North America

5 Radical Goalie-Pulling Strategies

Lately there has been an evolution in the way NHL coaches pull their goalies, with goalies being pulled earlier than they used to be. There has been no revolutionary change, however. Goalies are still being pulled at the very end of games, and once pulled they tend to stay pulled until a goal is scored or there is a face-off outside of the offensive zone.

This begs the question of whether any radical change to the strategy of goalie-pulling could still be worth trying. Here are five such ideas:

  1. Pull earlier than usual to take advantage of exhausted opponents stuck on a very long shift

The risk/reward ratio of pulling a goalie might be much more favourable when an opposing team’s players are exhausted from being stuck on the ice in the middle of an especially long shift. 

There are four reasons this may be the case:

First, the ability of players to score into an empty net will decrease when they are exhausted. 

Second, the ability of tired players to reach the bench for a line change will decrease when the opposing team pulls its goalie. Typically, players that are exhausted by a long shift are able to escape to the bench either by having their goalie stop play or by getting a lucky bounce off of a missed shot, blocked shot, errant pass, or rebound, which then allows them to clear the puck out of their zone and complete a line change. When playing 5-on-6, however, the likelihood of a goalie being able to force a stoppage of play by making a save decreases, because the goalie’s vision is more likely to be obstructed and the shots that the goalie faces are likely to be harder to save. The likelihood of getting a lucky bounce also decreases, as there is less open ice and there is less likely to be a blocked or missed shot. Plus, even if there is a lucky bounce, it will still be difficult for tired players to clear the zone against six attackers. As such, the tired team may be unable to change lines, and so become even more tired, making the situation even more favourable for the trailing team. And, even if the tired team’s goalie does succeed in stopping play, the trailing team could simply choose to put its goalie back in net for the ensuing face-off.

Third, the willingness of players to even attempt to score an empty net goal will decrease the more tired they become. The reason for this is that if such a scoring attempt fails, it will most likely result either in an icing (which, if the tired team has no time-outs remaining, will lead to an even greater tiredness imbalance between the two teams, and to a face-off during which the trailing team would have the option of putting its goalie back into the game) or in an odd-man rush (because tired players will be much less able to get back on defence). As a result, rather than try to score, the tired team may instead focus on trying to get a line change in. During any such line change, the trailing team will usually be able to put its goalie back in if it wants to do so. 

Fourth, pulling you goalie can allow you to bring your own best offensive player fresh off the bench.   

As a result of these factors, I suspect that it would sometimes be in a team’s interest to pull its goalie earlier than it normally would, in order to capitalize on situations in which the opposing players are exhausted from being stuck on an especially long shift. The question is: how much earlier?

A related question is this: how many goal behind does your team need to be to make such a strategy worth trying at a given point the second period? Most of the opportunities to score against tired opponents stuck on a long shift occur in the second period, because of the long change.


2.   Pull to get a scoring chance against tired players, then put your goalie back in asap

This is a variation on the strategy above, but it could be employed much more frequently, since it could be used against opponents who are only relatively tired instead of needing ones who are utterly exhausted. The idea is this: late in the third period (say, with five minutes left), if your team controls the puck in the offensive zone and is facing relatively tired opponents at the end of their shift, you pull your goalie to try to get a good scoring attempt. Right after the shot, however, if you do not regain possession of the puck in the offensive zone — in other words, if there is a scramble for the puck on the boards, or if there is a face-off, or if you get the puck back but only after it has come out of the offensive zone — you rush your goalie back into the  net. 

The strategy here is to take advantage of tired opponents (for all of the reasons described above), and, more importantly, to keep your net empty only when you control the puck in the offensive zone. Of course, you still risk giving up an empty net goal via a turnover or missed shot.

3.   Pull on a power play to get a scoring opportunity, then put your goalie back in asap

This is a variation on the second strategy. One of the challenges with that strategy is that it is difficult to keep possession of the puck in the offensive zone for long enough to bring the extra attacker onto the ice and into the play. On a power play, however, holding possession in the offensive zone is much easier. In this strategy, then, you pull your goalie when you have possession of the puck in the offensive zone on a power play and are desperate to score a goal, but then, after you have taken a shot, you put the goalie back into the game immediately if there is a scramble fro the puck on the boards, or a face-off, or if you get the puck back but only after it has come out of the offensive zone, etc. One downside to this strategy compared to the one above is that the opposition can try to score without having to worry about icing, however. 

