Welcome to the era of high-octane scoring.
Seriously, never have three major sports had an explosion in scoring simultaneously.
Football, basketball and hockey are all seeing scoring unprecedented for decades. In the case of football, the scoring eruption has never been seen before.
I saw an Associated Press story today about how hat tricks in hockey are way, way up this year. I had noticed this watching hockey this season and I’m glad the AP caught wind of it, too. It’s time for all you fledgling Seattle Kraken hockey fans to start picking up the nuances of the sport.
And personally, I think it’s great.
I watched with dismay in the 1990s as the neutral zone trap and the left-wing lock (a defense so complex it makes the triangle offense in basketball look like Tinker Toys) pretty much destroy the game.
I grew up on the hockey of the 1980s and early 90s, an era in which Wayne Gretzky scored 92 in one season, Brett Hull 86, Mario Lemieux 85, Teemu Selanne 76 and Jarri Kuri 71.
The year I moved to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., was the year Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to the L.A. Kings. After hockey practice or at every bar in town, people were dialed in to the Kings’ games. A Kings game was an event in Mammoth that year.
That year, Bernie Nicholls, not exactly a household name today, scored 70 for the Kings, while Gretzky scored 54 and Luc Robataille 46. They had four other guys who scored more than 25 goals. It was wildly entertaining.
Then, in the mid-90s, the coaches fell in love with the neutral zone trap and hockey damn near committed suicide. Death by boredom. All those entertaining 5-4 games turned into dull slogs of 1-0 or 2-1. Goals decreased from 3.53 per game in 1993 to 2.46 per game in 2004. That may not sound dramatic, but trust me it was.
TV viewership nosedived. Attendance sank. A once-growing sport stalled. There was no way of getting around it, even for a huge hockey fan like me. Hockey had become a snoozefest. A team was lucky if it got off 20 shots against that neutral zone trap.
Not many people know this, but hockey had a work stoppage about 14 years ago literally driven by the need to fix the rules of the game. They had to force these rule changes past stubborn coaches. They got rid of the red line in the middle of the rink (other than for purposes of icing), thus neutering the neutral zone trap. It took a few years, but scoring in hockey has been edging up ever so slightly. The past two years, it’s jumped up a ton.
Goals per game were still lingering at a sluggish 2.51 per game as recently as 2016, but jumped to 2.59 in 2017, 2.78 in 2018 and 3.03 in 2019. That’s the highest scoring average since 1996.
NBA way up, too
Interestingly, nearly the same exact thing happened in the NBA during the exact same era. I loved the NBA of the 1980s and the contrast in styles between the high-flying L.A. Lakers and the rugged Boston Celtics. A typical game back then was 118-115.
Just like a neutral zone trap, the Detroit Pistons came along and ruined the game. The Pistons, with some help from the N.Y. Knicks, ushered in an era of excessively defensive, brutal brand of basketball. A typical Pistons game was 88-85.
The Knicks came along and took it a step further, slowing down the game more and more. Scores kept dropping every year through the ’90s. You’d actually see 80-75 games … and then 75-70 games … and then incredibly there were games with final scores in the 60s and 50s. And these were regular season games, not playoffs.
The typical NBA score went from 109.2 points per game in 1989 to 91.6 points a game in 1999. Scoring dropped nearly 20 points per game in 10 years.
Basketball during this era was awful. I hated it. I completely lost interest in the NBA for at least 10 years. Partly because of the boring games and partly because (and I’m not even a Sacramento Kings fan, I just know a scam when I see one in front of my own eyes) the referees screwed the Kings during the Western Conference Finals in 2002. I’m not a big believer in conspiracy theories, honestly I am not, but I am absolutely convinced that the league, the commissioner, whoever, purposely threw that series to the Lakers because Sacramento was a tiny TV market and would get lousy ratings in the Finals. I can’t prove it. I don’t care; I’m convinced of it. I will go to my grave convinced of it.
Anyway, I digress and I could write a whole column about that 2002 Western Conference Finals. The Golden State Warriors slowly rekindled my interest in the NBA again. Much like hockey, the scoring averages started creeping back up again in 2017, to 105.6. Then to 106.3 last season. This year, the average has leaped to 110.5 per game, the highest since 1985. And I love it. It’s not just the Warriors anymore, either. It’s everyone. You can tune in to any game to see if James Harden or Russell Westbrook or Kyrie Irving will go off for 55 or more. There’s the potential for every game to become an “event.”
Football has gotten even more explosive, not just professionally, but in college, too, with defenses unable to keep up with today’s complex offenses. I mean, you don’t even really raise your eyebrows anymore at some college 58-55 college game today, especially if it’s in the Big 12.
I was sitting in a tavern in Lakehead, Calif., (It was actually called The Basshole, and why yes, it was a classy joint.), watching the Chiefs and the Rams go at it on a Monday night in a game that ended up 55-52. It was great. I certainly was entertained. I’d rather watch that than some 10-7 slog over Utah (sorry, Huskies fans).
I know coaches love defense and yes, defense wins championships. Too much defense ruins sports, however.
All hail this era of offense. Long may it last.