COLUMN: Short shifts sell fans short
By Andrew Podnieks
There was a term in the old days to describe a star player. He was known as a 60-minute man. This was in the late 1800's and early 1900's, when hockey in Canada was in its days of evolution. It referred to players who played the entire game, as a football (soccer) player might do. In those days, there was also something called the equalization rule. This came into effect if a player on one team got injured and had to miss the rest of the game. When this happened, the other team also took one player off the ice so that the teams continued to play with the same number of skaters.
Soon enough, though, leagues decided to allow teams to dress several additional players--substitutes--who would spell off the star players periodically during a game. This developed into a two-line system where three forwards played as a unit and came off the ice as a unit to give way to a fresh set of three players. Of course, this led to three lines and now four lines, and in the process the 60-minute man became as obsolete as a goalie playing all 60 or 70 of his team's games in a season.
It used to be that a coach would tell his players that "short shifts" were important, usually in overtime during a playoff game or in an international game which was played on the bigger ice and required more skating.
Today, short shifts are so much the norm that the term is never really used that much. Every shift in every game is short as coaches demand explosive bursts of speed and strength from each player and each line, every period and every game. There is nothing more frustrating for a coach than allowing a goal because the players on the ice are exhausted while the opponents have fresh troops out there.
Short shifts produce two frustrating results. First, teams spend so much time changing lines on the fly that they rarely have a chance to generate momentum or create an offensive flurry. They go up and back, get to center ice, dump the puck in, and head off on a line change.
The second problem is that star players don't play nearly as much today as stars of previous eras, both on a shift-by-shift basis and an overall ice-time basis. Wayne Gretzky routinely stayed out for lengthy stretches, double-shifting at his coach's insistence. Today, Sidney Crosby routinely is on the ice for 30 or 40 seconds and then heads off to allow those proverbial fresh troops on to the ice.