Hockey has an image problem: very few people look at its images.
For the incredible reach and accessibility to the sport on a global scale, high participation numbers, natural ability to be scaled for any age group and a variety of abilities, nobody actually watches it get played.
Unlike sports like football (soccer), cricket, rugby, basketball, baseball, who have large television and streaming audiences, hockey barely registers as a blip on a sports' fan's radar–and most disturbingly, even when they play the game themselves.
Obviously, that needs to be changed. Bureaucrats, administrators and leaders everywhere are trying to figure out how to get eyeballs on the games. With eyeballs comes the advertising dollars needed to hockey's survival, and optimistically its push into professionalism. So what needs to change? Obviously, the game is broken, right? Build it better and they will come!
Everyone has an opinion on what they would change about the rules of hockey. “Too confusing” is the most common complaint, even from top minds in hockey. In a recent interview on The
So what shall we do? Introduce some complicated variations!
Let's explore two ways we’re currently being inflicted with complex changes in the form of the current AHL program and Hockey 5s, recently showcased at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires.
The Australian Hockey League
Hockey Australia has been making an effort to engage a shockingly disinterested sporting public and national media in a sport their national sides have been consistently dominating for decades (in fact the Hockeyroos are currently ranked #3 and the Kookaburras #1 in the world). Not with marketing (because that’s crazy talk), but by mercilessly turning the Rules of Hockey on their head as applied in their provincial championship showcase in the chase for more “celebratory moments.”
The first added element is the addition of a “conversion” opportunity. “When a field goal or penalty stroke, awarded during field play, is scored the same athlete will have an automatic one-on-one shootout with the goalkeeper for an extra goal,” HA states.
As noted by Adam Kearns, an Olympic and soon-to-be 2x World Cup umpire who umpired in the AHL Round 1, one unexpected challenge was in making sure the right player was taking the conversion when the goal to be converted was disputed. However, in his view, the addition of the conversion didn’t interrupt the flow of the game significantly. Much like a penalty corner, the break is more of a tension builder and, according to Kearns, can be set up and taken even more quickly than a PC and contributes to the overall excitement. As another anonymous umpire put it: “Who doesn’t love a shoot-out?”
Pump It Up?
The second of the significant changes to the AHL this season is the, erm, PumpPlay [sic?], described this way:
“Each team possesses a five-minute PumpPlay to use at the end of either the second or fourth quarter [decided by a pre-game coin toss] when teams are reduced to nine players each and where that team’s goals are worth double (conversions remain worth only one goal)…”
Okay, first of all, “PumpPlay” is literally the worst title for this one could imagine. As an umpire, I alternate between giggling and cringing when the phrase runs through my head, and I can’t imagine being willing to say it on the pitch without being forced at gunpoint.
That aside, Kearns reports that the “drop-off” format of going to 9v9 “opens up the field with fewer players and makes life easier as an umpire.” Interestingly, according to the crack statisticians at The Reverse Stick (everyone’s favourite global hockey podcast), over the first round of AHL play (eight matches total), only 3 goals were scored during PumpPlay periods (pardon the alliteration). It's not my strong point, but my math tells me that’s one goal for every 26:40 of PumpPlay: more “celebratory moments” indeed.
Here’s the philosophical problem with the PumpPlay: artificially imposed disadvantages are antithetical to the rules of hockey. Kick the ball? The other team gets the ball. Foul a player when they’ve got an excellent chance to score? Their team gets an excellent chance to score. Everything is about balancing the scales of justice, and penalties are only imposed to restore them. Otherwise, umpires LOVE (I promise you this) to stay the heck out of the way and enjoy watching a lovely game of hockey unfold before them.
By allocating more points to the goals scored by one team during a period of play over those scored by their opposition, it creates an inexplicable disadvantage, one decided by a coin toss. Kearns noted that in the heat of the game it gave the feeling that a team down by more than a couple of goals was still “in the game” and capable of that surmounting that otherwise insurmountable deficit, and that’s precisely the point of the exercise. But giving more less credit for goals scored at one moment in the match than at another just feels WRONG.
