Are the L.A. Kings the worst thing to happen to hockey?
The L.A. Kings are on the cusp of hoisting the Stanley Cup, sitting 3-0 ahead of the New Jersey Devils. But their defensive style, reliant on the shot block, drains the life out of hockey, critics say.
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“Low-scoring games typically go to overtime, connoting the notion of excitement and parity when it is instead gridlock and stalemate,” groans Canadian hockey writer Bruce Dowbiggin, of The Globe and Mail, in a column. “Change the names and jerseys and very few would notice. The league’s Hockey Operations department wants it thus. Coach’s Corner likes it thus. The networks grudgingly go along. What choice do they have?”Skip to next paragraph
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NBC can't be happy, though. Viewership for Game 2 was 2.54 million, down from Game 1's 2.9 million – a five-year low. The History Channel's "Swamp People," with 4.85 million viewers, beat Stanley hands down on the kickoff night of the finals.
Hair-tearing hockey fans have already come up with numerous prescriptions, as they are wont to do. Some say to penalize shot blocks that involve kneeling or lying down on the ice. Others suggest a basketball-court-like “key” in front of the net, which only two defensive players can patrol.
None of that will happen, of course. Using less draconian changes – making the offensive zone a few inches bigger, limiting the size of goalie pads, getting rid of the two-line pass rule – the NHL has managed to speed up the game and boost scoring since the 2004 lockout. One result: a $1 billion, 10-year deal with NBC, which goosed ratings this playoff season by showing every game and using top-notch producers to promo the game and its stars.
Before the latest criticism, the concern was – not for the first time – that violence and brutality are what sparked high viewership in the early rounds, another indication of hockey’s perennial high-wire act between sportsmanship and bloody knuckles, between the push for more goals against the bottom-line goal of winning a Stanley Cup, by whatever scheme necessary.
When hoisting the Stanley Cup is on the line, the idea that players and coaches, whether the Kings or anyone else, should abandon their recipe for success to titillate fans seems quaint, even misguided. That may be especially true with shot-blocking, which for hockey players, and many fans, is the ultimate act of sacrifice and courage, and which has its perils, including a high risk of serious injury to key players.
In that light, as the 2012 Stanley Cup season is again showing, the finals ultimately are about the players, who at this point have only guts and grit to work with after a grueling, body-smashing season that extends to nearly 100 games over eight months.
Rangers coach John Tortorella, in his inimitable style, said as much when punching back against criticism that his team had overrelied on shot blocking to the detriment of high scoring.
“The people that are writing about us with our shot blocking … I think they’re idiots,” Tortorella told NBC’s Bob Costas recently. “Blocking shots is part of playing proper defense, and we’ve got a couple of guys covering our team that don’t get it. And that really upsets me. Not for myself, but for the players that do it. It’s part of us. It’s part of what these guys want to do.”
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