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|LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE
As a former goalie -- a bad one, at that, in my youth days -- I am clearly predisposed to the masked men that so ably don "the tools of ignorance."
For that reason, any suggestion that advocates increasing the size of the net in hockey -- tossed about willy-nilly as a sure-fire solution to increase scoring in the NHL game -- usually causes me to go into the same convulsions that gripped Johnstown Chiefs goalie Denis Lemieux during that famous between-period dressing room scene during the early part of the movie Slap Shot.
As I shake and twitch, I wonder what people have against goalies that makes them so willing to stack the deck against them at every turn -- especially in the last couple years?
Hey, scoring is down, so let's limit the goalie's ability to play the puck outside of the crease. It doesn't seem to matter that goalies have struggled for years to better themselves in this department.
Goalie equipment is too big and bulky, giving the goalies an unfair advantage. The solution? Reduce the size of the equipment, despite the fact that players shoot harder and more accurately than at any time in the history of the game. Oh yeah, and while we are at it, let's allow players to curve their sticks to an even greater degree so said players can more easily snap off some wicked wristers in the general vicinity of the goalie's head.
Great ideas, one and all. Unless you happen to a goalie.
Even with all of these anti-goalie alterations to the game in the past couple years, the masked men are still holding their own. That just won't do, will it?
So, the expand-the-goal proponents say let's forget these rinky-dink, cosmetic attempts to tip the scales of justice in favor of the shooters and let's attack the very foundation of the game.
Forget that the four-foot-by-six-foot opening has been in existence for as long as the game has been played; that it has remained one of the few immutable laws governing the sport. It has clearly outlived its usefulness, so goes the general argument.
The undeniable fact that the goalies are bigger today and take up more of the net is the primary evidence cited by those in the make-the-goal-bigger camp. Today's goalie -- usually six-foot-plus and around 200 pounds -- takes up far more of the net than say a Lorne "Gump" Worsley, who clocked in at 5-foot-7, 155 pounds when he broke into the NHL more than half a century ago.
Basketball players are bigger, stronger and more athletic than they have ever been. Yet, the height of the hoop remains at 10 feet; a height at which even the shortest NBA player can dunk on a regular basis. Baseball pitchers, as a collective, are bigger, stronger and throw than at anytime in the game's history. Yet the pitching mound remains 60 feet, six inches from home plate. The game's hitters are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before and the bases still remain 90 feet apart.
Why? Because such hard-and-fast numbers are part of the framework that forms the foundation of each of these sports. They are the measurements that give the games -- and the accomplishments of those that play it -- legitimacy. So, it is, and should be, with hockey and the size of the nets.
It is important to remember in a sport dominated by positional showdowns, such as the game of hockey, that it is not only the goalies that are getting better. The shooters are also getting better, as are the defensemen. Plus, the ability to scout and game plan against each of these positions has radically improved.
So, the basic dynamic of scoring remains the same today as it did in the days when Gretzky, Howe, Lemieux or Orr were offensively dominating the League. Those players did the amazing things they did against contemporaries, including the goalies that were, in theory, as well-trained and physically similar to them. That remains the case today. The difference, however, is that players, in particular, and teams, in general, have concentrated more on stopping those gifted players from exerting too much influence on the game.
As much as players and coaches want to entertain, they also want to win. And defense has become a part of any winning game plan in today's game.
And, contrary to the doomsday prophets that gnash their teeth and wring their hands over this turn of events, this development is not necessarily a bad thing.
Let it be noted, I love goals. I think most, if not all, goals are a thing a beauty. The beauty, however, rests in the hard work necessary to obtain the result -- be it a well-placed snap shot into a corner, a laser beam of a slap shot through the five-hole or, even, a garbage rebound in front of the net. The effort required to light the red lamp is what makes scoring so special.
Again, I will use a comparison to another sport to illustrate my point.
Basketball features more offense than any game we follow in North America. On average, there are easily more than 90 baskets -- basketball's version of goals -- scored in a NBA game. The ease with which that happens devalues the artistry of any particular score. A stunning slam dunk off the opening tip-off is usually forgotten by the fourth quarter because of the avalanche of other baskets that follows.
This is never the case in hockey.
A goal, because of its difficulty, remains etched in the hockey spectator's mind, even if it has been followed by several more in a given game. Watch a hockey game and, at its conclusion, the scorers from that particular game can usually be recalled without much effort because they have done something truly special and worthy of note. That is the way it should be.
If the goals don't come? That's OK, too.
With the shootout in place, the spectator is guaranteed to see the red light flicker at least once every time he turns a game on. And, speaking as a former goalie that I am, it should be OK once in a while, or even regularly, to give the goalie his due and a tip of the hat for winning the battle against an army of players intent on scoring on that given night.
That should be the right thing to do for the guy that already has the deck stacked against him by the pro-offense crowd. Caving into the demands of offense-seekers is not, and never should be, the answer.
|BIGGER IS BETTER
Shawn, I admire your courage in getting between the pipes with such old-school, who-needs-a-helmet bravado, obviously taking one too many pucks off the old noggin.
