then you line them up at center ice and you play this. And they all better sing along and keep their hands on their hearts, at least until the air guitar solo.
The NHL can call this thing Team North America, but the rest of don’t have to. They’re the Young Guns, and they always will be. Motion carried.