4.  Pull on a power play to gain offensive zone, but put goalie back in net before shooting

This is the inverse of the third strategy. Here, rather than pull the goalie to get a good shot on a power play, you instead pull the goalie to get into the offensive zone with possession of the puck on the power play, then put the goalie back into the net before you even shoot. The idea here is to retain possession of the puck for the entire time your net is empty, so the opposing team never even gets a chance to score an empty net goal. If – a huge if – having six attackers allows you to gain the offensive zone with puck possession more quickly, and without much of a risk of turning the puck over and giving up an empty net goal as you do so, then this could be worth trying if you are desperate. This is because the number one indicator of an effective power play is the speed in which a team can get into the offensive zone with possession of the puck.  

5. A “5.5-on-3”, to prevent opponents from wasting valuable time and changing lines

Most 5-on-3 power plays last much less than two minutes long, so not wasting time is crucial. If the penalty killers can kill time by dumping the puck down the ice, or if the power play wastes too much time trying to get the perfect shot (as they know that if they do not get a perfect shot, the penalty killers might grab the rebound and dump it down the ice), then it will be unlikely to score. 

In this strategy, then, a goalie is pulled and replaced with a “safety”: a player who stays near to his or her own empty net, in order to protect against long empty net goals while simultaneously being able to quickly respond to any dumped puck in order to minimize the amount of time the opposing team can waste (unlike a goalie, who can only play pucks within the trapezoid), and in order to allow his or her own team to avoid wasting time searching for the perfect scoring attempt. This “safety” specialist should excel at being able to serve, in effect, as a player-goalie hybrid. 

As an added bonus, by quickly responding to dumped (or chipped) pucks, the safety will also make it much harder for the penalty killers to change lines, which can lead to fatigue in cases where the 5-on-3 is long. The goalie will be put back in the net before the 5-on-3 comes to an end.  

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Unconventional NHL Strategies, continued

  1. Playing 5.5-on-4 

    Pulling your goalie tends to be less beneficial on a power play, since icing calls can’t be called against penalty killers (so they can attempt a long shot at an empty net goal without a consequence if they miss) and since the marginal benefit of the extra attacker is smaller when you compare the difference between 6-on-5 and 6-on-4 to the difference between 5-on-5 and 6-on-5. As such, while trailing teams will still usually pull their goalie during the last minute or two of the game if they are on a power play, they tend not do so on a power play with, say, three minutes left in the game.

    But what if, instead of pulling the goalie to get an extra attacker, a team instead uses its sixth man as a safety: positioning the sixth man around centre ice, so that he can help prevent a long empty net goal, while also being able to jump forward into the play as needed, in order (for example) to help prevent the puck from clearing the offensive zone, or to take a point shot. The sixth man would be playing, in effect, as both a goalie and a defenseman. And when he does jump into the zone at one point, a teammate from the opposite point could fall back to fill his safety position.

    This strategy could perhaps even be usable at some times when not on a power play, in order to take advantage of having the puck in the offensive zone (or in order to take advantage of tired defenders) at a time earlier than the coach would otherwise be willing to pull the goalie. If, for example, a coach is not comfortable with pulling his goalie with 2.2 and 20 seconds left in the game, but would rather wait until the 2 minute mark to pull his goalie, he could have the option of using a 5.5-on-5 strategy for 20 seconds first.

    2. Power play specialization and trade

    Power plays arguably consist of two different skill-sets. One is getting the puck set up inside the offensive zone, the other is scoring a goal. Many of the league’s star players or power play specialists are excellent at both of these skill sets. But there is unlikely to be a clean overlap between the two. Getting the puck inside the zone on a power play, for example, depends more on skating, while scoring on a power play depends more on skills like passing, shooting, obstructing the goalie’s vision, and winning face-offs.

    As a result, teams that do not have many great stars or power play specialists might want to think about a different strategy than the conventional “top power play unit, second power play unit” division of duties that NHL teams generally use. Instead, they may want to use a “specialization and trade” strategy: have one lineup optimized to getting the puck set up inside the zone, and then another lineup (some star players can play on both lineups) optimized for scoring a goal once already in the zone. The latter line would be subbed on the ice whenever there is a face-off inside the offensive zone on a power play. The former line could be subbed on (sometimes) on the fly when the opposing team shoots the puck down the length of the ice. This type of one-two punch strategy might also be useful at times playing 5-on-5.

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Europe, North America

On Pulling Your Goalie: Unconventional Factors to Consider

NHL teams generally look at three factors to determine when to pull their goalie: the score of the game, the amount of time left remaining the game, and the location of the puck (i.e. if it is in the defensive zone, the goalie will not usually be pulled). It seems to me that two extra factors are needed:

  1. the exhaustion level of the opposing team’s five on-ice players
  2. the purpose of pulling your goalie

1. Exhaustion Level of Opposing Team’s Five On-Ice Players

Here’s a riddle: if your team was trailing by one goal, would you rather have the goalie pulled with 2 minutes left against a relatively well-rested defense or, instead, pulled with 3 minutes against a defense that is utterly exhausted as it is being caught on the ice during a really long shift?

