In Praise of Tie Games

So the Canucks are through, winning their fourth straight with a goal in the last minute of first overtime. Good for them: It’s the playoffs, someone had to win the series, and I’m glad there’ll be at least one Canadian team to cheer on for another couple of weeks. 

But then, since 2005, every NHL game has ended with a winner. Overtime was introduced in 1983/84, the shootout after the lockout, both moves arising out of a desire to produce more winners and – presumably – to make the fans happier.  Has it worked? Have the fans been served by the shootout? Has the game? And are those synonymous?

In a just-published book of quasi-academic essays about hockey, La vraie dureté du mental: Hockey et philosophie UdeM philosophy prof Daniel Weinstock has a paper caled “Eloge des matchs nuls,” in which he argues that the demise of the tie game represents an important loss for NHL hockey. 

The argument after the jump…

There are three steps to Weinstock’s argument: A normative framework, a negative argument against the shootout, and a positive argument in favour of ties. 

First (the normative framework) he argues that while hockey makes rule changes and modifications every year, a change represents a positive step only if it respects the essential spirit of the sport. 

Second, he says that the shootout violates the essential spirit of the sport. 

Third, the tie game contributes to the development of the moral character of both players and spectators, and is thus part of the sport’s educative function. 

I’ll skip the normative stage-setting, and mention only briefly the argument against the shootout, since I agree entirely with it entirely: As Weinstock sees it, hockey is a team sport, one where individual effort and virtuosity plays a secondary role in comparison with the importance of group effort and cohesion. The shootout puts the shooter and goaltender in a situation that is basically alien to the “normal” game. The closest parallel is the penalty shot, but as Weinstock points out, the penalty shot is awarded only when a team, through collective effort, puts a player in such a clear scoring chance that a penalty shot is about the only fair way of restoring the status quo ante. 

But this only shows that shootouts are an abomination. What can we say in favour of ties?

Weinstock argues that sport serves both a civilizing function (by sublimating aggressive tendencies) and as a school for lessons in in-group/out-group morality. Furthermore, he says that the notion that there must always be winners and losers is a bad life lesson. Often, life has results that are indeterminate or uncertain, with  no clear winner or loser. Or as Adam Gopnik put it, in a lovely New Yorker essay on soccer and life he wrote during the 1998 World Cup in France, “nil-nil is the score of life”. 

If you agree with the Weinstock-Gopnik thesis, as I do, it raises two concerns about the demise of the tie game in hockey. First, there is the problem of the reduced moral ontology of the sport itself. When there is always a winner, we lose the possibility of a “moral victory”, where a team that should have lost rises above its natural talent, and ekes out a tie. As anyone who has every played soccer or hockey knows, the idea of a tie that is as good as a win, or even a tie that feels as good as a loss, is an essential part of the sport’s character-building dynamic. 

A second, more speculative question: If these musings are accurate, what does it say about the moral standing of the playoffs, where every game has to have a winner, right up until the last game of the last series, where there remains a single team standing, the sole victor? Are we forced to conclude that the playoffs are, in some sense, immoral? Or does the four-round slugfest the ends with the presentation of the Stanley Cup speak to a higher morality, a more noble part fo the soul?




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In Praise of Tie Games

  1. Morality is irrelevant. What matters is what’s entertaining, and ties are not entertaining.

    • “Morality is irrelevant. What matters is what’s entertaining.”

      Come on man, try. TRY to get into the spirit of the post. Most games are boring for long stretches. If “entertainment” is all it is about, why not just have shootouts and fights and call it hockey?

      Besides, you’ve obviously never seen Montreal versus the Red Army, New Year’s Eve 1975. 3-3. Widely hailed as perhaps the greatest game ever played.

      • I’m not saying shootouts are exciting. They’re not, really. I agree that it is a bizarre addition to an inherently team-driven sport. On the other hand, ties are unsatisfying. It’s one of my issues with soccer.

        • There are plenty of instances where ties are satisfying for the players and the fans.

          As mentioned in the post there is the case of the inferior team playing a great game and achieving a tie against a superior team. That is very satisfying for the inferior team’s player’s and fans.

          There have also been plenty of thrilling games that have ended in ties, Potter has already mentioned the best example.

          Ties are also satisfying to third-party teams and fans: ie. when the two teams chasing yours for the 8th playoff spot tie each other, thereby doing more harm to both.

