Overtime hockey playoff excitement sparks pleas for regular season use

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The abruptly aroused speaker was Herb Brooks, the bright young coach of the New York Rangers, who had been asked if he thought the National Hockey League should play overtime during the regular season as well as in the playoffs.

''Overtime is the most exciting thing hockey has,'' he said, his voice rising like a high slap shot. ''It's a great spectacle. Look what it's done for pro football. Basketball and baseball already had it.

''There are too many ties in our league. I know I'm just a rookie coach, but I don't buy that business about playing for a tie on the road. Everybody plays 40 games at home and 40 away. I'm all for a 10-minute overtime.''

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This from a man whose Rangers had just lost an important Stanley Cup playoff game last week to the archrival New York Islanders - in overtime!

The playoffs, with their inevitable excruciating, sudden-death denouements every so often, remind us what we miss throughout the previous seven months. It can be argued that the playoffs are all the more exciting because overtime gives them a unique dimension, but I would rather suggest that the NHL's season-long followers deserve to see a lot more games come to a conclusion.

I don't know if a tie is worse than kissing your sister, as the college football fraternity has long maintained, because I never had a sister. I do know it is worse than a good movie or any number of other entertainments.

The NHL originally let games expire in ties out of a reasonable necessity: train schedules were limited during the war. Transportation since has gone modern, but the league hasn't.

The issue of a five-minute overtime came up in collective bargaining between players and management last year, and the players killed it. They reportedly are not all that opposed to the idea, but want to keep a bit of leverage in reserve for future negotiations.

Such is the tenor of latter day sports, in which the really big games are played out at the conference table.

It is generally agreed that some sort of time frame would be needed for regular season overtimes - as opposed to the playoffs when they go on indefinitely until one team scores - so the question arises how effective such limited sessions would be as tiebreakers.

Those of us in favor believe such sessions would bring enough games to a decision to justify their existence. There are others, however, who feel that time-limit overtimes would just be an extension of what we get now in the late stages of regulation, with the weaker teams playing conservatively, icing the puck, and hanging on until time runs out.

Obviously, though, the question can only be answered by trying it.

''At least,'' says one league official, ''the five minutes would keep clubs from playing for a tie in the closing minutes of regulation time. You'd avoid some flat finishes.''

The record book yields up fascinating background on playoff overtimes.

Shortest overtime is 11 seconds, which is how long it took Jean-Paul Parise to score the Islanders' fourth goal against the Rangers in 1975 and win their best-of-three series.

The longest overtime was Detroit-Montreal in 1936, and it nearly lasted into 1937. The teams struggled scorelessly through 116 minutes and 30 seconds of additional play - virtually two full games - before Modere (Mud) Bruneteau of Detroit put everyone out of his misery with a very tired goal.

Detroit goalie Norm Smith made 96 saves and explained that he owed the last 48 entirely to instinct.

The longest overtime in our generation took place in 1971 at Madison Square Garden where Pete Stemkowski of the Rangers beat Chicago 3-2 after 41 minutes plus 29 seconds. I will never forget it - mainly because I was on the last train from Manhattan to Connecticut at the time Stemkowski scored.

Boston and Toronto registered the last overtime tie in 1951. The game was halted at 1-1 after one extra period due to a Sunday Blue Law in Toronto. The Maple Leafs went on to win the series 4-1, or else the tie game would have been played over. Imagine the expression on Toronto general manager Conn Smythe's face when he learned he could have kept the game going by paying a $25 fine.

Maurice (the Rocket) Richard of the Canadiens scored more overtime playoff goals than anyone else -- six. Bob Nystrom, still skaing for the Islanders, is next with four, including the tough winner against Philadelphia two years ago. (The Islanders are the most successful overtime team ever, having won 17 of 22 at this writing).

''The trick is positive thinking,'' Nystrom says. ''Before an overtime, I tell myself I'm going to be a hero. I make a notch in my stick for the goal I'm going to score.''

Overtime hockey - there's nothing in sport quite as spellbinding. Pity we don't get to relish it during the regular season.

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