There is no empirical evidence by which we can attempt to answer this riddle, because coaches almost never pull their goalies when down one goal with 3 minutes left. My guess, however, is that playing 6-on-5 against exhausted defenders with 3 minutes left may be better than playing 5-on-5 against exhausted defenders with 3 minutes left and then waiting until around the 2 minute mark to pull your goalie. Here’s why:

1) an exhausted defense is less likely to clear the zone and/or score an empty net goal

2) if an exhausted defense tries to score a long empty net goal and misses, resulting in an icing, then they will pay a big price for it: the other team will be able to bring on fresh players, which will make the difference in tiredness between the two teams even greater.

3) an exhausted defense playing 5-on-6 is less likely to get a lucky bounce or turnover that would allow them to clear the zone (or, if they do clear the zone, to clear it enough to get many of its players to reach the bench)

4) an exhausted defense playing 5-on-6 is more likely to have its goalie screened, so the odds of the goalie making a save to stop play and allow a line change is reduced.

5) by bringing a 6th attacker on the ice, you have the opportunity to seamlessly bring on a top player on who is fully rested himself.

6) pulling your goalie early means that the exhausted defense has less of a chance of winning the game by simply running down the clock. From a psychological perspective also, it may be more difficult for an exhausted player to muster his remaining energy when he knows he is not closed to being ‘saved by the bell’.

7) the exhausted players may not be that team’s best defenders; whereas with 1 or 2 minutes left in the game to play, a team normally has their best defenders on the ice. Moreover, if they cause an icing, you can bring on your own team’s best players

8) If the opposing team knows you might employ this strategy at some point during the game, they will be less willing to use their ‘coach’s challenge’ and so risk losing their time out. They will also be less willing to use their time out earlier in the game, even at times when they may need it. Your team gains an advantage by them being less willing to use their time out or coach’s challenge.

9) If the other team does manage to clear the zone and change lines, you can then use your own time out in order to rest your top line so that it can stay out on the ice for the rest of the game.

10) If you are playing a division rival or wild-card rival, and would like to deny them the chance of getting a point from an OT loss, this strategy gives you a (small) chance of winning the game in regulation

For all these reasons (some much more than others, obviously), I suspect that if you are facing a scenario where the opposing team’s line is exhausted with 3 minutes left and you are down a goal, you may be better off pulling your goalie then rather than waiting to do so with 2 minutes left against a better(-rested) line. If I were an NHL coach, I would try to simulate this scenario in practice during the offseason in order to try to answer this riddle. The reason I would run such an experiment is this: if it is true with 3 minutes left, what about with 4 minutes left? What about with 10? What if you were down by more than one goal? In other words, how exhausted do the opposing team’s players need to be, and much time left does there need to be, and how many goals down in the game do you need to be, to make this strategy worthwhile? We don’t know, as teams never try it.

We do know, though, that teams get caught out on long shifts fairly frequently. And we know that players’ effectiveness tends to drop dramatically when being caught on a long, tiring shift. So, if the strategy really were to prove effective, whichever team discovers it and implements it first may actually gain a significant advantage. (If it proved really effective, there may even be a case for waiting until the playoffs to deploy the strategy for the first time, in order prevent other teams from adopting the strategy themselves after seeing you use it). If successful, the benefit of simulating these scenarios in practice in the offseason could far outstrip the cost (of time and energy) that will be required to properly simulate the scenarios as required.

2. The Purpose of Pulling Your Goalie  

We assume that the purpose of pulling your goalie must be to score a goal playing 6-on-5. But what about pulling your goalie to increase your odds of scoring a goal 5-on-5? Consider the following scenario: your team is trailing by a goal with 3 minutes left in the game, and is in control of the puck in the offensive zone. Some or all of your players on the ice are physically exhausted, and your best offensive player is on the bench. You would like to swap out one of your tired players to bring your star on the ice, but you don’t want to change on the fly because you are worried the other team might take advantage of the brief swap to try to gain control of the puck and clear the zone. Well, maybe you should think about pulling your goalie for a few seconds to bring him in, and then, once he joins his teammates in the offensive zone, have another player exit the game as quickly as possible so that your goalie can reenter the game. (This plan also works better if the players on both teams are tired, as at best they are only likely to get a chance to score an empty net goal from behind centre-ice, so they would be risking an icing). If done smoothly, you might be able to improve your odds of tying the game by trying this move.

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If I were an NHL coach…

3 unusual strategies I might try: 

1) Specialty Pull   

Here’s a question: if your team was trailing by one goal, would you rather have the goalie pulled with 2 minutes left against a relatively well-rested defense or, instead, pulled with 3 minutes against a defense that is utterly exhausted as it is being caught on the ice during a really long shift?

