Jack Todd: Stop the insanity! NHL must axe its 'offside challenge' rule

Bringing a game to a halt to do a Zapruder film dissection of a play that is a few millimetres offside isn’t simply annoying — it’s crazy.

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As the long slog of the NHL regular season skidded into its final month and sanity once again left the building, eminent broadcaster Dave Hodge stirred the pot with an eminently sensible tweet:

“The NHL once looked silly with the so-called ‘toe in crease’ rule,” Hodge wrote. “The ‘offside challenge’ rule is similar and needs to go. If a linesman’s whistle doesn’t stop play, whatever happens inside the blueline, a goal perhaps, stands. Simple. The way it was.”

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To me, the statement seemed self-evident. Bringing a game to a halt to do a Zapruder film dissection of a play that is a few millimetres offside isn’t simply annoying — it’s crazy. Perhaps once in a thousand times, an offside play actually leads to a goal. Goals are scored, yes, but the offside has nothing to do with it.

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Boy was I wrong. What seemed obvious to me got hockey fans in a twist. Who knew there were so many people who alphabetize their spice racks? One even went so far as to say the integrity of the game was at stake, so vital is it that we get offside calls right to the millimetre.

Seriously? This is a league that stopped just short of auctioning off the Stanley Cup to the Vegas Golden Knights, allows teams to evade the salary cap rules by parking players on LTIR and embraces gambling interests like a long-lost lover and we’re talking about integrity?

In a game last weekend, the Florida Panthers scored what appeared to be a late goal to give them a 6-1 lead over the hapless Calgary Flames. After a lengthy offside review in a game that was long since over, the goal was waved off. No goal because the play was a finger’s width offside.

Ridiculous? Of course. Absurd? Indubitably. A waste of a couple of precious minutes in the lives of all those unfortunate enough to be watching this madness? Beyond argument.

The same mania is behind the two-minute penalty to the unfortunate player (usually a defenceman) who lobs a puck over the glass. The penalty is completely out of proportion to the crime.

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Wednesday evening against the Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver’s Carson Soucy did that with nine seconds left in regulation and the game tied 3-3. Soucy went to the box, where he had the best seat in the house 30 seconds into overtime when a puck from Nathan MacKinnon’s stick veered off Valeri Nichushkin’s visor and into the net to hand the Avs a win in a tight Western Conference race.

Yes, the Canucks might have lost anyway. Yes, they once had a 3-0 lead at home and blew it. But to hand a player a two-minute penalty for what is essentially a different form of icing is absurd. Soucy would have gotten the same two minutes for a slash, a spear or a cross-check.

Simple, obvious solution? Dump a puck over the ice, accidentally or on purpose, and the faceoff is back in your end. Treat it like icing because that’s what it is. If anything, the game delay is shorter than most icing plays.

At a certain point, there are philosophical questions behind the weight given to replay reviews. Just how important is hockey? Gambling aside, how critical is any sport? Will the world end tomorrow if a linesman misses an offside call or the umpires call a strike on balls a foot off the plate, as they did for Greg Maddux for years? Will anything that happens on the ice answer the pressing questions of the day, like why Kate Middleton vanished and who stole the Jaromir Jagr bobbleheads?

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The most fundamental question of all is this: Isn’t hockey supposed to be fun? Isn’t it a game? If it takes high-definition cameras to make a call, isn’t it more rational to trust the job to linesmen who do an amazing job of getting it right in real time?

The effort to attain the unattainable, perfection in officiating, has become a form of utterly futile madness. No matter how hard we try, we can’t reduce the balletic chaos of hockey to algebraic equations. What the perfectionists seek is possible only if we erase the human element from sports altogether and watch AI controlled robots skate and shoot. Is that what we want? Because that is where this mania is headed.

Yes, technology can give us eight different angles of every play in high definition. That doesn’t mean we should become slaves to the replay review. Count your paper clips if you must. Set an egg timer when you make love. But please, don’t impose your mania on the rest of us, the fans who believe that close enough is just right.

And this final note on the rule book: Until the Minnesota Wild pulled Marc-André Fleury and scored in OT to beat the Predators, I didn’t know what the Wild were risking. Had Nashville scored into the empty net, Minnesota would have lost its loser point.

Who knew? You have a point in the standings for a few precious minutes, then it vanishes. Like common sense in the National Hockey League.

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