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This photo accompanied the August 2016 press release from the WCHA regarding adopting 3-on-3 overtime and shootout (both if necessary) for regular-season league games.
When you go to a hockey game, if you’re like me, you want to see an outcome. Even if your team doesn’t win, you want to see someone win. If the game winds up in a tie, bring on overtime.
In the NCHC, a 5-minute sudden death overtime was followed by a 5-minute 3-on-3 overtime, and if that didn’t solve the game, a shootout followed that would.
As an unapologizing purist about the sport, I also appreciate deciding the game during 5-on-5 play, just like regulation. That desire goes back to determining that the best team doesn’t have one or two hotshots, but has the ability to put a 5-man unit on the ice that skates and interacts as a unit, sharing the puck and working to free up a good scoring chance.
Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, the WCHA was the unquestioned best league in college hockey, and winning the NCAA tournament was a regular reward.
Let’s look back and see one of the reasons it was the best. Pick a year, any year. Let’s say the 1970-71 season when Michigan Tech won the league title, over Denver and Wisconsin in a close race. Minnesota and North Dakota played to a tie, and that was the only tie all season by any WCHA teams.
The next year, Notre Dame joined the league to make it a 10-team WCHA, and Denver won the league title, and there was not a single tie game in the 28-game regular season.
In the 1982-83 season, there were two games that ended in ties, all season.
Now let’s jump ahead to the 1988-89 season when every team had at least one tie and there were 18 ties ascribed to the teams’ records meaning there were 9 ties in league games.
In 1992-93, UMD won the league title with a 21-9-2 record, and in that season when each team played 32 games, there were 26 ties – meaning there were 13 tie games.
This past, pandemic-shortened season, the new and revised system of overtimes, followed by 3-on-3 over-times, and then by a shootout, there were still 12 games that ended in ties.
So what happened?
It’s one of those intricate historical questions that the current college hierarchy should study closely. Back in the 1970s, I was covering the WCHA and the North Stars in the NHL, and I would routinely question the NHL officials because with all their streamlined travel and chartered planes and such, the NHL did not use any overtime in regular-season games up into the 1980s.
College hockey set the standard for the game. In the WCHA, if a game ended in a tie, the teams would gather for one, 10-minute overtime period. Sudden death.
Remarkably, almost every tie game would be decided in that single overtime, and almost always in the first two or three minutes of the overtime.
Finally, the NHL decided to go to regular-season overtimes, but they were worried about it. They decided to play a single, 5-minute sudden-death overtime to decide all ties. In fact, I covered the game back at Met Center when the Minnesota North Stars and the Los Angeles Kings played a 3-3 tie and then played the first regular-season overtime in NHL history.
At that time, the WCHA powers were working to unite with the NHL, so the next time they could alter their rules, they decided to switch from a 10-minute OT to the NHL-style 5-minute OT. Everybody thought that was a great idea, and they bought the prevailing idea that since the 10-minute OT almost always decided ties in the first two or three minutes, a 5-minute session would be just fine.
As I remember, I was the only dissenting voice. I suggested that the 10-minute session worked extremely well, and the reason they rarely needed the full 10 minutes was a peculiar hockey tendency.
In NHL hockey, if one team envisioned itself as being slightly weaker, or was the visitor, they would set out to play for that tie through the closing minutes of an NHL game.
It was the same in college, except that when faced with a 10-minute overtime, both sides knew there would be no way to sit on a tie for 10 minutes, so they would play hard from the drop of the puck, and generally settle things on the first two or three shifts.
But the colleges switched to the NHL-style 5-minute OT periods, and settled so few of them that the NCHC went to the 3-on-3 session for the following 5 minutes, and then a sudden-death shootout. It’s exciting, and nobody leaves when the game goes to 3-on-3, and especially to a shootout. Face it, 3-on-3 and shootouts are exciting.
But they are vague spinoffs of the true 5-on-5 game, and exciting as they are, they are not a true indication of which team is better that very night. If you lose a 5-on-5 overtime, you can congratulate your opponent without whining about it having been 3-on-3.
Look back at the best UMD teams ever. In the 1983-84 season, a starting unit of Matt Christensen centering Bill Watson and Tom Herzig, with Norm Maciver and Tom Kurvers on the points, was as formidable as a college hockey attack could be formulated.
As it turned out, that team lost in four overtimes to Bowling Green at the NCAA championship game at Lake Placid.
The reason it went four overtimes is that both teams could send out strong 5-man units to take on the other side.
In fact, the reason either that team or the 1984-85 team was UMD’s best ever is because both of them could go through three full units, and maybe a fourth, and still have a strong enough unit to beat a worthy foe.
If they went to 3-on-3 back then, who would Mike Sertich have sent out?
Christensen-Maciver-Kurvers would have been fantastic, but it wouldn’t have shown UMD’s true strength. And after three or four shifts, half the team still would not have touched the ice, and wouldn’t have no matter how long they played.
The reason for all this is that college hockey is approaching a crossroads season, if there is a season at all in the wake of our pandemic shutdown. Leagues are feeling turmoil, colleges are considering dropping the sport, and teams seem to be straining to gain a legislated upper hand over the rest of the nation’s college hockey programs.
The NCHC is lobbying for going directly from regulation play to a 3-on-3 overtime, and they go into the upcoming college rules committee meetings hoping to convince all college hockey leagues to adopt the same standard.
I would like to see college hockey return to one 10-minute OT, and then call it a tie.
Trust me, there would be precious few ties. And then, we can do away with these silly added points if you win 3-on-3, or in a shootout that won’t count nationally.
Play it my way, the winner gets two points, the loser tries again next weekend, and all points count.
That’s the way it was when college hockey was the best form of the game, and the West was the best in college hockey.