There is no empirical evidence by which we can attempt to answer this riddle, because coaches almost never pull their goalies when down one goal with 3 minutes left. My guess, however, is that playing 6-on-5 against exhausted defenders with 3 minutes left is better than playing 5-on-5 against exhausted defenders with 3 minutes left and then waiting until around the 2 minute mark to pull your goalie (at least, in cases when the team that is leading has no time outs left). Here’s why:

  1. an exhausted defense is less likely to clear the zone and/or score an empty net goal
  2. if an exhausted defense tries to score a long empty net goal and misses, resulting in an icing, then they will pay a big price for it: the other team will be able to bring on fresh players, which will make the difference in tiredness between the two teams even greater.
  3. an exhausted defense playing 5-on-6 is less likely to get a lucky bounce or turnover that would allow them to clear the zone (or, if they do clear the zone, to clear it enough to get many of its players to reach the bench)
  4. an exhausted defense playing 5-on-6 is more likely to have its goalie screened, so the odds of the goalie making a save to stop play and allow a line change is reduced.
  5. by bringing a 6th attacker on the ice, you have the opportunity to seamlessly bring on a top player on who is fully rested himself.
  6. pulling your goalie early means that the exhausted defense has less of a chance of winning the game by simply running down the clock. From a psychological perspective also, it may be more difficult for an exhausted player to muster his remaining energy when he knows he is not closed to being ‘saved by the bell’.
  7. the exhausted players may not be that team’s best defenders; whereas with 1 or 2 minutes left in the game to play, a team normally has their best defenders on the ice. Moreover, if they cause an icing, you can bring on your own team’s best players
  8. If the opposing team knows you might employ this strategy at some point during the game, they will be less willing to use their ‘coach’s challenge’ and so risk losing their time out. They will also be less willing to use their time out earlier in the game, even at times when they may need it. Your team gains an advantage by them being less willing to use their time out or coach’s challenge.
  9. If the other team does manage to clear the zone and change lines, you can then use your own time out in order to rest your top line so that it can stay out on the ice for the rest of the game.
  10. If you are playing a division rival or wild-card rival, and would like to deny them the chance of getting a point from an OT loss, this strategy gives you a (small) chance of winning the game in regulation

For all these reasons, my suspicion is that, if you are facing a scenario where the opposing team’s line is exhausted with 3 minutes left and you are down a goal, you may be better off pulling your goalie then rather than waiting to do so with 2 minutes left against a better(-rested) line. If I were an NHL coach, I would try to simulate this scenario in practice during the offseason in order to try to answer this question. The reason I would run such an experiment is this: if it is true with 3 minutes left, what about with 4 minutes left? What about with 10? What if you were down by more than one goal? In other words, how exhausted do the opposing team’s players need to be, and much time left does there need to be, and how many goals down in the game do you need to be, to make this strategy worthwhile? We don’t know, as teams never try it.

We do know, though, that teams get caught out on long shifts fairly frequently — at least once a game, it seems to me. And we know that players’ effectiveness tends to drop dramatically when being caught on a long, tiring shift. So, if the strategy really were to prove effective, whichever team discovers it and implements it first could gain a not insignificant advantage. (If it proved really effective, there may even be a case for waiting until the playoffs to deploy the strategy for the first time, in order prevent other teams from adopting the strategy themselves after seeing you use it). The potentialy benefit of simulating these scenarios in practice in the offseason may far outstrip the cost (of time and energy) that will be required to properly simulate the scenarios as required.

2. Specialty Backup

If you count a shootout victory as an overtime game-winning goal, then a fairly high percentage of all goals and all game winning goals are scored on the power play or in overtime. For goalies, a power play (but not the penalty kill), overtime, and shootouts have three main things in common: 1) they are all extremely different from regular 5-on-5 hockey; 2) they all involve making saves against breakaways or fast breaks; and 3) passing and skating is much more important for a goalie on a power play or during 3-on-3 (or 4-on-3) overtime. It stands to reason that, at least for a few teams, they might become better if they have a backup goalie who can specialize at subbing into games for power plays, overtimes, and/or shootouts. Another benefit of the overtime specialization is that it gives the goalie a chance to warm up for the shootout, which single-handedly decides the fate of the game and bears very little resemblance to goaltending in general. There is, for sure, a crop of backup goalies who, if they practiced it a lot, could become better than most starting goalies at shootouts. There may even be some who could become better than any goalies at shootouts. Ditto for playing 3-on-3, 4-on-3, 5-on-3, or 5-on-4.

