Today is Groundhog Day, which means all around North America people will gather to pull a rodent out of a hole in the ground to predict the weather, because human beings are weird.
Or at least, that’s what it used to mean. But for the last 20 years or so, most people who hear the words “Groundhog Day” instead think of the 1993 Bill Murray movie, in which a TV weatherman finds himself reliving the same day on an endless loop. The phrase has become synonymous with the frustration of repeating the same thing over and over again.
NHL fans know this feeling well.
After all, this is a league where we all love to complain, but actual change tends to come slowly, if at all. That means we tend to spend a lot of time going through the same debates and discussions, year after year, without anything changing.
So today, let’s celebrate the occasion by looking at 10 of the NHL’s Groundhog Day stories, how we got stuck with them, and what (if anything) could actually break us out of the loop.
STORY NO. 1: The scoring drought
On repeat since: The New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995 with the neutral-zone trap
Why it will never end: The Dead Puck Era has been going on for over two decades now, with one brief break immediately after the 2005 lockout (that was almost entirely due to power plays). By now, it should be clear that the NHL either doesn’t want to address the issue or — more likely — has no idea how.
To be clear, the league has been talking about increasing scoring all along. Lord, they never stop talking about it. I’ve documented the NHL’s 20+ years of promising to boost offence, and the result is always the same. A minor tweak here, a little tinker there, and nothing changes.
How we could escape it: Well, we could just make the nets slightly bigger and that would pretty much…
[entire crowd begins hissing and throwing rotten fruit]
Yes, yes, this is the one idea that many fans feel is completely off the table, because… well, it just is. The league can add the shootout and change the rulebook and move the bluelines in and out every few years, but an extra inch or two around the net is an intolerable affront to the game’s history. We get it.
There are other ideas. The league could change how power plays work, or figure out a way to reduce shot-blocking. Some of the more radical suggestions have included some sort of rule limiting defensive formations, or even moving the entire game to 4-on-4. Or we could just have the refs call everything in the rulebook by the letter, and go back to the 2006 days of each team getting eight or nine power plays a game.
Or we could just keep mumbling about the size of the goaltending equipment. Those new pants are arriving any day now, so that scoring boost should be right around the corner. Just you wait.
STORY NO. 2: The shootout
On repeat since: 2005, although hockey fans have been debating it ever since it started showing up in the Olympics in the early ’90s
Why it will never end: While the shootout can be fun, there’s little question that much of the novelty has worn off after over a decade of seeing them decide regular-season games. Many fans are sick of them altogether. But just as many want no part of ties (and the league seems to agree), and you kind of have to have one or the other.
How we could escape it: Short of bringing back ties, you can’t get rid of shootouts entirely. But extending 3-on-3 overtime to 10 minutes would make shootouts far less frequent, and maybe even make the ones that did happen feel special. Would the players go for it? Maybe not, but it would be worth finding out.
STORY NO. 3: The instigator rule
On repeat since: Today’s rule is based on a version first introduced 1992.
Why it will never end: The instigator debate is really just a continuation of the age-old argument over fighting and violence, which has been going on since the NHL’s earliest days. It hits at the sport’s inherent paradox, the mixture of grace and brutality that somehow manages to maintain a balance on the ice, right up until it doesn’t. For every fan who’d love to see the bare-knuckle brawls eliminated entirely, there’s another who wishes the game would go back to the days when old time hockey was the law of the land.
The instigator rule has become a symbol of the league’s move away from self-policing, and many fans still cling to the hope that the league will do away with it – just last week, Gary Bettman was asked about doing so at his all-star availability. For as long as the rule remains in the book, a portion of fans will blame it for any transgression that takes place.
How we could escape it: Realistically, dropping the rule altogether isn’t an option in today’s game, no matter how much the guy in the tattered Bob Probert jersey might wish that it was. A more likely resolution is to just wait a while; with fighting on a steady decline, it may not be long before it’s all but disappeared from the game entirely.
STORY NO. 4: The league has franchises in the wrong place.
On repeat since: The 1967 expansion
Why it will never end: Part of this is just common sense — a struggling franchise or two can have an impact that ripples across the league, and it’s better for everyone if all the teams are healthy. But a lot of it is also a regional thing. That’s especially true up here in Canada, where nothing annoys us more than seeing a southern-based U.S. team struggle when we all know they should just move up here instead.
How we could escape it: The league could make sure it had the best possible product and then market it accordingly, creating a large enough audience that all the existing teams could succeed.
Failing that, just move the Panthers to Quebec, the Coyotes to Toronto, the Hurricanes to Regina, and build an arena in Sudbury for the Golden Knights in a few years. (Then, uh, pray the Canadian dollar doesn’t drop in value again.)
STORY NO. 5: The All-Star Game is terrible.
On repeat since: The chorus on this one has been building since the late-’80s, when everyone stopped backchecking and the games started putting up pinball scores.
Why it will never end: Hockey is a game that needs to be played with intensity; if the players don’t try, the resulting product isn’t worth watching. And clearly, NHL players have no interest in putting much effort into the game. Heck, many of them don’t want to go at all, to the point that the league had to start suspending guys for not showing up. This year’s game had its moments, but for the most part Don Cherry was right: Nobody’s trying out there.