Moreover, the European Hockey League showed us the way in its last season when they tested a system where field play goals were worth two points over the one awarded for a penalty corner or penalty stroke goals–and summarily scrapped it just one season later. It was complicated and distorted the statistic we have always relied on to tell us the degree of dominance by a team.
At the end of the day, no one likes maths. Let’s keep them off the hockey pitch.
Hockey How Many and How Long?
Hockey 5s was introduced via a series of continental qualification tournaments over 2013 and 2014, leading up to the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing. Teams consisting of a maximum of 9 players, 5 of which (including the goalkeeper), play on what is essentially half of the pitch surrounded by 25cm-high boards that keep the ball in play much more (although the ball flies over the boards reasonably regularly on shots and missed receptions anyway).
Other significant differences: there is no circle so shots can come from anywhere. Any free hit given inside the attacking 11m quarter is taken back at the 11m line, while intentional fouls inside the attacking half are rewarded with “challenges”. They start like a shoot-out from the 11m line but turns into free play as the rest of the players join in from their starting point at the centre line after the whistle goes.
I'll admit, there’s a lot to like about the format from a junior and development perspective. The players who do make these smaller teams get a lot of time on the ball and play high-tempo shifts. Although shots can come from anywhere, in practice only lobs pass the danger test as goal attempts from beyond the centre line (22m out). The vast majority of goals still come from around that 11m line, and as such it mimics free play goals in hockey 11s (outdoor hockey? “Real” hockey?).
However, from three 15-minute periods in Nanjing, the already short game was abbreviated a blinking two 10-minute halves at the 2018 Games in Buenos Aires, where time is only stopped for cards or injuries. There is a real reason to believe that if Hockey 5s should survive to feature at Senegal 2022, a single 5-minute period will be augmented by a pre-game selfie competition where the winner of the most likes starts with a 3-point head start.
Millenial-shaming jokes aside, in watching the matches from Buenos Aires, as taken as I was by the indisputable fun of non-stop pell-mell action, I also felt numbed by the lack of ebbs to offset all that flow. For every hockey person who appreciates the build-up, structure, shift of balance and space across three dimensions, change of pace and sheer variety of our game, you'll be disappointed at its losing pretty much all of that in Hockey 5s.
As an umpire, everything that is subtle, artistic, and vastly under-appreciated about what we do is similarly watered down. Umpires can barely impact flow positively, as the ball is staying in play all on its own. Penalty corner decisions are entirely gone, replaced by attackers having to take the free hit outside the 11m line–a meagre reward for having to move the ball as far as the entire 11 metres for a restart. There are seldom opportunities for communication with the players: warnings, explanations…And what about banter?
Now, in the junior context, one can see that there are benefits to these changes. Wait for it: Hockey 5s is being used in senior international competition as well. For example, the recent Hockey Series Open in Vanuatu was played in the 5s format, which qualified the winning team on both the women’s and men’s sides to compete in the Hockey Series Finals. Which is a traditional 11-a-side competition, to take on teams who qualified in 11-a-side Hockey Series Open tournaments.
It Ain't Broke
Umpires are not built for criticising rules. Our neutrality makes us particularly amenable to discarding personal opinions for “well, if this rule sucks, at least it sucks equally for both teams…let's play!” Any umpire with more than a few years under their belt (along with every coach and player) has seen a considerable number of changes over the last several years, very much an anomaly in a global sport. Frankly, we have more than enough to worry about just to stay up to date, apply the rules correctly, and be able to explain what we’re doing and why to the teams when things get tight. We’re here to serve, so we do.
But those of us who have a chance to step back and apply perspective have a lot of cause for concern. An anonymous umpire concluded that in the face of all these complications, the increased complexity introduced by the AHL experiments takes away from the excitement it could generate. On the other hand, the over-simplification of the sport by the Hockey 5s format aims for constant excitement and ends up giving…too much of it?
All this upheaval and experimentation is only serving to confuse hockey people further when all they want is more simplicity. We're alienating the most accessible market we have yet to win over to being fans of the game–ourselves. Let's spend our creative energy on low-cost marketing initiatives that put watching hockey on the hockey person's priority list, so we can sit back and enjoy a beautiful, SIMPLE game.
(This article appeared in the Hockey World News Edition 7, October 2018)