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Points, purity, and predictability: Exploring disagreements over 3-on-3 OT

Many love the new 3-on-3 overtime format. Just as many, including some NHL players, seem to hate it. The reasons for such extreme viewpoints may be answered by taking a sociological approach.

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Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

When it was announced this past June that the NHL Board of Governors approved 3-on-3 overtime for the 2015-2016 season, the official explanation was that the league and its players wanted to make game outcomes, as well as the manner in which they were decided, more pleasing to the fans. So, one decade after the shootout was added to the NHL in order to bolster game excitement, league officials decided that 3-on-3 OT was needed to make hockey even more exciting.

NHL folks responded to the announcement by either talking up the unfettered offense that would be unleashed by the significantly opened ice space of the new extra frame format or by expressing hope that more games would be decided by back-and-forth team competition than by the single-man scoring of the shootout. Coaches and players expressed varying types of hesitation.

Would team tactics and player deployments be all-offense or all-defense? Would coaches be able to come up with any workable tactics for their players to execute at all? Would goalie stats go out the window? Would skaters suffer from exhaustion?

We're now more than a couple of months in and, aside from some early mainstream media and blogger endorsements, some unsurprising player objections, as well as some numbers that tell us that 3-on-3 is infusing offense into an NHL game that many say badly needs some, what more can be said about the hockey community's response to the NHL's new experiment?

In my own experience of watching a variety of overtimes this season, I've been absolutely mesmerized. During play like this, I've been routinely annoying my wife and daughter with the constant sounds of joy that involuntarily burst from my mouth. Resulting, moreover, from the absolute pleasure I've gotten from what looks to me like an obvious amplification of skill, precision, and speed, I haven't even been overly bothered by losses suffered by the Habs during OT this year.

Well, I may be just the kind of fan the NHL had in mind when the decision was made to transition to 3-on-3, but I've also noticed that many of my fellow fans view this development rather differently.

Peering outside my own personal viewing space this season, social media routinely tells me that the response to 3-on-3 OT is actually quite mixed. While some in my network are buying in, there's also no shortage of clear and strong opposition. So, rather than enthusiastically sharing my enjoyment of the OT action with like-minded souls on Twitter, my awareness of the critics has actually led me to hold back so as to avoid a potential backlash that celebration might elicit.

Compensating for the cowardice I've shown by staying on the Twitter sidelines, I decided to explore hockey community reception of 3-on-3 OT by talking to a few people with informed views on the matter. What became clear was that one of the major points of disagreement centers around the question of whether 3-on-3 OT is accepted as a pure, or authentic, form of hockey.

Eric Engels, who covers the Montreal Canadiens for Sportsnet, acknowledges that 3-on-3 deviates from the form that hockey traditionally takes. Engels argues that the type of play that it actually enables mostly outweighs some of the concerns he has over its hockey authenticity.

"I think 3-on-3 is highly entertaining, but don't believe it's any less gimmicky than the shootout is," Engels wrote in an e-mail. "Search the video archives and watch Tampa and Philadelphia in early October or go back to Los Angeles and Chicago [from a recent] Saturday night. [It's an] absolutely unbelievable display of skill, saves and beautiful goals. People say they'd rather see a tie. But, you'll never convince me that's more exciting."

While Engels accepts a 'gimmick' that he believes (despite its occasional sloppiness) is bringing a clear reward in terms of its on-ice results, the perceived novelty aspect of 3-on-3 is the exact point that drives others to reject it completely.

Rosalyn Roy is a Newfoundland-based blogger, author, and diehard Habs fan who can be found tweeting about her team on most nights they play. Contrary to welcoming the offense of the new 3-on-3 OT, Roy simply can't accept what she sees as the less-than-true hockey form that it takes.

"[It's an] absolutely unbelievable display of skill, saves and beautiful goals." -Eric Engels

"I hate it. It feels less like a fix for the skills competition that is the shootout and more like just another gimmick," Roy said. "The best strategy, if you can even call it that, seems to be to lose the initial draw, wait for a turnover or failed scoring attempt, and hope for an odd-man rush going the other way. Even at only five minutes, it's bound to tire out your skaters because of all the open ice. As far as gimmicks go, it's hardly a good sales pitch for newbie hockey fans and this old timer hates it just as much."