Because that's the only explanation for your staggering inability to recognize indisputable facts of evolution and hockey's need to keep up with advancements in today's generation of players. If you are such a purist, if you hold the record book up like the crazy man spreading gospel in Times Square warning against the spread of paganism, then you have no business watching or following sports.
By your thinking and puck-dented rationale, our game has already been corrupted by change. Oh, the calamity!
Make the nets bigger, I say. Make the goal piping so fat and rebound-friendly you can slap ads across the posts. Realize, first off, that when the competition committee and the NHL decision makers huddle to discuss larger nets (general managers will open dialogue at the February meetings), we're not talking about squeezing soccer goals into the end zones of the rink.
The nets that we're talking about would blow up the current four-by-six cages (48 by 72 inches) to goals 52 inches high and 80 across. What's an extra four inches between friends? OK, don't answer that. But before we wade even further into the deep end of this debate, let's not dismiss the possible allowance of bigger goalie equipment again if the league adopts new nets. Let's dam up that river everyone is going to cry for the poor goalies who get shafted at every turn.
Changing the playing field, altering rules and tweaking the game is stitched in the fabric of sports. Deal with it.
Bob Gibson was so dominant in the 1960's that after he won the Cy Young with a 22-9 record and a 1.12 ERA in 1968, Major League Baseball literally tried to level the playing field by lowering the mound to 10 inches. Cutting five inches off the hill was intended to increase scoring, just as the creation of the designated hitter was in 1973. Now tell me a guy like Randy Johnson wouldn't have benefited from pitching off a mound as high as Gibson did. Think Babe Ruth could have belted a few more homers as a DH? Want me to keep going? No problem.
Making the nets bigger would have the same effect on hockey as shrinking stadiums have done in baseball. Fences are being pulled in all around -- in Philadelphia, in Cincinnati, in Houston -- in an effort to create more offense. Alex Rodriguez may do his share of whining, but I never heard him say how unfair it was for him to have to hit balls over the current fences in left and center field at Yankee Stadium, which are dramatically closer to home than they were when Ruth and Joe DiMaggio wore pinstripes. The old Stadium fences were 460 feet in left-center and 490 in center, also known as Death Valley, while the current dimensions are 399 in left-center and 408 straight away to the black seats.
In football, a sport in which the forward pass was illegal until 1933, there have been just as many changes to accommodate the evolution of athletes. In the NFL, field goals used to stand at the front of the end zones prior to 1974, but now sit 10 yards away at the back of the end lines. Kickoffs have been moved from the 35- to the 30-yard line. In 1956 it was illegal to use radios to communicate with players, while today's teams employ NASA-like communication installations every Sunday. Deacon Jones never got to play in an era that kept track of quarterback sacks and today's defensive linemen aren't allowed to head slap anymore. Even in college the game has changed; in 1991 the goalposts were slimmed to the NFL's 18'6" width.
In basketball, the lane was widened and the three-second rule was designed to counter dominant inside players like George Mikan in the 1970's. Before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lew Alcindor forced NCAA officials to outlaw dunking when he was at UCLA. Basketball without dunking? Crazy, I know. More recently, zone defense has been permitted, something Michael Jordan never got to play his whole career against; and the three-point stripe, not created until 1979, has been moved back and forth to increase scoring and, in turn, re-write three-point scoring records.
The art of "Tiger-proofing" has course superintendents lengthen holes, grow out rough and turn fairways into ribbons in an effort to keep up with the physical and technological advances in golf -- and there is never a major tournament that passes without continuing to draw comparisons between Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. Never once is it argued that Tiger, with 12 major victories, has it easier than Jack, who holds the record with 18.
We've even seen changes in hockey before, like expanding the schedule to 82 games in 1995-96, giving NHL players two more games to pad their stats. By your thinking, were the 69 goals Mario Lemieux scored that year any cheaper than the 69 Mike Bossy scored in 1978-79? Where was the outcry then about tainted records? Exactly. There was none. Just like there were no riots in the street when the goal lines were moved farther away from the back walls to give Wayne Gretzky more time and room behind the nets, and why nobody is coming out of the woodwork to strike every assist he recorded from back there after the playing surface was altered. What if Gordie Howe got to play on the same rinks that No. 99 did? What would the record book look like then?
Or what about today's goalies having an advantage over the ones that didn't get to wear masks? What about the puckstoppers who couldn't trick out their gear like the last two generations of goalies have mastered? Really, the list goes on and on. Like when penalties used to be un-releasable until your two full minutes in the box were up. How many goals were scored in that extra power play time that today's players don't have the luxury of enjoying? What about one-piece stick innovations that allow players to shoot quicker and harder than ever before?
You can't halt evolution. You simply cannot ignore change.
Here's the point. The world doesn't stop developing or growing. There are daily advancements in technology and physiological science. We understand more today about how athletes work. They're bigger, faster and stronger than they ever were before, and that also includes the goalies. Everyone plays with the most technologically advanced equipment in the world. It would be ignorant and absent-minded to ignore these indisputable facts of nature.
So lighten up Francis, and make those nets bigger.