Out of the Great Lockout of 04-05, in an effort to jazz up the game a little bit, the NHL adopted the shootout to help break stalemates in regular season play. And on Opening Night, the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs apparently couldn’t wait to open their presents. Sens’ forward Daniel Alfredsson was the first to light the lamp during the skills competition portion of the program, and Ottawa made hockey history by winning the first ever NHL shootout.
Flash forward ten years later, and the Toronto Maple Leafs were again part of NHL history. Except this time, the Buds ended up on the positive side of the ledger.
During the second period of Opening Night 2015, the visiting Montreal Canadiens took a 2-1 lead on a Jeff Petry goal, but it was pretty clear to most eyeballs focused on the game that Leafs’ goaltender Jonathan Bernier couldn’t get over to make a save thanks to incidental contact by the stick of Tomas Plekanec.
So newly minted Toronto head coach Mike Babcock had the distinction of calling for the first ever NHL coach’s challenge.
And to really nobody’s surprise, the goal was overturned. The correct call was made by the Eye in the Sky.
Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, speaking with Steve Kouleas and Jeff Marek on NHL Game Day the following morning, said the entire procedure was executed perfectly. One would imagine all officials would welcome as much help as possible in getting the call correct.
All this seems rather obvious now. So why haven’t we done this earlier?
Technology has always been part of that answer; did we have the proper cameras, in the proper places, to ensure that all the angles were covered? A decade and a half into the 21st century, the answer is now a resounding yes.
The truth is the state of the art technology that existed, say, five years ago probably was sufficient enough to implement something such as the coach’s challenge. What wasn’t forthcoming at that point was the will to embrace that concept.
Sports as a whole tends to be a small C conservative world (and more often than not a large C world as well, but that’s another discussion). Change comes slowly, and it is rarely embraced without pushback. Witness the glacial pace regarding the adoption of helmets, which looking back after all these years just seems completely absurd. We won’t even start in on the palpable xenophobia exhibited by much of the North American hockey world towards the gradual influx of skilled European players.
The coach’s challenge wasn’t the only new rule wrinkle under the microscope on Opening Night.
Back to the shootout, or more accurately, the effort to avoid it.
How about 3-on-3 overtime. Who goes into the record book as the team that wins the first ever 3-on-3 regular season overtime in NHL history?
That question was on pretty much everyone’s mind on Opening Night, including the TV play-by-play announcers, who were leading the cheering section in hopes of witnessing the first ever official 3-on-3 OT.
Both the Maple Leafs and Blackhawks tried their best, pulling their goaltenders in their respective games in an effort to knot up the score. It didn’t work for Toronto (Max Pacioretty empty net goal), and it almost worked for Chicago (quick whistle on the disallowed tying goal?).
Many fans may not know there was regular season overtime in the NHL until the 1942-43 season, when it was shelved due to restrictions on train travel during World War Two. It would take half a century, but regulation OT was reinstated in time for the 1983-84 season. And at that point, there was no “loser” point awarded. That system came into effect in 1999-2000, the same season the league went to 4-on-4 overtime. Yet ties were still a possibility.
Unless your sibling is Kate Upton, not many people were pleased with the prospect of kissing their sister on a nightly basis. There were calls to do something to make sure the paying customer, both at the rink and on the couch, went home satisfied (or dis-satisfied) that there was a winner at the end of the night.
Regular season overtime could not drag into Pat LaFontaine territory; after all, we still have pretty much an entire season left to play, and there are always charters to catch.
So out of the 04-05 lockout, the shootout seemed to be the most logical manner in which to determine a winner, short of flipping a coin at centre ice. Besides, it was tailor made for sports highlights shows and their short attention span. Plus in an age where the speed of the game afforded less and less opportunities for the individual to show off their impressive puck handling skills, the shootout permitted the skater the time and space to pull off some sick moves.
Trouble was, too many games were going to the shootout. For many, the novelty wore off quickly, though the wondrous sight of Rangers’ defenceman Marek Malik scoring the clinching shootout goal between his legs is burned into the collective consciousness of hockey fans of a particular vintage.
But that was the minority opinion. “Do something to fix our game” was the battle cry from fans. After much discussion, and experimentation in places such as the American Hockey League, the tall foreheads who are the gatekeepers of this grand game decided it was time to indeed do something.
And do something they did. The NHL general managers embraced the new in a big way.
3-on-3 overtime for five minutes, and then the shootout. If need be. The hope was there will be a lot less need be.
The league wisely chose to test drive the new feature in 45 pre-season games; a dry run for players, coaches, officials, and frankly, fans. There was some grousing…”It looks like pond hockey” was a frequent complaint…yet most people preferred it to the alternative.
Yet that was all done when actual points weren’t up for grabs. What would the reaction be when the home six leave the ice without securing that extra point after losing 30 seconds into 3-on-3? Hey, you’ll never please everyone.
After one night, the question remains; who goes into the record book as the team that wins the first ever 3-on-3 regular season overtime in NHL history?
That trivia answer is still to be determined.