June 23, 2015 By Paul Gackle

Stalemate: Would 3-on-3 Overtime Solve The NHL’s Tiebreaker Problem?

Anyone who’s ever laced up a pair of skates and chased a small disk of frozen rubber around a pond, river or backyard rink knows that there’s only one way to break ties in hockey.

When Mom called us in for dinner, we didn’t break stalemates with coin flips or shootouts and we certainly didn’t resolve the issue by going to 3-on-3 overtimes.

Instead, we just yelled: “next goal wins!”

Sudden death overtime is the only way to determine the true winner of a hockey game that’s tied after three periods of play. Unfortunately, it’s an impractical solution during the 82-game grind known as the regular season, so the NHL’s back at the drawing board this week, devising a new approach to resolving hockey’s time-tested quagmire.

When the NHL’s general managers gather in Las Vegas on Tuesday for their end-of-season meeting, they’ll receive an update from the competition committee regarding efforts to develop a new overtime format, and they could introduce changes that would be tested during the 2015-16 preseason.

In an effort to reduce the number of shootouts during the regular season, the NHL is exploring the possibility of adopting the AHL’s overtime format, which begins with 4-on-4 play and shifts to 3-on-3 after the first whistle following the three-minute mark of the extra session. If the game is still tied after a seven-minute overtime period, the teams will enter a shootout to determine the winner.

Hesitant to extend regular season overtime by two minutes, the NHLPA prefers five minutes of 3-on-3 overtime before the shootout is triggered.

However it decides to proceed, the NHL will be stuck with an imperfect solution to its tiebreaker problem. Since sudden death is infeasible, the league is choosing to manufacture late-game excitement with shootouts and 3-on-3 instead of returning to the fair and logical solution: tie games.

Let’s head out to the backyard, again. Do you remember what happened if no one scored within five, ten minutes of Mom calling us in for dinner?

She yelled, again, issuing a warning: “if you don’t get your butts in the house now, you won’t be playing hockey out there for the rest of the week.”

Just like that, the game was over. We trudged into the house with our heads hung low, feeling empty. No winners. No losers. Everyone left the yard unsatisfied.

We didn’t determine an arbitrary winner by flipping a coin. The game ended in a tie, an appropriate result.

If two teams are locked up through 65 minutes of hockey, a tie is a fair and just result when sudden death isn’t an option. Yes, tie games leave matters unresolved, stir up mixed feelings and gives us shades of gray when we crave black or white in sports. But they also ensure that the game of hockey is determining the outcome of a game of hockey.

The NHL is looking to tweak its overtime format because too many games are ending in shootouts, which means that winners and losers are being determined by a skills competition rather than an actual hockey game.

This format isn’t just determining who gets awarded an additional point at the end of 65 minutes. With unprecedented parity in the modern NHL, a team’s performance in the shootout is often the difference between making and missing the playoffs.

While 3-on-3 may look, sound and feel like real hockey, it’s still a gimmick. The NHL would still be using a tool that isn’t the game itself, in its natural form, to determine its winners and losers. It might be a slight improvement, but it would still be taking the game away from game.

Moreover, 3-on-3 overtime doesn’t address the absurdity of having two points awarded in some games, three in others.

Sure, 3-in-3 overtime would bring another layer of excitement to regular season hockey in the beginning. But eventually, like the shootout itself and interleague play in baseball, the novelty will wear off and the league will be back in the laboratory devising new formulas for breaking regular season ties when the answer is sitting under its nose, etched in the history books.

True hockey fans are accepting of tie games. They grew up with tie games. They’re woven into the sport’s DNA, like draws in soccer. But the NHL is always running away from tradition, seeing it as an obstacle that needs to be hurdled to connect with a larger audience.

While they’re unsatisfying, tie games are the only viable solution to a problem that will continue to the plague the NHL in the wake of 3-on-3 overtimes. Apparently, the NHL still needs to figure out that sometimes the best option is to listen to your Mom, accept an imperfect reality and eat your dinner.

There will always be another game.

This column was sponsored by Tilden Park Golf Course in Berkeley. Join the Players’ Club for $39.99 a month. Daily range access. Free green fees. Free golf clinics!