While not all critics of the new OT format reject the shootout as Roy does, the sense that traditional hockey is being eroded via this innovation can run pretty deep.

Brendan Kelly reports on arts and culture for the Montreal Gazette and CBC Radio's Daybreak in Montreal, and maintains his own Canadiens blog. Never pulling punches in his critique of his favourite team, or of the NHL as a whole, Kelly's opposition to 3-on-3 OT's dilution of the game of hockey is no less militant than Roy's.

"I do not like the 3-on-3 at all," Kelly said. "It's funny because I am a fan of the shootout. I think everyone enjoys that. But the 3-on-3 just looks goofy. I love playing 3-on-3 on a 3-on-3 sized rink. On a NHL-sized rink, it just becomes silly. It's really a typical Bettman innovation. Ideas coming from a guy who knows nothing about hockey culture."

Kelly's perception of threats to traditional hockey culture clearly provide powerful justification for his rejection of the inauthentic style of play that's resulting from what he calls a cold and corporate imposition of 3-on-3 OT. Yet, not all hockey observers I spoke to agree on the specific features of that cultural tradition.

Amanda Stein is a reporter for TSN 690 radio in Montreal who covers the visitors' dressing room at every Habs home game. In offering her appreciation for the style of play created by 3-on-3, Stein also presents a dissenting take on its place in relation to hockey's tradition.

"While the Canadiens haven't participated in too many 3-on-3 occasions this year, I've certainly enjoyed what I've seen from other teams playing in the new overtime format," Stein said. "I'm enjoying the quick pace of back-and-forth with so much free ice. I like the entertainment value of odd-man rushes, big saves, and one man's mistake is another man's goal. I think it showcases hockey talent better than an individual shootout move does. Ending 3-on-3 is much more in the spirit of the game of hockey - a team effort - whereas that dreaded shootout is much more individual."

So while the offensive production of 3-on-3 is definitely winning some observers over, mutations to the very game conditions that are enabling the offense violate others' conceptions of authentic hockey to such a high degree that endorsing the innovation is normatively impermissible.

"I hate it." -Rosalyn Roy

Now, I don't know about you, but I find the claim that 3-on-3 defies hockey tradition to be dubious. Like Amanda Stein said, aren't pretty passes, risk-taking, and breath-taking collectively produced goals not part of hockey's tradition? And, like Eric Engels stated, if 3-on-3 OT provides these things more starkly than regulation play, and definitely more often than the shootout, isn't that a good thing? Or, if it really reminds us of the shinny that Brendan Kelly loves to play on the outdoor rink, aren't we actually tapping into a central part of hockey's great tradition by integrating 3-on-3 into the NHL game?

There must be additional explanations for the mixed reviews, and when I thought about all of this a little sociologically for a few moments, I really thought I'd figured it out.

When it comes to the world in which we live, and also our mundane daily lives, what do people crave more than predictability? We want to know what the interest rates will be for years, we read polls to tell us who will win elections in months, and we expect forecasts to allow us to plan for weather we'll face in weeks. Our tech devices are for communication, but we gleefully use their multiple functions to guide us through each part of each of our days in highly routinized ways. (Just think about how your routine gets thrown off if you leave your mobile phone at home one day.) So, comfort in predictability characterizes the workings of our wider social world. It's the same in sports and hockey as well.

As the public representatives of major businesses that put a premium on maintaining positive reputations, what have most athletes' public comportment and communication styles become if not predictably limited and dull? Engaged in minute-by-minute consumption of information about games, trades, and fantasy transactions, what are sports fans routinely doing if not trying to predict the accomplishments of their favorite players and teams? And, as the numbers are gathered, analyzed, reported, and debated, what's the new generation of fancy stats bloggers and writers doing if not working according to the belief that the seeming chaos of player deployments and plays can be converted to understandings that might lead to more predictable team tactics and outcomes?

It's within this broad social context that the NHL dropped 3-on-3 OT into hockey. With its significant and intentional heightening of uncertainty, randomness, and un-predictabilty, I wonder if 3-on-3 OT isn't just a a little too displeasing for today's players and fans who've been trained to embrace sports and life routines that depend nearly entirely on order and the expected.

