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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