Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Shootout Solution to Ties, Needs a Solution

This was written shortly after the infuriating shootout loss to Detroit that broke the Bruins winning streak...

After losing the entire 2004-2005 NHL season to a lockout, the league returned for the 2005-2006 season with dozens of new rules looking to enhance the game. Heated debate over one such rule, the shootout, has gone back and forth every year without any new solution being reached.

As it stands, games tied at the end of 60 minutes of regulation play 4-on-4 sudden-death overtime for five additional minutes. If the game remained tied at this point, pre-lockout NHL rules would render the game a tie, give each team a point, and move on. The dissatisfaction with tie games led to the decision to bring in the shootout to regular season games. If a game remains tied after five extra minutes, the winner is decided in a 3-round (or more, if necessary) shootout. The shootout, however, brings many of its own problems, mainly that it leaves a game of team play and hard work for 65 minutes to end in the circumstances of what is essentially a skills competition. 

The shootout may not be the perfect solution to tie games, but what other avenues can the NHL take in terms of ruling how to deal with tie games? Excessive overtime periods are unreasonable to play during the 82-game regular season, so the idea of playing subsequent periods till someone scores as it is played in the playoffs is out of the question. While some have presented their own ideas on the matter, no realistic alternative to the shootout exists. The problem at hand appears to be: do we hate games ending in ties more than we hate games ending in skills competitions? 

The desire for a game to be decided by a win and loss rather than a tie can be traced to the most basic psychological functions that drive us to be fans in the first place. According to the theory of Sports Team Identification, one of the eight factors that influence and drive us to be fans is conflict resolution: “...people have an inherent need for conflict resolution, and this need leads to constant frustration since they rarely, if ever, experience any substantive resolution of conflicts in their daily lives. Seemingly never-ending problems surround work and family overwhelms people to the point where they are desperately looking for something to be settled.” (Tonetti and Berk, 11). It doesn't even matter who wins and whether or not it's the team you may be rooting for; the fact that there is a winner at all means the conflict was sought through until resolution.

Yet many fans are still left without a feeling of resolve. A reason for the increase protest to shootouts as the years pass is the fact that an increase in games decided in a shootout also exists. Approximately 12% of NHL games will end in a shootout. In the 2007-2008 season, 272 games went to overtime, with 156 of those games going to a shootout. The high frequency of overtime games holding on for a shootout increased from 57% to 61% in 2009-2010, when 184 of 301 overtime games went to the shootout. As on General Manager said, the original intent of the shootout did not foresee what is now an “unreasonable, disproportionate percentage of games that [are] decided in a shootout” ( The current NHL season is on pace with the increasing numbers of previous years: of the 340 games played so far this season, 42 have gone to a shootout (NHL).

The apex of the strife came when the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference in the 2009-2010 season game down to the last game of the season between the two teams vying for the spot – and that game came down to a shootout. Philadelphia beat the Rangers and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to Chicago. The feeling that a team made the playoffs solely on the luck of a shootout was only one game away from winning the Stanley Cup was enough of a problem for the NHL to amend the rules so that it wouldn’t happen again, but the situation is symbolic of the larger problem that still exists.

Disdain towards the shootout is growing around the league and among fans, which means it will probably be within the next few years that the NHL comes up with another alternate solution to the problem of deciding tied games. Whether that includes getting rid of the guaranteed extra point for an OT loss so that teams are less inclined to hang on for a tie, or reformatting OT so that it is more potent for goals to be scored, is something we can look forward to.

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