Yo, ding dong, man. Ding dong. Ding dong, yo.
Last Saturday, I drove up to Boston on one of my two days off (I anchor SportsCenter ER-the 'Murica version Sunday through Thursday) to watch the Boston Bruins host the Detroit Red Wings. It was an average regular season game in the year 2015. There were no fights. There were 37,206 blocked shots. There was not one memorable body check. There was lots of terrible Jumbotron dancing. There were four goals. The Red Wings hit the post (yo, ding dong) three times.
At least in this game, three of the goals were scored by the home team, two of them quite appealing, so Bruins fans were able to stand up and scream. With the lack of big hits (one reason being for fear of suspension) and lack of fighting these days, fans are likely only going to stand for goals and occasionally for the SportsCenter top 10 save. There is a lot of sitting. On Nov. 10, there was a 1-0 game, a 2-0 game, a 3-0 game and a 4-0 game. Two of the shutouts came against home teams and the Wings won 1-0 at the Joe. Seven of the 12 home teams that night scored two goals or less.
Why NHL nets really should be bigger -- in its October issue, New Scientist reports industrialized nations have been getting taller for decades. The people of the Netherlands, for example, are now the world's tallest. They've been on an upward trend since 1851. The average height increase of Eastern Europeans is up to 1.18 inches a decade. People are taller and weigh more than they did 50 years ago. How big will they be in 50 years? And how long until we all realize that bigger people, bigger and better equipment and better-trained and -conditioned athletes in net warrant and justify a bigger net?
It was around that time I theorized there could be a day when we would have a goalie from China, something Pang (not Darren), who could be 7 feet tall or more, weigh 350 pounds and had been on skates since childhood, trained as a goalie. This was before anyone heard of 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop.
Yes, I've been on this for a while. I'm pretty sure I wrote on this topic before 2004, but this was the oldest entry I could find and I've mentioned it about once a year since then to mostly eye rolls.
My reasons and thoughts on the subject have evolved a bit throughout the years, beginning in the pre-lockout hook-and-hold era. The acceptance of at least having the conversation is here, especially when a voice such as Mike Babcock recently endorsed the bigger net. This was an accelerant like never before to the debate. No NHL voice that prominent had ever come out that passionately on the topic. It was a game changer and spawned numerous columns around North America.
When I wrote back in 2004 about the consideration of using slightly bigger nets, it was viewed as sacrilegious by 95-99 percent of the hockey community (that includes you, the fan) and probably still by roughly 75 percent. When I discovered someone who agreed with me -- Boston University coach Jack Parker was one of the first I can recall -- it was a pleasant surprise.
I am a traditionalist in many cases. I'm nostalgic, love history, love old things and believe customs are important. If we recognize the good and the still functional parts of the past, it helps us believe our actions of today are not for naught and are part of the thread of civilization. If we know everything matters, hopefully we will approach our jobs, words and actions with care, compassion, intensity and thought.
But sometimes things need to be changed in the name of fairness, justice or simply sport. Sometimes it is obvious and sometimes it is not. And sometimes we have to hurdle the chasm of tradition to get there. Doing things out of tradition or because "It's always been this way" is often an unfair or ineffective way of operating a business or society. Since the Big Bang, life and everything in it has been a fluid situation.
Even though I've been hinting at bigger nets for more than a decade, I've never really constructed a full-fledged blogumn on the topic. It's not like I think the game needs to be saved. I love the game. I appreciate the small things in it. I just think it would be better, more entertaining, crazier, more unpredictable and more fun for the players if the net was a little bigger and there were a few more goals. Specifically, sexier goals.
So, let's go through some of the points on of the issue of bigger nets at the NHL level to possibly arrive at an understanding of why.
1. Goalies are bigger. The more I look at a net at the NHL level, on TV or in person, it becomes glaringly obvious that it is too small. Just looking at it with a 21st-century goalie standing in front of it makes me giggle. It looks like a 6-foot-4 eighth grader playing in a middle-school basketball game. The optics alone tell me it needs to be bigger. It just looks too small. Does that mean the rest of the hockey world should make the net bigger? Of course not. Kids play on small fields until they reach early teenage years in other sports. You could use the 6-by-4 foot net through high school years. Prep schools and junior programs can make the call themselves but the bigger net would probably be wise for them to go to. This would be a tiny adjustment to make for goalies. Adjustments are made in every sport. The expense would not be crazy for a few new nets for NCAA and Junior teams. I would think Junior, NCAA and the NHL should use the same net size.
2. Remember, baseball lowered the mound. In 1968, Denny McLain won 31 games. Luis Tiant had a 1.60 ERA. Pitchers had an unfair advantage and it was hurting the product by making the game less exciting. People sat more. So, baseball lowered the mound to help hitters. The NFL made it more difficult to defend receivers in the late 1970s. The Pittsburgh Steelers won their first two Super Bowls that decade with defense. They won their next two with offense as they adjusted with pretty much the same roster.
Before rule changes Terry Bradshaw Super Bowl stats:
Super Bowl IX: 9-for-14, 96 yards
Super Bowl X: 9-for-19, 209 yards
After pass defense rule changes:
Super Bowl Xlll: 17-for-30, 318 yards
Super Bowl XlV: 14-for-21, 309 yards
More rule changes (mostly roughing-the-quarterback penalties) have made it even easier to pass in the NFL. That offensive-minded rulebook allowed for innovation at the college and NFL level. Scoring is way up and the popularity has never been greater in college and the NFL. Stars were born and ratings have soared.