      • I don’t know nothin’ ’bout no “reduced moral ontology.” What I object to in the NHL’s “no-ties” mentality is its moronic obsession with results over process. A game is no less enjoyable for ending in a tie, if it’s closely fought and skillfully played. But the people who own the game can’t be bothered making it more enjoyable to watch — by moving to larger rinks, banning fighting etc — so instead they give us cheap gimmicks like the shoot-out.
        The same mentality is revealed in the NHL’s obsession with getting scoring up, which leads to such ludicrous proposed “solutions” as shrinking the goalie pads, or widening the nets. But it’s not the number of goals that makes for an entertaining game — it’s the number of chances. A closely fought 1-1 game, with lots of shots, goaltenders’ standing on their heads, and everyone whacking the hell out of each other, is among the most satisfying spectacles there is. If all you want is a lot of goals, go watch the All-Star game. If you can stay awake.
        The people who instituted the shoot-out rule are like the people who leave a game 15 minutes early, just because one team is clearly ahead. If the only reason you go to a game is to find out who won, you could just check the paper and save yourself the trouble. It’s in the playing of the game that the enjoyment lies.

        • If a closely fought 1-1 tie is what you enjoy, wouldn’t you also “leave a game 15 minutes early” and avoid the “gimmicky” O/T shoot out – personal choice/taste/entertainment being preserved?

          • My long-windedness exposed…

          • You’d make a good lawyer.

        • I’m sorry I have to play this role, but I do:

          The same mentality is revealed in the NHL’s obsession with getting scoring up, which leads to such ludicrous proposed “solutions” as shrinking the goalie pads, or widening the nets. But it’s not the number of goals that makes for an entertaining game — it’s the number of chances.

          Right. But by this logic, if a few more of those “chances” turn into goals, where is the harm? Surely, shrinking the gargantuan goal pads (do pads need to extend a foot on either side of the leg to provide protection? need our goalies be mistaken for transformers? do we consider the arbitrary size of goalie pads today at all an embodiment of the “spirit of the game”?), for example, wouldn’t have any effect on the number of chances, which by our calculus is what makes a game watchable. A game can be closely fought, with lots of shots, goaltender acrobatics, and profligate whacking, whether or not its a 1-1 game, or a 4-4 game, no? And would the latter case not provide 4 times the opportunity to play Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration”, so that non-hockey fans who are trying to get into the sport know when to cheer?

          You’re apparently trying to make the argument that these “ludicrous” changes actually take away from the game, but you’re merely establishing that it doesn’t add anything for you as (I assume) a knowledgeable, long-time hockey fan.

          Anyways, I find it hard to argue against the traditionalists, because I am one myself, but we’re overstretching a bit here folks. Sure, if the only reason you go to a game is to find out who won, of course you can just read the paper. But suppose it was a brilliant 1-1 game, one of the most satisfying spectacles that there is: would it be less satisfying with the added spectacle (for what it is worth to each individual) of a shootout? How does a shootout take away from the satisfying spectacle that was the game in regular time?

          More to the point: on the rare occasions when a shootout occurs, do you, AC, turn off the TV or leave your seat in disgust? I mean, you can just find out who won by reading the paper the next morning, right? Thought so…

  2. “Or does the four-round slugfest the ends with the presentation of the Stanley Cup speak to a higher morality, a more noble part fo the soul?”

    Indeed it does. Life be a series of ties, but life without eventual death is meaningless, at least for us mortals. In the regular season, even pre-shootout, the standings are vital because they look to qualifying; without the playoffs, the regular season would be as morbid as our thanatophobic culture. Which is to say very morbid indeed.

    • That’s TWO big words to add to my arsenal.

    • Depends on if you’re holding onto a lead or not. If so, thanatophobia kicks in and you’re like, “Keep that Perron guy away from tha nat!!!”

  3. Enuf of the high falutin’ rule wrangling… if you like hockey you’ve gotta love that Vancouver-St. Louie series. End to end action, it could just be easily heading to a seventh game the way these two teams mustered up their energies. Luongo was magnificient, the Sedins continue to put to bed their ‘non-playoff performance’ rumour to bed… I dare say Calgary’s got a hard act to follow.

