The NHL’s Problem

nhlfighting

Two weeks ago, I had never watched an NHL game. I could name zero players, and would struggle to name most of the major league teams. I didn’t know the difference between hits and shots, and power plays seemed like a phrase more appropriate for front office politics than live professional sporting events. I have spent the last two weeks attempting to immerse myself in the NHL’s pop culture and day-to-day happenings, with very limited success. I still don’t know the difference between a hit and a shot. I still cannot define a power play. I do not recognize players, and I couldn’t name all the teams even with helpful hints. And I still have not watched an NHL game.

The reason is simple: the sport is not interesting. It’s not interesting for very specific reasons. When I watch an NBA game, the offense and defense are fairly equally matched. The offense will score on about 50% of its possessions, and the defense will stop the offense on about 50% of the possessions. Even in a low-scoring game, the teams will combine for 150 or more points. Stuff happens. And with so much scoring, the opportunities to be a witness to something amazing drastically increase.

In the NHL, defense has such an arbitrary advantage that it feels like nothing is happening until someone scores. Even the worst goalies in the league stop the offense around 90% of the time. When someone does score, it’s never really clear how it happened. The goalie lost his balance. The play broke down. The puck squirted out and one player breaks away with it. Players often score because of circumstances where the game expectations have been subverted. It never feels like I’m watching superheroes compete. This is why I give my time to professional sports – to see things I can’t see anywhere else or accomplish myself.

For three 20-minute periods, I watch guys dressed in funny colors skating around on the ice holding sticks, a sight I can see for free in any number of places. The presumption is that the names on the backs of the jerseys are somehow worth infinitely more of my discretionary income, but as a person unfamiliar with the NHL, the names and faces of the athletes are meaningless to me. The NHL has to do better. For the brief moments of undeniable action, you spend hours sitting unrewarded. This is what highlights were made for. I don’t know how to fix it (whether it’s bigger goals, fewer players, no goalies), but it’s not right.

A few times each game, a cylinder made of hard plastic will temporarily enter an enclosed space, resulting in a point for one of the teams. Millions of fans will be ecstatic, millions more will have broken hearts. All of them will wonder how exactly it happened. I’ll wonder why.

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