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Hockey Shootouts: Thriller? Gimmick? Both?

The shootout is good enough for Olympic hockey. Is it good enough for the NHL?


Update: As of the 2005-06 season, the NHL has adopted the shootout to settle ties in regular season games. Follow this link for an explanation of how the shootout works, how it counts in the NHL standings and how it affects the statistics compiled for teams and individual players.

February 3/03 -

The Issue:

The ice is cleared of all but two players. As fans rise to their feet and teammates nervously look on, the skater gathers the puck and charges in for a free breakaway, a one-on-one showdown with the goalie.

It's a penalty shot, and for many fans it's the most exciting moment in hockey.

In the NHL penalty shots are rare, usually awarded when a player is pulled down on a breakaway. But in many other leagues and tournaments, the penalty shot also appears at the end of many games. The shootout, a series of penalty shots by each team, is used as a tiebreaker.

The NHL has never used the shootout to decide a meaningful game. But the 2003 NHL All Star Game was decided by a shootout after 65 minutes of hockey produced a 5-5 tie. The exciting finish rekindled a long-standing debate: Should the NHL adopt the shootout to settle tie games?

How Does it Work?

The accepted format for the penalty shootout is the one used in international hockey and NCAA. A game tied after 60 minutes is followed by an overtime period. If there is still no winner, the game is decided by a shootout.

Each team selects five players. In turn, each player begins at center ice, skating in for one shot on goal. The team scoring the most goals in five attempts is the winner.

If the shootout is tied after all ten players have made their attempts, the competition continues in "sudden-death" mode: The teams trade shots until there is a winner.

The Case For the Shootout:

  • Nothing matches the tension, anticipation and thrill of a shootout. Considering the price of an NHL ticket these days, fans deserve great entertainment, and the shootout is a heck of a great show.
  • Does the NHL want more people in the seats and more fans watching at home? The shootout is fast, exciting, delivers immediate results and is easy for casual fans to follow.
  • The NHL needs goals. Scoring has declined since the 1980s and most teams play a boring, defense-first style. Hockey is supposed to be about scoring. The shootout returns goal-scoring to its rightful place at the center of the game.
  • What's wrong with change? Hockey is an evolving game. The forward pass was illegal until 1911. Regular season overtime began in 1983. Change is good, especially if it makes the spectators happy.
  • The shootout could be accompanied by other changes, which would encourage teams to win the game in regulation time. For example, what if every game is worth three points? If it's decided in overtime or in a shootout, the winning team gets two points and the losing team gets one. But if a team wins the game in regulation time it gets all three points.
  • The shootout would not replace overtime in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It would only be used to decide regular season games, and only after five minute of overtime.

    The Case Against the Shootout:

  • The shootout may be fun, but it isn't hockey. Hockey is a team game, not a series of breakaways. Players have to earn scoring chances by outworking and out-skating opponents.
  • The shootout is a gimmick, the equivalent of deciding a baseball game with a home run contest or breaking a football tie by having quarterbacks throw the ball through a tire.
  • Martin Brodeur works his butt off all night, stops 40 shots and salvages a 1-1 tie for his team. Two minutes later he's a loser because he couldn't stop a couple of guys on free breakaways. How fair is that?
  • What's wrong with a tie? If teams can't decide a winner after 65 minutes of hockey, a tie is a just result.
  • The shootout is a great novelty, nothing more. That novelty would soon wear thin and players and fans on the losing end of shootouts would feel cheated.
  • Another change to the game means more complications in the NHL standings. SOL (shootout losses) would replace ties. More points would be handed out, making historical comparisons between teams even more difficult. Player stats would require yet another category for shootout goals and saves.
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