Of the major team sports, hockey has always been the least innovative. At least that’s how it looks to casual sports fans.
Football, by its very chess-with-violence nature, is a sport where coaches and coordinators are always looking to create new looks. Baseball got so innovative with the shift that the bosses at Major League Baseball had to ban it. Basketball and soccer offer numerous formations and schemes, and it’s easy to see the Xs and Os as you watch the games.
Hockey, however, has pretty well been three forwards, two defenders and a goalie since the decision was made to ditch the rover from the game. For decades and decades, players “skated their lines.” When Canadians first saw the Soviets play hockey, we were confused. Why were the forwards shifting their positions? Why did they circle in the neutral zone so much? What were these five-man units?
Since then, hockey has seen some innovations, but nothing ever as radical as the other major team sports. And, the funny thing is, lots of fans can talk about things like the neutral zone trap or the left wing lock, but many couldn’t actually describe how they work. Really, when it comes to innovation in hockey, we’re better off talking about advances in the equipment — curved sticks, composite sticks and goalie pads that have expanded in size while becoming lighter and easier to wear.
I’ve had non-hockey fans who, after they’ve been introduced to the game, ask me why teams don’t play with more defencemen and fewer forwards when they’re nursing a lead. Or why some teams don’t radically change the way they set up on the ice. Why is it always wing, centre, wing, two defencemen?