Monday, March 15, 2010

Hockey: Interviewing Brent Seabrook, and why the Olympics top the NHL

Last week, I spoke with Chicago Blackhawks' defenceman Brent Seabrook for a South Delta Leader piece about what it was like for him to compete in the Olympics at home, so I figured I'd spotlight that here. Let's take a look at what he had to say, consider why Olympic hockey is special and think about if there's a way to use those lessons to make the NHL more exciting.

One of the most interesting comments I thought Seabrook made was about how Olympic competition is in some ways even more intense than the NHL playoffs, thanks to the single-elimination format and the national, not city-wide, focus on the games.

"There was so much at stake in such a short time after the round-robin," Seabrook said. "The qualification and the medal round, it's one game and you're out. Everybody was putting it on the line and making every shift count."

That single-elimination format also makes it tougher to recover from a bad shift or a bad game.

"It was unbelievable," Seabrook said. "It sort of felt like we were back in the playoffs playing like that but at the same time, there's almost more on the line during the Olympics. It's one game and you're out. In the playoffs, if you have a bad game, you still have at least three more to bounce back and be better. It's a little different format which makes it not as nerve-racking, not as crazy."

He said that additional pressure requires players to avoid getting too low after a loss or too high after a win.

"I think you're nervous and what not, but I think it puts you on more of an even keel," he said. "You're playing against arguably the best teams that are put together in the world. You've got your Russia, your Slovakia, your USA, your Canada—all of those teams have a lot of top players. To get up after a big win is tough because its such a short tournament. If you start doing that, you start losing focus and you can find yourself going over."

To me, that pressure and intensity is what makes the Olympic tournament so interesting. The NHL's playoffs are great, too, and they're probably a fairer way to determine a champion (sample size alone dictates that the top teams are more likely to prevail in a best-of-seven series than in a single-elimination tournament), but that fairness comes with a tradeoff; it means there's less on the line in each game (except a Game Seven), and it also means that underdogs are less likely to win.

There's a good reason that most of the memorable underdog runs in the playoffs (1982 Canucks, 1994 Canucks, 1996 Panthers, 2002 Hurricanes, 2003 Mighty Ducks, 2004 Flames, 2006 Oilers) ended with Stanley Cup Final losses; the best-of-seven format makes it awfully tough for underdogs to go all the way. I'm not advocating making the NHL playoffs a single-game knockout tournament; the current format is interesting, and it provides a couple months of good hockey. For sheer thrills, though, I'm not sure it can compare to the Olympics.

Moreover, the Olympics have another big advantage over the NHL; they show us a hockey game with less talent dilution. Sure, there are weak teams in the tournament, but the upper-echelon countries like Canada, the U.S., Russia and Sweden all have more talent than any NHL team (mostly because there are far less elite countries than NHL teams). The focus on offence instead of grinding and goonery also helps; teams tend to roll three or four lines of talented players instead of going with the typical NHL mix of two talented lines and two lines of muckers. Bruce Arthur wrote an interesting piece after the Olympics criticizing the NHL's brand of regular-season hockey, which is almost anathema for Canadian writers; many spend much of their time talking about how great the game is without looking at its flaws. I'd argue that many of those flaws carry over into the playoffs, too, particularly on the talent-dilution side. There are plenty of good reasons the Olympic hockey ratings were so massive and so far beyond what we usually see for hockey, and they go beyond pure nationalism; the Olympics offer a product the NHL can't match.

That doesn't mean there's nothing that can be done. I've gone to a lot of AHL games this year, and one thing I've noticed is that most AHL teams have plenty of players with a good bit of offensive talent. The problem is that, as I pointed out in a Canuck Puck piece before this season started, most NHL teams have very clearly defined forward line identities. The top two lines are expected to score, the bottom two are expected to check and fight. Thus, if an offensively-minded AHL forward isn't quite good enough to crack his NHL team's top-six forwards, he's probably going to remain an AHL forward.

Changing that mentality to one that emphasizes offence from all players might produce a more exciting game, and rule tweaks to reduce headshots and open up the game could also help. That's not a call for banning hitting or fighting; both have their place in the sport in my mind. What I'd like to see in the NHL is more of a focus on players who can both score and hit, like Alex Ovechkin, Brenden Morrow and David Backes. In the meantime, though, pencil me in amongst the crowd that wants to see NHL players in the 2014 Olympics in Russia; the tournament simply offers a fantastically thrilling brand of hockey we can't see anywhere else.

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