Thoughts on the European Game

By Peter Westermark

The European hockey leagues are anything but conservative. Many changes have
been made to the game over the last couple of years and several has panned
out very well. Granted, there has been ill-advised changes such as the
ridiculous helmet-rule, which states that a player must go for a line change
immediately after losing his helmet. If he doesn’t he will get a minor
penalty for delay of game.

Two changes that has helped to speed up the game has been the removal of the
red line offside and the new face-off rule which reduces the length of
breaks in play substantially. If the NHL are truly serious about opening up
and speeding up the game they should consider making these exact changes.

The traditionalists will probably be against the removal of the two line
offside, but it has done a lot to open up the game in Europe which has been
plagued by the trap even more than the National Hockey League. The trap
originated in Europe and has since been adopted by North American coaches as
it is a good way of giving a team with so called limited talent a chance to
win. But, it is boring to watch, and as much as those in love with the game
or employed by the game hate to admit it, the growth of hockey will be
determined by how entertaining it is to watch. Not many fans will turn away
from the game even if teams continue to practice the trap, but it will
certainly be harder to recruit new fans as long as the “chip it off the
glass”-mentality is a central part of a coach’s way of thinking.

At first, the ever defensive Swedish national team chose a cautious approach
to playing without the red line. They lined up four guys on the blueline to
force a dump-in which they hoped their defensemen would be first to grab.
But, since then a lot has changed. “Torpedo Hockey” has grown into a concept
after it was introduced in Djurgården by coaching duo Mats Waltin and Hardy
Nilsson. and the revolutionary part about that is not so much a two-man
intensive forecheck but more that it represents a different mindset among
the coaches. In short, it says that players should act, not react; Instead
of waiting for the other team’s mistakes, go get the puck and try to score a
goal.

The game has not only opened up international level, it has also become a
factor in the domestic leagues where the removal of the red line has forced
a modification of the trap and a game where more emphasis is put on skating.
Scoring in Sweden has been low to start the season, and some games have been
truly dull, so removing the red line offside is not a cure that will kill
all boring hockey forever.

But the product has improved. A more wide-open game in the NHL with more
room to skate paired with the physical play that the league has should mean
very interesting games. In Sweden, the physical part is hardly a factor as
players are being given double minors for what would be labeled clean hits
in the NHL. Let players hit, let players skate. Those are two qualities that
makes hockey a lot more exciting than other sports.

As for the other suggestion, shortening the breaks between the whistles, it
is probably hard to implement because of the commercial spots that earns
teams and TV companies a lot of money.

An average league game in Sweden now takes two hours and 15 minutes. The NHL
ditto is taking a lot longer. Maybe they should look to europe for the
answer.

Peter Westermark runs his own Swedish site at www.hockeykultur.com.