The NBA put in the three-point line, took out hand checking, and now a skinny, silky player such as Steph Curry can be the most exciting and fun player. The rules allow for payoff of a beautiful athlete.
Tennis has completely different equipment from the 1980s. Golf is a completely different sport from the 1990s because of the ball and equipment. Things change.
3. What about the record book, John?! And to that I say, "Who cares?" I mean, do NFL fans really care about the record book? Passing yards? Do you know what Tom Brady's completion percentage is? We are in a new world. This is the now. Fans want excitement and payoff for their expensive ticket and cable bills. They want their guy to help their fantasy team. It's less of a recreational outlet supported with baseball and hockey cards and books on a bookshelf and more a heavily invested custom in real time.
Additionally, it's unfair to the current NHL goal scorer if you want to play the record-book card. Players in the '80s and '90s could be viewed as more productive and better than players today based simply on traditional statistics. Today's goalies have an unfair advantage over goalies of the past based on size, better equipment and shot blocking. A shutout today doesn't mean the same as it did in 1992. I don't see anyone defending the rights of Rogie Vachon's record when it was more difficult and took more courage (because of less advanced/safe equipment) to play goal. (He has 355 wins and he's not in the Hall of Fame? What do goalies have to do?)
4. Call the rule book! I don't want a scoring increase to come from just power-play goals. That is static hockey. I want more goals off the rush and more goals from distance. I like the battles and the difficulty of scoring. Nothing comes cheap in hockey. It should be hard. And we are nowhere near the style of play of years past. (Check out Sean McIndoe's excellent piece on that.) That being said, NHL officials need to keep a close eye on talent being squashed by less talented players by illegal means. Like NFL quarterbacks and NBA point guards, we need our stars to shine. The most talented players should be obviously better, not blend in like they currently do. They need a little bigger corner of space on the top shelf where Mama hides the Thin Mints. Right now the space in the corners is about the height of a Thin Mint.
5. I would make all power plays 4-on-3. Let's face it, one of the issues in today's hockey is everyone skates so damn well and defenses collapse in on the goalie. There are no more pylons and therefore there is so little room out there on most nights. In the past there were some "Wow!" 4-on-4 moments in overtime. This year the "Wow!" factor has increased in the 3-on-3 overtime. Why? More space!
An NHL general manager told me recently that he'd like to see the ice 5 feet wider. I agree. Now, too big of a surface does not help offense; we see this with international ice. Five feet could be enough to make a small difference. But with current rink constructions, that's not happening. So, why not 4-on-3 power plays? Why wait until a possible overtime to have all that excitement? It should result in higher power-play percentages (less cluttered net collapsing and blocked shots), and when the power play ends, we play 4-on-4 until the first whistle. For years, many people have called for a return of serving the full two minutes on penalties. I'm OK with that, but again, I want more goals off the rush. But, if it means more fans standing up and screaming at a goal being scored, especially someone at their first NHL game, I'm for it.
I also think we could go 4-on-4 in the final five minutes of each period. More space, more room. Thinking out loud here.
6. How much bigger are you talking, Bucci Mane? I'm talking inches, probably one or two. The physics community can probably explain the best expansion. I've said for years I want those shots that go off the post to be goals. Like I said above, Detroit hit the post three times. So instead of one goal they scored, they would have scored four. Is that obscene? And a couple that barely miss the net might go bar down. There is nothing wrong with a 7-6 game. That's like a 42-35 football game. They will be rare but what is wrong with that? The league has so much parity, the games will still be close.
That is the one good part of low-scoring games. Just about every game is competitive. And, yes, a 2-1 game can be awesome. But they can also stink. All of the innovations -- safer equipment for all players to block shots, backchecking, collapsing defense, clog shooting lanes, lead with your stick -- favors the defense. We want our teams to be coached and to be innovative offensively as well. If the games became higher-scoring and you had to score to win, we would get more offensive innovation.
7. Just make the equipment smaller. Hey, I'll try that. I'm just skeptical that we can do that substantially enough. I wonder about lawsuits if a goalie gets hurt. Players shoot it higher and harder than ever before. The safety of the goalie has to come first. But, if drastically smaller equipment with smaller shoulder pads and form-fitting sweaters can result in the amount of goal increase I'm looking for (seven a game), then I will shelve my bigger-net argument. I just don't think that will occur for reasons stated above.
8. PAYOFF! This is the biggest reason I want a bigger net: for art's sake. It will, unequivocally, guarantee more highlight-reel goals. So many times Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, Claude Giroux, Johnny Gaudreau or Zach Parise will make an otherworldly athletic move, moves someone 30 years ago couldn't have dreamed of, yet, because it is so hard to score, these attempts vaporize in the growing category of "almost goals." Goals that would decorate highlight shows are forgotten because there was no payoff. The greasy goal and the static power-play goal are goals, yes, but the goals we remember are those athletic gems or long clap bombs. That will get people launched off their seats, screaming and cheering.
It is physics and it is fairness. The net is smaller than it once was because of bigger humans, better equipment and better training of goaltenders. Just like I think NFL goal posts should be narrower because kickers are too good, NHL (and college) nets should be larger because goalies are too big and good and the tenets of shot blocking and backchecking. More offense could help grow the game by giving fans more reasons to jump out of their seats. Fighting is almost gone. We need more goals. It could make the game more fun. More exhilarating.
There are too many instances where players have to be perfect to score a goal. They have a tiny slither of space to score the puck as goalies shoulders are at crossbar height even when in a butterfly position.
And let's face it, nobody's perfect.
Ding dong, yo.