3. Specialty Line 

Of course, you want to have your best players on the ice during key moments like a power play, penalty kill, or overtime. But, there is are a few catches here: your best penalty killers may be in the penalty box during a penalty kill; your best players in general may be injured during a game; and your best players may be tired at a key moment in the game. A specialty line, which acts as a team’s third or fourth line in general but then doubles as either the first or second unit of the team’s power play, penalty kill, and 3-on-3 overtime, could be useful, in part because this unit  would play less and therefore be less likely to be in the penalty box, or injured, or exhausted, at key moments. Moreover, power plays, penalty kills, and 3-on-3 overtimes are all so different from general hockey that some level of specialization is almost certainly worthwhile: in other words, there are almost certaintly at least three players in the NHL right now who would be far more useful to a team if they were to stop focusing the vast majority of their energy and practice on playing normal 5-on-5 hockey, and were instead to specialize at playing together on power plays, penalty kills, and 3-on-3 overtimes (and, perhaps, shootouts too; particularly since penalty shots are more common during 3-on-3 overtimes). This strategy also dovetails closely with the strategy backup goalie: the specialty line will specialize at playing alongside that goalie, which could be very useful during 3-on-3 overtimes when an accurate and anticipated stretch pass from a goalie could lead to the game winning goal being scored.

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 If I was commissioner of the NHL… (Three ways to make the game better, and make lots of $$$)

 

  1. Overtime

    First off, some reasons why the current regular-season overtime structure arguably should be changed:

  • Shootouts are anti-climactic after the excitement of the 3rd period and 3-on-3 OT
  • Shootouts are a silly “skills-competition” way of determining a winning team
  • It seems wrong to give half as many points for losing the game (in OT) as for a win
  • Relying on shootouts too much is a waste of a good opportunity: if they were rarer, they would be very exciting. Similarly, too many shootouts even makes penalty shots less exciting – a shame, since a penalty shot used to be a highly exciting event in a game

Here’s what I would do. Instead of going to a shootout, the home team’s coach would be given a choice: end the game in a tie, end the game in a shootout, or play a second 5 minute, 3-on-3 OT. If a tie, both teams get 1 point. But losing teams in OT or shootouts get no points. If the second OT ends scoreless, the same choice would then be given to the away team’s coach; and so on, ad infinitum*.

(*If you are afraid that the coaches are too timid to make their decision happily in the face of thousands of people in the crowd chanting “more OT, more OT”, then you could have the coaches make their choices earlier instead, in private – perhaps before the start of the game even. But much more fun would be to have the coach to decide in real time. It could be like a Roman emperor giving the thumbs up or down to determine a gladiator’s fate in the Coliseum. Thumbs up would mean another OT, thumbs down would mean a shootout, thumb to the side would be a tie. …If you are still worried about too much OT, you could tweak things further. You could make it so the coaches have to be unanimous in their choice – resulting in a tie if they do not both agree to another OT or shootout. Or you could make any OT after the first OT only 2-3 minutes, instead of 5…).

  1. All-Star Weekend

The all-star weekend should be the most exciting part of the regular season, but instead it is the least exciting. Here’s how to fix it: you have all the NHL teams compete in a 1-game elimination, March Madness-style tournament, where the winning team gets 10 points in the regular season standings. On the final day of the tournament, you have two games played: the tournament Finals in the evening, and the All-Star Game in the afternoon. Any all-star players on teams participating in the Finals game would simply not participate in the All-Star Game. Plus, to spice things up even more, you would have the All-Star Game be Team Europe versus Team (North) America.

Here’s how the tournament could work. On Thursday evening, you would have one player from all 31 NHL teams compete in a last-man-standing shootout competition, with the winner’s team getting a bye in the first round of the tournament, and the results of the shootout in general determining the shape of the tournament bracket. (Ordering the tournament bracket by regular season standings would not be fair, since some teams’ regular season schedules at this point will have been much easier than others’). This will only be necessary until the league expands to 32 teams.

On Friday you would have the opening round, in which each team would play one 20-minute period of 4-on-4 hockey, followed by a 20 minute, first-goal wins 3-on-3 OT period, followed by a shootout.

Since there will be 15 games in total in the opening day, each one running between about 20 minutes and an hour (with intermissions) in length, it would be possible to host the tournament using only two venues. It should be co-hosted by two neighbouring cities—one city will get the Finals, the other will get the All-Star Game.

On Saturday, you have the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8, with the same rules as the opening round. On Sunday, you have the Final Four, again with the same rules. At the end of the Final Four, the two teams going in to the Finals will have each played between 60-160 minutes (likely, closer to 100 minutes) over 3 days. And they will only have played 20-40 minutes (likely, closer to 20) on the day before the Finals, so they will be well rested.