  4. Boy, you start using normative structures and supporting argument and evidence around here on a regular basis and quite a few commenters are going to start scratching their heads…

  5. I believe that during the regular season a regulation-time win should be worth 3 points and an overtime win (whether through 4-on-4 or the shoot-out) worth 2 points with the “loser” getting 1 point for the regulation-time tie.

    There should only be the 3 shooters after the five minute overtime rather than keeping going until one team “wins”. If after the 4-on-4 and shootout it is stilla tie then both teams get 1 point.

    So the breakdopwn is:

    Regulation time winner

    Winner – 3 points
    Loser – 0 points

    Overtime winner (4-on-4 or shootout)

    Winner – 2 points
    Loser – 1 point

    No overtime winner

    Both teams – 1 point

    As for the playoffs, the “four-round slugfest the ends with the presentation of the Stanley Cup” should remain as is.

    • How owuld your point allocatin system have effected the last season outcomes in terms of standings?

      • That would take a lot of research and calculations for which I do not have the time (making pithy comments on macleans.ca is another matter entirely) but I am sure it would have had some effect.

        Also, I believe it would certainly affect how teams play during the regaular season. Those extra points for either a regulation win or tie could make the difference between the post-season or golf season.

  6. If it was up to me, I would reintroduce ties and eliminate the playoffs. I am big fan of European football and think ties are important part of any game. I watched Arsenal v Liverpool last night, it ended 4-4, and was entertaining as you like. Ties should happen because sometimes both teams played equally well/poorly and a tie is the correct outcome. They are also good life lessons because sometimes one team dominates play but game ends in tie or vice versa and sometimes both sides played equally and neither deserve win/loss.

    I would get rid of playoffs as well which would make the regular season all important. Every team plays every other team 2 or 4 times, once/twice at home and once/twice away, and whoever has most points at end of season is champion. What is the point of regular season now? I find my interest in regular season games to be waning because the outcome does not matter as long as a team finishes in playoff position.

  7. The element that many of the major sports are missing is the essential role of “suspending disbelief” for a majority of fans to become passionate about sports. Part of this is believing that your team has some redeeming features not present in other teams. However, the more important part is that this is a true contest and not simply entertainment. Every time Bettman and his ilk talk about “product” they injure the fans ability to personally connect. The shoot-out is a sleasy givein to hockey as entertainment as opposed to hockey as an noble athletic contest and every shoot-out demeans the sport. Overtime is the only acceptable option for eliminating ties with integrity.

  8. A craving to see shootouts can be traced back directly to the Hockey Night in Canada intermission contest “Showdown.”

    Here’s a link to some rather thrilling clips from the 1979-80 season:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_RsuT8ZmsQ

    Millions of Canadian kids aged 10 to 15 got hooked on Showdown. In fact, there was as much Street Showdown played that long-ago winter as actual road hockey games. Today, this generational coterie has grown up to dominate decision-making surrounding NHL rules.

    I think we can all see what has happened here.

    • Close, but I think that b**tard Peter Puck is really to blame.

    • We’d play it while we were waiting for enough kids to show up for a game of street hockey, or after most had left. I remember “Showdown” fondly, but “Next goal wins,” was what decided games.

  9. The closest parallel is the penalty shot, but as Weinstock points out, the penalty shot is awarded only when a team, through collective effort, puts a player in such a clear scoring chance that a penalty shot is about the only fair way of restoring the status quo ante.

    First of all, can we not pretend that everytime Ovechkin scores a goal or draws a penalty shot, it has much at all to do with the other 5 players on the ice? Of course, hockey is a team sport, but it’s a team sport punctuated quite often by brilliant individual efforts. It’s hard to wish away the “individual” component of the game altogether merely by the existence of other players on the ice. And if some purely individual efforts are to be grudgingly stomached (dare I say applauded?), why not others?

    Second, he says that the shootout violates the essential spirit of the sport

    I think what we’re doing here is failing to make the distinction between sport as a game and as a business. The tension between these two ends, which the NHL must balance but a philosopher need not, is really what’s at play here, I think.

    • You really think people buy tickets to a game anticipating that it might end in a shootout? Is there any evidence that attendance or TV viewership is up since the shootout was introduced?

      • You really think people buy tickets to a game anticipating that it might end in a shootout?

