[This article originally appeared in the Jan. 3 issue of St. Louis Game Time.]
Call me a believer. An apologist. A Kool-Aid drinker, even. No, I'm not about to try to convince you that the Blues are about to make their run for the playoffs; I'm about to admit that one of Gary Bettman's gimmicks worked on me.
And while I was never someone who came out wailing and crying about the destruction of the game and the tearing of the very fiber of the historic tapestry that is hockey history, but I wasn't exactly excited about the introduction of the shootout, either.
I can't believe I fell for one of the evil elf's tricks.
Coming out of the lockout, the NHL decided to introduce the tie-breaker format of 4-on-4 sudden death followed by the shootout. A lot of hockey fans, not to mention the coaches and players, were against it from the start. To me, it was obvious that the NHL was making yet another decision aimed at non-hockey fans. The more-exciting finish was a way to avoid teams playing for the shared point and to avoid the soccer-style no-payoff tie was intended to bring in a wider (read: American) audience.
I have a friend that always says that Americans don't like ties. I have come to believe that he's right. We all want to see one team win and one team lose. The shootout addresses that need for a winner.
Not too long ago I was talking to a buddy about the NHL in general and he told me a story about his son. The father had to leave for a meeting, but as he was getting ready to go, his kid asked him if any hockey games were going to go to shootout that night. Being a Center Ice subscriber, he grabbed the remote and started skipping through all of the games that were in progress. He wound up finding only one game that was tied in the third period, so he told his kid, "This is the only one that has a chance. Watch this one." He then made a mistake when he said, "Send me a text to let me know how it goes."
About 20 minutes later he had received his 100th text about the game, overtime and shootout.
"I had to put my phone on Silent mode," he told me, "He was disrupting my meeting."
And the funny thing about it? The two teams playing that the kid was so excited about were two random teams that he couldn't care less about.
But the shootout has that effect on people. Even me. As I was working on the paper last night I found myself doing the exact same thing as my buddy's eight-year-old; flipping channels looking for a tie game late in the third period. I found the Thrashers/Canucks game all tied at three. I put the remote down and ended up seeing a wide-open overtime and an extra-frames shootout. It was pretty exciting and was exactly what I was looking to find.
And while I'll tell people, when trying to explain my hockey mania, that I will watch a random NHL game between two teams that I don't really care about, I really don't mean any two random teams. Because I have zero interest in watching Atlanta's team (they seem really boring to me, Ilya Kovalchuk seems to always be ‘in a funk' and their jerseys give me seizures) and just about the same amount of interest in watching the Canucks (those twins give me the creeps, just like the twins from ‘The Shining.' Just wait until they're joined by the big-headed Frankenstein that is Mats Sundin. Yikes.).
But last night I watched them. The gimmick has worked.
There are still fans that say they hate the shootout and that it's a stupid way to end a hockey game. They say that it turns a great team effort into an individual skills competition. That a sub-par team can win a game just by having a trick-shot shooter in their lineup. Some of that is true, I guess. But much like what Kelly Chase says after a hockey fight, I feel about the shootout: no one leaves when it's going on.
The game against the Blackhawks back in October the teams went to a shootout. I had Son of GT with me that night and with a packed house and a shootout on the ice, not only was everyone standing, I had to hold my son up so he could see the action. When TJ Oshie beat Nikolai Khabibulin for the game winner, the place came unglued. Not only was everyone jumping up and down and high-fiving complete strangers, but I may have actually suffered some hearing loss on the left side from my kid.
It might have started off as a gimmick, but this one works.
-Sean "technically, playing a game on ice is kind of a gimmick" Gallagher