But realistically, how much sweat can we really expect from guys who are already beaten up after four months of hockey? It’s one thing to demand more effort, but that all goes out the window when your team’s star player gets hurt blocking a shot in a glorified exhibition game.
How we could escape it: To its credit, the NHL has done its best here, playing with the format over the years and trying new ideas to spice up both the game and the skills competition. But all of that only goes so far. It would be nice if the league reminded players that it’s OK to shoot the puck without making a half-dozen unnecessary passes first, but beyond that the All-Star Game is what it is: a fun time for kids and corporate partners, but not much of an actual hockey game.
STORY NO. 6: The loser point is screwing up the standings.
On repeat since: The point was added in 1999, although the addition of the shootout in 2005 made its impact even more pronounced.
Why it will never end: Few fans seem to like the loser point. The league has spent the last decade insisting that it makes the playoff races closer, but there’s little truth to that. The salary cap and league-wide parity make the races closer; the loser point just takes those already-tight standings and inflates everyone’s record. In the process, it encourages more conservative play and more regulation ties. We’ve known all this for years.
But it doesn’t matter. The loser point has never really been about competitive balance. It was initially brought in as a way to reduce the number of ties, but once the shootout eliminated those entirely, the concept just kind of stuck around. Why? Because it makes GMs look better. You can lose more games than you win and still be a 90+-point team. What GM wouldn’t want to be graded on that kind of curve?
How we could escape it: Eventually, the league will move to a format that makes more sense, like the 3-2-1-0 system that so many fans seem to prefer. And when that happens, future generations will look at the standings from today and wonder why we all put up with such a bizarre system.
Until then, maybe fans at all of those pre-season Q+A sessions could ask GMs (and their owners) if they favour a system designed to boost bad teams and mask management incompetence, and — if so — why?
STORY NO. 7: The Department of Player Safety gets everything wrong.
On repeat since: The DoPS itself is relatively new, but fans being furious about suspension decisions dates back at least to the Richard Riots in 1955.
Why it will never end: Suspension calls are almost the perfect storm of complaining. By their nature, they involve something controversial happening, so tensions are already high. The DoPS will often decide not to do anything, which gives us all a chance to get on our soapbox. And when they do issue a suspension, it comes with a specific number, which gives everyone a chance to immediately declare that it’s too high or too low.
But beyond that, we all know what the real issue is here: The DoPS hates your team.
How we could escape it: Better explanations of decisions would help, and the recent policy of producing detailed videos to accompany decisions seems to have helped take some steam out of the perpetual outrage. Some have argued for more specific guidelines, where certain acts would come with a pre-defined sentence attached, but that’s easier said than done. And the league and its GMs could always direct the department to hand out harsher sentences, which would satisfy fans who think the decisions tend to be too lenient.
But mainly, the DoPS just needs to stop hating your team.
STORY NO. 8: The NHL can’t decide if it should go to the Olympics.
On repeat since: At least the mid-’90s, when the NHL first started seriously considering sending its players to the Games.
Why it will never end: In theory, this should be an easy one. You either go or you don’t. And the NHL has gone for the last five Olympics, so… all settled, right?
But of course it isn’t, because the NHL is making noise about skipping out on 2018. The reality is that the league only seems to want to go sometimes, depending on where the Games are being held and how much publicity they think they can squeeze from it. And that means taking each one on a case-by-case basis.
How we could escape it: Ideally, the league would just make a call and stick with it. At the very least, it would be nice if the NHL and NHLPA could get to a point where absolutely every decision didn’t have to be a chance to puff out their chests and start haggling like old, bickering spouses.
Oh, speaking of which…
STORY NO. 9: The NHL is either in the middle of, recovering from, or laying the groundwork for the next extended lockout.
On repeat since: 1994
Why it will never end: Because the league doesn’t want it to. The constant lockouts may be frustrating to fans, but they’re a feature, not a bug. The NHL feels like they can shut down without suffering any lasting repercussions, and so far they’ve been right. So they use the stoppages to wring as many concessions as possible out of the players as possible, knowing they’ll recover their losses one way or another.
How we could escape it: Eventually, the NHL could wipe out another half-season or more and then find that the fans don’t come flocking back just because they painted “thank you” on the ice. Until that day comes — or until new leadership arrives on both sides of the negotiating table — enjoy your league-mandated vacation from the sport every few years.
STORY NO. 10: Hockey fans complain too much.
On repeat since: The beginning of time
Why it will never end: The game isn’t perfect, and until everyone can agree that it’s perfect we’re all going to complain. Especially the media. Man, do those guys whine a lot.
How we could escape it: Every now and then, maybe we could take a quick break from pointing out everything that’s wrong with the NHL and instead focus a little bit of energy on what’s right. It’s a beautiful sport, one that’s never been played by better players than we have right now. And while the NHL may occasionally do things we don’t like, the league is financially healthy and the game is growing around the world.
(Thinks about it.)
Everything’s terrible. We all agree? Cool. Let’s do it all again tomorrow.