(Eric Bolte / USA TODAY Sports) Desharnais Subban overtime cropped

Photo credit: Eric Bolte/USA TODAY Sports

Well, as good as that theory might sound at a sociology conference or in a classroom, according to the hockey observers with whom I spoke, player and fan rejection has little to do with a lack of fit between 3-on-3 OT's inherent unpredictability and the predict-all logic of the wider world in which we live. For them, the wider opposition comes down to much more basic negative emotional and psychological reactions people are having to an unfamiliar change made to a game whose features they've known intimately for quite some time.

Leaving aside her own view that it deviates from authentic hockey tradition, Roy suggests that many other fans aren't warming up to 3-on-3 OT because, despite the hype, they're actually underwhelmed by the on-ice product they're seeing from the change thus far.

"Fans don't like 3-on-3 because, like the shootout, it favors the faster teams," Roy said. "Workhorse teams are not going to benefit from it. Like the shootout, it reduces team effort to a lucky snipe, only with two more players on the ice, and at a faster pace. Big whoop de do."

Eric Engels believes that some players and fans struggle with 3-on-3 OT because it leads them to feel intensified disappointments in response to those parts to the games that, due to their respective ways of being competitive, they never really want to confront.

"Seeing as how I view 3-on-3 as the same type of gimmick as the shootout, I believe what fans don't like about it is the anticlimax of seeing their team lose in that situation," Engels said in his e-mail. "I've been to several hundred hockey games at this point, and I've never seen fans all sitting and quiet during the shootout. But, when their team loses, it goes dead silence. It's the same thing for the players. The Canadiens were ornery after 3-on-3 losses against Ottawa and New Jersey. They don't like losing, and they especially don't like losing in a format where mistakes are magnified."

While Brendan Kelly insists that most fans agree that 3-on-3 is a "travesty" that has little to do with the game of hockey, similar to Engels, he also points to a specific and negative psycho-emotional context when giving his view of why not all the players are embracing the change. For Kelly, 3-on-3 OT can bruise players' egos.

"The players don't like it because it's very hard for them to play this game," Kelly said. "The teams, notably the Canadiens, don't know how to play 3-on-3. It's almost impossible [for them] to set up to play 3-on-3 on a rink this size, and thus they often end up looking downright amateurish out there."

For Amanda Stein, player and fan hesitation is not so much about intensified emotional discomfort they experience in response to key moments of a 3-on-3 situation. Rather, the resistance is mostly evidence of a near universal human tendency that most of us have to be slow to embrace change in the worlds around us.

"I chalk it up to learning to adapt to something new, to accept new additions to the game we hold so dear to our hearts," Stein said. "It can be a scary thing to watch things change. Consider Erik Karlsson, who first called 3-on-3 'boring,' then backtracked a couple of days later saying, 'I really liked the 4-on-4, so maybe I'm going to give 3-on-3 some time.' It boils down to learning to accept the changes that are coming to the game of hockey, and requiring the time to accept that it does."

So, let's summarize. While some fans and players enjoy a 3-on-3 OT that's facilitating goal scoring and the liberated collection of points for their teams, others reject it as an unholy deviation from traditionally pure hockey. Though the hockey observers made a convincing case that the opposition is better understood as the psychology of hurt feelings than as illustrating the sociological effects of the force of the culture of our times on hockey fans' tastes, at this early stage in the 3-on-3 experiment, there's clearly a paradox.

The NHL brought in 3-on-3 OT with the hopes that it would allow its players to make the game of hockey more fan friendly, but a sizable number of hockey fans, and maybe even players, hold mostly unfriendly feelings towards the place of 3-on-3 OT in their favourite sport.

Regardless of your own view, and like one of the hockey observers said, I don't expect that our overall love for the game will be eclipsed by the reality that two solitudes appear to have formed around 3-on-3 OT in the NHL.

"As the years go on, questions about the change will become less frequent, we'll talk less about it, and it will just be part of the game," said Amanda Stein. "You can't make everyone happy in this situation, unless I guess you score the overtime winner. But, remember, there's no 3-on-3 OT in the playoffs. And, that's when the games really matter."