        No, I don’t recall saying this. Although I do think that some fairweather fans may be enticed by the prospect. Or, rather, I do think the gigantic craniums running the NHL (cough) may draw such conclusions. I’m not saying they’re right, but your author doesn’t appear to be saying they’re wrong on that account either, or taking into account the business aspect of the game in any way, shape or form. I’m not saying I approve of the rule changes, I’m not saying they improve the game qua game (thanks, Bosanquet!), I’m merely saying there is a justification in the modern reality that doesn’t seem to make its way into the analysis. We can talk about the game of hockey in its purest form – the “spirit of the sport” – all we want, but that doesn’t change the fact that (at the NHL level at least) it’s a business as much as it is a game.

    • Plus… can we not pretend that once-in-a-generation players like Ovechkin are in any sense normative? Treating the ultra-exception as the rule misses the point, and leads to bad policy. Of which, the shootout is a case in point.

      • can we not pretend that once-in-a-generation players like Ovechkin are in any sense normative?

        To be consistent with the sentence structure du jour: can we not pretend that only once-in-a-generation players are able to make phenomenal individual efforts? The point remains: amazing (and embarrassing) individual efforts are part of the game, whether we’d like them to be or not. The “spirit of the game” is not offended, in my mind, by one individual making an amazing play, or another pulling a Stevie Smith on his own goal.

        Couldn’t you easily make the argument that it was the team effort that lead to the tie, and the subsequent shootout, as you could that “the penalty shot is awarded only when a team, through collective effort, puts a player in such a clear scoring chance that a penalty shot is about the only fair way of restoring the status quo ante”. It was collective effort that lead to the tie in the first place.

  10. Welcome to another game of: name… that…. PROFESSION!

    Collectively they take up a position as if they had discovered and arrived at their real opinions through the self-development of a cool, pure, god-like disinterested dialectic (in contrast to the mystics of all ranks, who are more honest than they are and more stupid with their talk of “inspiration”—), while basically they defend with reasons sought out after the fact an assumed principle, an idea, an “inspiration,” for the most part some heart-felt wish which has been abstracted and sifted. They are all advocates who do not want to call themselves that.

    • Cf. BGE 291 –

      “Man, a manifold, mendacious, artificial, and opaque animal, uncanny to the other animals less because of his strength than because of his cunning and shrewdness, has invented the shoot-out to enjoy his hockey for once as simple; and the whole of the overtime period is a long undismayed forgery which alone makes it at all possible to enjoy the sight of the shoot-out. From this point of view much more may belong in the concept of “overtime loss” than is generally believed.”

      • Haha, I knew I could count on Jack.

        • He occupies a similar niche.

    • If there is one philosopher in Canada to whom this description completely fails to apply, it is Daniel Weinstock.

      • If…

        Anyways, I was just pulling your chain. I don’t know Daniel Weinstock, although I do know that pure hockey traditionalism can run extremely deep in a Canadian’s subconscious… just a thought.

  11. I always find amateur and junior hockey more exciting- and maybe part of that is the possibility of a tie game. Ties allow both sides to get really excited, and make sure both sides go home happy. :)

  12. I also find it somewhat amusing that Andrew Coyne, he of “let the individual decide what he/she finds entertaining”, should support the banning of fighting in hockey. If you find fighting distasteful, fine: change the channel or avert your eyes for the duration. Play has stopped, it takes nothing away from your enjoyment of the full 60 minutes of pure, on-ice action. But if others find it entertaining, and if the players themselves freely partake in the exercise, why mandate its removal from the game? The inclination is decidedly “nanny-state”, if I may say so…

    • Only if the gummint insisted on it, dude. The NHL is free to respond to fans’ tastes. If enough fans said they’ve had it with fighting, fighting disappears. So don’t expect it to disappear anytime soon.

      • It’s the same mentality: tell everyone what they should like, as opposed to allowing individuals to decide what they do like.

        • Please allow these concepts to hold simultaneously:

          (a) tell people what they should like;
          and
          (b) allow people to decide what they do like.

          They’re not “opposed” as you figure. At least they certainly don’t have to be.

    • Your argument is valid only if the teams’ rosters would not be affected by the elimination of fighting (ie “goons” not replaced with more skilled players).

      • Sure. But GMs have the authority to not sign goons, if they like. Look at the Wings. They do ok for themselves.

  13. Ovechkin just crushed the spirit of the sport with that individual effort. Doesn’t he know it’s a team game?

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