The result: This game, one that allows for such speed and grace, one that has so much open ice, is now utterly congested.
Part of what made this so obvious over the summer was what was on the other channels. This was the year that hockey and basketball became “summer games.” Contests in both leagues ran back-to-back-to-back on our screens from morning to past midnight to morning again, day after day, viewers clicking from one to another, the action, the passions, the noise, the scores, even the sports themselves, sometimes blurring and blending together.
It was amazing to watch.
Hockey is incredibly fast. Its players, in skates, move much faster on ice than players in sneakers can on hardwood. A puck moves much faster from stick to stick than a ball from hand to hand. And a hockey team’s five moving players (its sixth, the goalie, being static) have much more space to maneuver and pick up speed than those of a basketball team: The NHL’s rink, 200 feet by 85, is more than three and half times the size of the NBA’s 94-by-50-foot court. There’s one more crucial difference. After 40 seconds of sprinting all over the ice, hockey’s five players get replaced by five fresh players, while basketball players must await a whistle. Basketball’s best players play three-quarters of a 48-minute game, or more. Hockey’s best players play less than half a game. A 60-minute hockey game is a 60-minute relay race. Its players get winded and tired, but the pace of the game never does.
But both sports, and soccer as well, face a challenge that football and baseball do not. Both have a net, and although action can happen all over a rink or court or pitch, ultimately it must move toward the net. A soccer net is huge, 24 feet by eight feet, far bigger than the soccer goalie who must guard it without body-protecting equipment. A basketball net is small, only 18 inches in diameter, less than twice the 9.5-inch diameter of the ball, and has no player to protect it directly. In hockey, the net is six feet by four feet, a puck is small, only three inches in diameter and one inch high, and in front of it is a goalie in very large equipment.
The question in each sport is: How do you score? The players a team selects, the skills they have, the strategies they employ, are all with this in mind. A team has to score and stop the other guy from scoring. The rest is foreplay. Given the nature of each game, where can you score from? How close to the net do you need to be? And does a game’s action necessarily funnel toward the net, its space and time, variety and creativity ever-diminishing, or can it spread out, utilize all four, and still be productive?
Not long ago, basketball had the same problem hockey now faces. It was a game dominated by huge men—most notably Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—who could position themselves near the basket to score, rebound, or discourage any opponent from getting to the hoop. And the closer a player got to that hoop, the better, as a slam dunk or two-footer earned him the same two points as a 30-footer, and with much greater chance of success. The game’s real action, confined mostly to the paint, got predictable, static, and boring. Forty years ago, the NBA introduced the three-point shot.