The NHL has always fought an uphill battle when it comes to changing the way the game is played. Traditionalists will always argue against any change, no matter how big or how small, as they see it as endangering the integrity of a game they’ve grown to know and love, through thick and thin, despite the quirks and inconsistencies that may exist. Nonetheless, what many of these hockey traditionalists fail to realize is that if not for change they may never have bared witness to the game as they see it today. For nearly one hundred years now the NHL has been tweaking the formula, sometimes with just a minor adjustment, while other times it has been a substantial change that thoroughly affected the way the game was played. The latter is where our choice for Best Functional Rule Change clocks in.
In the beginning, passing in hockey was modeled after similar practices in rugby whereby forward passes were not permitted. This resulted in a game that largely relied on the ability of players to carry the puck around or through defenders in order to advance the puck up ice and get a shot on goal. If the player carrying the puck ran into trouble, his only option was to dump the puck backwards to one of his teammates. This had the effect of creating a game where the action was constantly returning to a state of limbo. When the NHL was formed in 1917 it didn’t take long for the league to realize the effect a lack of forward passing was having on the game and almost immediately took action to change it. Beginning with the 1918-19 season blue lines were painted on the ice for the first time and forward passing was permitted within the neutral center ice.
However, even with this change, defense continued to dominate the game as goal scoring declined every season until reaching an all time low during the 1928-29 season of only 2.918 goals per game. Throughout this time the NHL made small attempts to correct the problem, from allowing forward passing in the defensive zone as well for the 1927-28 season and allowing forward passes into the offensive zone for the 1928-29 season, just so long as the pass was made from the neutral zone. But after dropping below an average of 3 goals per game for the first time, the NHL finally took extreme measures and allowed forward passing in all zones beginning with the 1929-30 season.
Allowing forward passes in all zones produced immediate results as scoring more than doubled with the 1929-30 season averaging 5.914 goals per game. The change was so substantial that the league had to amend the rule mid-season to disallow attacking players from preceding the play into the opposition’s zone, a predecessor to the modern offside rule. Scoring decreased by more than a goal per game during the following season as teams got used to the new rule, however the change proved to have a long-lasting effect as scoring largely held steady for over a decade.
While the impact of allowing forward passes in all zones cannot be understated, it did not revolutionize the way the game was played. Players were still not permitted to make passes across either blue line and therefore the game was still heavily reliant on the ability of players to carry the puck. The greatest problem this caused was that it massively impacted the ability of a defending team to exit their defensive zone. With defenders only allowed to skate the puck past their blue line, strong forechecking teams could easily pin opponents in their own zone for long periods of time. This slowed the game down to a crawl as defenders were forced to cycle the puck within their own zone in attempt to simply find an opening to begin an attack of their own. The speed of the game was being shuttered and in turn the entertainment factor was far less than optimal, hurt even more by the fact that the NHL was currently losing some of its best talent to World War II.
Therefore, our selection for the Best Functional Rule Change of all time was introduced for the start of the 1943-44 season. In simple terms, it was the creation of the center ice red line. This red line down the middle of the ice divided the neutral zone in two and functioned as a limitation to the broader implication of the rule change, that being that finally teams would be allowed to make forward passes out of their defensive zone and into their half of the neutral zone. This allowed teams to more easily break out of their zone and launch an attack against the opposition.
The impact of this rule change was felt immediately. Statistically speaking, the 1943-44 season resulted in a goals per game average of 8.167, the highest since 1920-21 and an average that wouldn’t come close to occurring again until the high flying 1980’s. Eight players topped the 30 goal mark during the season, a record for the time, with Doug Bentley leading the way with 38 goals, the highest total in 14 years. The following year would not only see the record 44 goals by Joe Malone during the inaugural NHL season be broken, but also the birth of the NHL’s first 50 goal scorer, as Maurice “The Rocket” Richard scored 50 in 50 games.
But unlike what happened in 1929-30, it wasn’t solely a change to the scoring output that occurred. The game couldn’t simply adapt to this change with small modifications to its existing style of play. This time the game was forced to overhaul the entire way in which it was played. Attacks could now be initiated almost instantly, giving rise to the concept of a counter-attack in hockey. What had previously been a largely East-West game suddenly morphed into a North-South one. As soon as a defending team recovered the puck in their zone they could quickly fire a pass to an open forward streaking down the ice. The pucks changed hands more often and in turn more excitement was created for the fans. The game became faster than it had ever been before, truly deserving of the title of the fastest game on earth.
Due to the new avenues available on offense, players were forced to also change the way in which they defend. No longer could teams blindly forecheck and easily pin a team in their own zone, as this would leave players open behind them for the outlet pass. Defenders would now have to concentrate more on defending players who didn’t have the puck. This resulted in an increase of man-on-man defensive coverage as opposed to zone defense. In turn, it allowed the truly skilled players of the league to standout that much easier as they could demonstrate their talent more by outmaneuvering a single defender at a time.
As an added side-effect to the fact that players could now pass the puck out of their zone, it also made it easier for them to skate the puck up the ice. When previously this was the only action available, now the opposing team had to also think of the pass, giving players more room to skate the puck out of their zone and prepare an offensive onslaught. One of the first defensemen to take advantage of this was the legendary Doug Harvey. Years later we would see this skill perfected by the greatest defenseman of all time, Bobby Orr.
The lasting effect of this rule change is still seen to this day, as it marked the beginning of the modern era of hockey. For nearly 70 years now hockey has remained fundamentally the same, with no other rule change coming close to altering the game on such a widespread scale. Even in more recent times we have seen the importance of opening up the game to greater North-South play to improve hockey’s speed and entertainment value. The 2005-06 season saw the red line limitation removed, allowing players to now pass from any point in their defensive zone to any point in the neutral zone. This added freedom helped to re-open a game that had started to collapse inwards due to defensive structures such as the trap and the increased size of its players.
It is unlikely that we’ll see such drastic change again in the NHL. There will always be small tweaks and adjustments in an effort to perfect an ever evolving game, but unless some new, as yet unknown technological advancement occurs in the future, the game as it’s played now will likely remain as the game we know and love.