Finally, on Monday (of a holiday weekend) you have the Finals and the All-Star Game, each of which will be played like a playoff game: three 5-on-5 regulation periods, then continuous 5-on-5 OTs.

One more thing: at the Finals, all of the all-stars would sit together, watching the game live at the arena in the “All-Star Box”.

I think this would be great – a hell of a lot of fun, a great treat for fans and a way of attracting new fans, and a way to see some more 4-on-4 hockey again (which was always high-quality). One-game elimination tournaments, whether it is the NFL playoffs or NCAA March Madness, are the most successful events in the sports world. And it would not take away any of the prestige of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Rather it could be an ideal pre-shadowing of and advertisement for the playoffs.

 

  1. Expansion

We know that the three largest untapped hockey markets by far are Toronto, Southwest Ontario (and its neighbouring cities in Michigan, northern Ohio, upstate NY, and upstate Pennsylvania), and Europe. The problem, of course, is that Toronto already has a team, Southwest Ontario does not have any cities with populations and arenas large enough to support a team, and Europe is in Europe.

There might be some ways around all of these problems, if we are willing to get creative:

The London Knights, a team split 75-25 between Canada’s 10th largest city, London (population 475,000) and Europe’s largest city, London (population 13.5 million). It would play at least some of its playoff games in a location accessible to Londoners and Londoners: the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

Of course, the obvious problem comes up: while London, England already has arenas that could be suitable to host a dozen or so NHL games per year, and while the ACC could handle at least some playoff games (the Staples Centre in LA, after all, hosts playoff games for the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings), and while London, Ontario is in some ways the best-located city in the country (it is 100-200 km from urban areas like Toronto-Hamilton, Detroit-Windsor, Buffalo-St Catharines, and Cleveland-Erie; it is relatively warm and sunny in the winter; and it does not border a Great Lake or ocean, so it has room for future growth in all directions), London, Ontario does not have an NHL arena. It also does not have a population large enough to justify building a typical NHL arena – particularly not an arena that would only be used for a few dozen games per year.
The question is, then, is there an atypical NHL arena that London could build instead?

Here’s one crazy idea: “The Tower of London”

For London to build a worthwhile arena, it must be able to get a good use of the arena for close to 365 days per year, instead of only a few dozen evenings per year. The only way that seems possible to me is if the arena were to double as conventional real estate: in other words, it should consist mostly of boxes, which can double as offices/hotel rooms/restaurants/co-working spaces/ etc. (The hotel room aspect could be especially useful if fans from other cities in Ontario, or even from London, England, wanted to visit London and catch a game while in town). The arena could have a lower bowl of normal seats, but then instead of any upper bowls, it could be a “tower” of boxes. If it were 100 metres tall (the height of the Skydome), and had a lower bowl that could sit 10,000 people (the same as the lower bowl of the ACC holds), the arena as a whole could then seat 20,000, though ½ of the fans would be in boxes (and many of them would be quite high up). And because the lower bowl seats would probably sell out, the arena would never look empty on TV–like, for example, the Ottawa Senators’ arena looked empty during last year’s playoff run.

So, those are three things I would try to do, if I was king commissioner. What would you do?

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Robots and NHL Expansion

Winnipeg and Las Vegas, the two newest NHL franchises since Minnesota and Columbus joined the league in 2000, have one thing in common: nobody lives near them. Apart from much larger, regional capitals, like New York City or Phoenix, both Winnipeg and Las Vegas account for a far bigger share of their state or province’s total population than do any of the other cities with NHL teams.

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In other words, both Winnipeg and Las Vegas are located pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

In spite of this, Winnipeg and Vegas represent opposing strategies to adding new teams to the NHL. Returning a team to Winnipeg was an example of what we will call a short-distance strategy. It was (to state the obvious) intended to capitalize on hockey fans, a.k.a. Canadians, who live in Winnipeg. As Winnipeg had been the largest Canadian city without a team, and Manitoba the largest province without a team, bringing the Jets back was an obvious decision for the NHL to make.

The league does not, however, expect many people at Jets games to have come from afar. Even outside of Winnipeg’s metro area, most Manitobans live not far from the city. Winnipeg’s neighbours, moreover, are distant andd sparsely populated. Saskatchewan has just 1.1 million people; its largest city, Saskatoon, is 710 km away from Winnipeg. Calgary and Edmonton are 1200 km from Winnipeg. Fargo is 330 km to Winnipeg’s south, Minneapolis 615 km. And almost nobody lives in northwestern Ontario. Toronto and Ottawa are more than 1700 km away. Manitoba cannot rely much on its neighbours to buy hockey tickets.

