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Fewer Hockey Players Means Better Overtime

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The National Hockey League tried to add some pizazz to the game in 2005 when it decided games still tied after one overtime period would be decided by shootouts. And while commissioner Gary Bettman insists the fans love one-on-one contests, the league's general managers seem to have soured on them. 

At their meeting Tuesday, the GMs recommended adopting some form of three-on-three hockey during overtime after seeing its success in their feeder association, the American Hockey League. Currently, overtime in the NHL is four-on-four sudden-death for five minutes, after which the game goes to a shootout if no goals are scored. The league is considering two new formats: either play three-on-three for the full five-minute overtime period, or adopt the AHL model of a seven-minute overtime, playing four-on-four for the first three minutes and then switching to three-on-three.

The idea is to create more space on the ice to lead to more overtime goals and reduce the number of shootouts. According to the NHL, as of Tuesday, there have been 257 games played past regulation time this season; 110 were decided in the overtime period (42.8 percent), while 147 were decided in the shootout (57.2 percent). Last season, of the 307 games requiring extra time, 128 were decided in overtime (41.7 percent), while 179 were decided in the shootout (58.3 percent.)

Meanwhile, the three-on-three rules made a big change in the AHL, raising the rate of games decided in overtime from 35.3 percent last season to 76.3 percent this season through Monday. The NHL notes that "of the 171 goals scored in overtime this season, 73 of them were scored during the time allotted for three-on-three play." Opening the ice has accounted for 42.7 percent of the overtime goals.

The shootout was implemented in the aftermath of a year-long lockout that was feared to have crippled the league's popularity. The NHL instituted a number of rule changes to win back fans, mainly by increasing scoring and eliminating ties. The two-line pass was legalized and goalies were limited to playing the puck in a trapezoid marked on the ice, while shootouts were introduced.

Ten years later, many hockey observers dismiss the shootout as nothing more than a skills competition that has little place in the game outside of All-Star Weekend. Many players -- especially goalies -- are equally dissatisfied with deciding games with the shootout, perhaps most notably Boston Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask. "Gas it right away," Rask said in 2013 about the shootout. "Midseason. Get rid of it. I don't [expletive] want it."

The NHL has considered three-on-three hockey in recent years, but instead has opted for alternative rule tweaks to try to deter shootouts without radically altering overtime. Last year, the league approved the "long change" for overtime, which has teams switching sides after the third period so each  is defending the goal farthest from their bench, as they do in the second period. The extra distance can result in tired lines stuck in defensive zones, which ostensibly leads to more scoring. But that hasn't materialized this season. 

There are some potential challenges. A longer, seven-minute overtime period would occur on a playing surface that tends to be choppy after the third period. In November, NHL GMs eliminated the "dry scrape," stopping the use of Zambonis to clean the ice before overtime, which they felt was too time-consuming. Should the league adopt three-on-three hockey, it would probably need to compromise on cleaning time to maintain suitable ice conditions.

It might make sense for the league to adopt a full five-minute, three-on-three overtime. That would put less strain on the ice, and it would also address the bigger concern of the potential strain on top players. Still, some GM's argue that it would render too many players obsolete in extra time, with only about half the roster playing most of the minutes. 

The details will need to be worked out, but any change that leads to more games being decided by actual hockey is ultimately good for the sport. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at