Championship Games Should Not Be Decided By Shootouts

Photo by AP / Paul Chiasson

The 2017 edition of the IIHF World Junior Championship tournament is in the bag (my colleague, Zachary Ellis, has written it up here) and Team USA battled it out with Team Canada for the Gold.

This was a game for the ages: a lead by Canada, lost to a USA tie not once, but twice during the game. An overtime period that had hearts stopping all over North America.

But in the end, it was decided by a shootout, and Team USA scored the single shootout goal in all 10 shooters.

I have a big problem with the shootout, and I have since it was introduced in the NHL.

Shootouts are a skills competition – nothing more. While the game is played with 5 skaters and a goaltender, or an OT period with 3-5 skaters and a goaltender, the shootout pits one shooter against the goaltender, and the better man wins each round.

The problem with this is that shootouts are like final exams: no matter how well you might do in class assignments, in class discussions, the final exam is – for many people – an anxiety-producing do-or-die moment.

Hockey players likely don’t feel the kind of exam anxiety in shootouts as students do. They’re trained to react in all kinds of situations.

However, the method of winning via a shootout actually subtracts from the spirit of the game of hockey.

Hockey is played as a team, won or lost as a team. It takes all players – all lines – to add to the dynamic of any given game. Hockey games are marathons – 60 (or more) minutes long, 3 (or more) periods – and not sprints to the finish line.

Overtime periods are played, with some variation, the same way, same rules as regulation. Team effort.

But shootouts are entirely different, in their dynamic and their methods.

When games go to overtime, there are already 2 winners: 2 teams good enough to stave off each other, in order to decide in a sudden-death period. I’m fine with that method. It still takes all the players on, and on all lines, to form their group, to capitalize on their chemistry, and to help one another out in shooting for that winning goal.

In a shootout, it’s every man for himself – shooter and goalie. Two players, alone on the ice, in a showdown of skills.

One of the reasons the NHL adopted the 3-on-3 OT format was to try and diminish the number of shootouts deciding games, and it worked. As of the first weeks last season, when the 3-on-3 was first introduced, shootouts were not as common an occurrence in the NHL.

I can only imagine how helpless a bench must feel, every player watching their single comrade out there ready to battle the goaltender. Or watching their goaltender on the spot, responsible for stopping, or allowing a potential game winner.

When NHL games do go to the shootout, they can be exciting, don’t get me wrong. But they are not critical games either.

In the Olympics, and in Stanley Cup playoffs (all rounds), there are no shootout deciders. They go to overtime, and they continue to play overtime periods until the game is won. This has led to some truly classic double- and triple-OT games, in which skills and stamina are tested, and fans have the opportunity to witness incredible talent in motion.

I do not feel championship games – anything after round-robin matches – should be decided via the shootout. In the Juniors, the round-robin matches should be the only rounds in which a shootout is allowed. But for quarter-, semi-, and final games – and most especially a Gold Medal game – a shootout should not be the method of deciding the winner.

The spirit of hockey is its team effort. Watch any post-game presser, and you will see players praising their teammates, invoking their entire team for the effort out there on the ice. Even if the game has gone to the shootout, players still give credit to their teammates.

It has to be hard, for shooters who fail to score – and for goaltenders who fail to stop – shootout goals. I can only imagine the deep sense of responsibility players on the losing team must shoulder.

When a hard-fought game has gone 80 minutes, both teams showing the desperation to stay in, and knock the other out, it should not be decided one-on-one. It isn’t how the teams got to that point, and it should not be the way they exit – winners or not.

This is not to take away from Team USA: they had a perfect tournament, and a well-deserved win.

It does, however, makes me wistful, wondering how a second overtime might have progressed. In the OT we witnessed Thursday evening, there were many opportunities for both teams to get that winning goal. I wonder how that second OT period might have gone, and whether or not it would have ended with the same result.

Both teams played beautifully – as teams.

Considering only 1 shooter scored out of 5 rounds in the shootout, should the IIHF not consider abolishing that gimmick for the future of this tournament?

In my opinion – and I know I’m not alone, based solely on Twitter (from fans of both teams) – that answer should be yes.

And I can say, with all certainty and all honesty, that even had Team Canada won the shootout, my feelings would be the same.

Congratulations to Team USA: there are no sour grapes here, and they won it fair and square.

Be proud, Team Canada: you played exceptional hockey, and your future – as a team, and as you find yourselves entering the world of pro hockey – is bright.

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