Las Vegas is following the opposite strategy: a long-distance strategy. It hopes to attract fans (aka gamblers, tourists) from hundreds or thousands of kilometres away: from Canada, the rest of the United States, and even overseas.

Even the Vegas locals, who the NHL hopes to convert into hockey fans, are dependent on long-distance tourism. Without tourism, Las Vegas’ economy would dry up and force many of the locals to leave (or at least, to spend less money on hockey tickets). This the Las Vegas Golden Knights would not be able to afford. Once the Oakland Raiders move to Las Vegas in 2019, Nevada will have the smallest population per each of its major sports franchises of any state or province—with only one exception: Manitoba.

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Pittsburgh and Nashville  

This year’s Stanley Cup contenders, Pittsburgh and Nashville, are very different than Winnipeg and Vegas. For one thing, neither are the largest cities in their states. The Greater Nashville metro area is home to only an estimated 27 percent of the population of Tennessee; Pittsburgh’s metro area is home to just 13 percent of Pennsylvania’s population. Pittsburgh was fifth from the bottom on both of the blue graphs above.

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The Nashville Predators, and its nearest fellow teams in every direction—plus the Thrashers, which left Atlanta to become the Jets in 2011. 

For Nashville, not only are the Predators the only team in Tennessee, they are also surrounded by five states with no NHL teams: Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and Kentucky. Tens of millions of people live within a few hundred km of Nashville, and none of them have their own teams.

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Pittsburgh too is in a region with a large population yet relatively few hockey teams—albeit not nearly to the same extent as Nashville. This region includes Ohio, which has no team north of Columbus, and the Virginias, which have no teams at all. Most importantly, it includes part of southwestern Ontario. Pittsburgh is located closer to the Canadian border than any other American team apart from Buffalo or Detroit.

Pennsylvania is also one of just two states that has exactly two NHL teams. (The other, Florida, relies on tourists and snowbirds, like Las Vegas will). This is a useful arrangement, creating an intrastate rivlary in which western Pennsylvania can cheer for the Penguins and the east for the Flyers.

Golden Knights or Goldilocks? 

Pittsburgh and Nashville are both examples of a medium-distance strategy for NHL expansion. Whereas Vegas will rely on fans jetting in from thousands of km away, and Winnipeg relies on Manitobans keeping the seats full, the Predators and Penguins can both — in theory, at least — attract fans or ticket-buyers who live within tens or hundreds of km of their arenas.

The question is however: which strategy is best?

The reason I bring this up is, as the title of this article indicated, robots. If Sillicon Valley is right, and technologies like autonomous cars really are coming just around the corner, might this make a medium-distance strategy wiser? Would it make the recent expansions to Winnipeg or Las Vegas ill-advised? After all, an autonomous vehicle could make driving tens or even hundreds of km to come home from a game—at night, in the winter, on a rural highway, after having drunk a beer or two earlier—safe and easy. This might increase dramatically the distance that fans are prepared to travel to go to a game.

A medium-distance strategy for future NHL expansion should, in general, prioritize cities that are in Canada or near the Canadian border. Such a team would allow Canadian hockey fans could come to games without having to travel too far a distance. Such cities might include Quebec City, Hamilton, Cleveland, Seattle, Milwaukee, or perhaps even Halifax, Saskatoon, London (in Ontario), Portland, or Toledo.

Most of these cities could not support a team without some new major advance in transportation technology, such as autonomous cars: the number of hockey fans who live in them is simply too small. Some may not be able to support a team even with robot cars. Halifax, for example, has a mere 400,000 inhabitants. It would need to draw in many fans from other Maritime cities to become viable.

While Quebec City and Hamilton are arguably the most sensible additions the NHL could make if following a medium-distance strategy, Seattle is I think the most intriguing one. Seattle is of course a sizeable city in its own right; it accounts for 50 percent (by metro area) and 9 percent (by municipality) of Washington’ population—middle-of-the-pack figures for cities that have NHL teams. Yet Washington as a state has only two major sports franchises (the Seattle Seahawaks and Seattle Mariners) for 7.2 million people. Along with neighbouring Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest has only four teams (Seahawks, Mariners, Trailblaizers, and Canucks) for 17.5 million people. It used to have six, but the Supersonics and Grizzlies moved away.

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One reason the Pacific Northwest has so few sports teams per capita is its mountainous terrain. The mountains make land expensive, raising the cost of an arena. They also make driving tricky and limit the number of highways available, creating traffic. This makes it difficult for fans from other cities to drive to and from Seattle, Portland, or Vancouver to take in a game. For a Seattle NHL team this would be an especially important challenge, as the team would want hockey fans to visit from Canada. It is 236 km from Vancouver to Seattle, and 278 from Portland to Seattle. It is just 115 km from Victoria, BC’s capital city (with a population of 368,000), but only as the crow flies.

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Autonomous cars could, perhaps, help the Pacific Northwest overcome these challenges. They might do so by allowing an arena to be built further from Seattle’s expensive downtown core, or by allowing an arena to have much smaller parking lots (and therefore to occupy less expensive real estate) or by making it easier to drive hundreds of km through the region’s rugged and rainy terrain.

On the other hand…

Of course, it is easy for me to just say “autonomous cars” and then try to make up a cool-sounding argument around it. But that does not mean in any way that my argument is a good one.

In this case, it may instead be that a short-distance or long-distance approach, of the Winnipeg or Las Vegas variety, really will be better than a medium-distance one. This is something that the league should, I think, try to determine for itself.

If a short-distance strategy is determined to be best, then the obvious choice for expansion would be to put a second team in Toronto. Even with two teams, the municipality of Toronto would have approximately 1.4 inhabitants per NHL team and 700,000 inhabitants per “Big 4” sports franchise. In contrast, the municipalities of of Hamilton and Quebec City are home to only around 500,000 people each.

The Greater Toronto Area (not even including nearby Hamilton or Kitchener-Waterloo) would have 3.2 million people per NHL team and 1.6 million per Big 4 team were it to add a second NHL franchise. The Greater Montreal Area would have just 2 million people per team were it to do so.

A long-distance strategy, on the other hand, might focus on cities in the south, where hockey-loving snowbirds could flock. This could mean a first NHL team in one of the southern states without any, or a second team in Texas, or a third attempt at a team in Atlanta, or maybe even a fourth team in California.

Indeed, the most recent round of NHL expansion in southern cities was during the 1990s, when, perhaps not incidentally, the cost of travel was cheap and the Canadian dollar was weak, as oil prices were at an all-time low. San Jose, Anaheim, Miami, Tampa Bay, and Dallas all got teams during 1991-1993 (Ottawa also got a team in 1992), while Phoenix, Denver, Raleigh, Nashville, and Atlanta got teams during 1995-1999.

In contrast, the three since then have been northern: Columbus and Minneapolis in 2000, then Winnipeg in 2011. A long-distance approach, however, might be less friendly towards northern cities—particularly far-northern cities, such as Winnipeg, Quebec City, or Saskatoon. It might worry that too many Canadians will flee the cold and dark of winter to seek the bright sun of the south.

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North America

Should Hockey Fans Be Keynesians?

One of the most common things NHL players tell the media during the playoffs is that, when on the road, they want to play well during the first period in order to “take the fans out of the game early”.

If we assume that the players are correct in thinking that the fans can have strong influence over the game (even though home-team advantage has been quite a bit less significant in the NHL than in the NBA, and arguably has more to do with biases in officiating than anything else) it begs the question of whether some teams’ fans are better at cheering than others.

Usually most of the focus here gets put on sheer loudness: the louder the fans, the better, is the general assumption.  In this year’s playoffs, for example, sportscasters have been talking a lot about how the Rangers’ struggles at home may be due in part to renovations that have made Madison Square Gardens a quieter arena to play in than it used to be.

But what might, perhaps, be lacking in these discussions is a focus on the timing of fans’ cheering. In the NHL, most cheering tends to occur when the home team is already playing well. When a team is doing poorly, however, it is more likely to hear only a brief, classless “Refs You Suck” chant, rather than the more sustained, energizing, and joyous “Go Leafs Go!”

It is not, or at least it does not  appear to be, the fans as a whole who tend to shift the momentum in the game. Rather it seems more often to be individual achievements that do so: a timely goal to get the home team back in the game, a big hit being landed or power play started, or a super-determined (and probably drunk) fan who just wont give up cheering until everybody sitting around him — and then, ultimately, the entire arena — joins in too.

The way fans cheer may be the worst nightmare of the honest, god-fearing Keynesian. Rather than provide stimulus during teams’ recessions, and restraint during their boom times, fans cheer when teams are already playing well, and are often quiet when things look grim.

This raises questions that are usually more associated with economics and politics than hockey. Can stimulus lead to mistakes borne of overconfidence? Is stimulus always equally good, or does it succumb to diminishing returns — and if so, how soon after it begins? And how much better are some governments (or fans) than others at doling out stimulus at the ideal time?

Obviously, these are contested, and more or less unsolved, or even insoluble, questions in economics. In sports, though, we cannot even begin to approach the question, since nobody (as far as I know) has gathered the data that would be necessary to make a start of it. If we want to know more — and yes,  I admit it: this is obviously not really an issue of burning importance — we’re going to need a hockey-loving economist who possesses the skill and resources to do so.

Malcolm Gladwell, if you’re out there somewhere, get to work.

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