November 3, 2006
Adding time to TV timeouts has changed coaching
By AL STRACHAN
There's not much you can do in 20 seconds.
If you're a sportswriter, you could watch someone else do 20 pushups. If you're an investor, you could watch the value of your income trusts drop by $50,000. If you're a lawyer, you could describe, using semaphore, all the good things your profession has done for society.
But if you're a top-level hockey coach, you can change the face of your game.
At the beginning of the season, the National Hockey League announced that the duration of TV timeouts would be increased by 20 seconds.
The concept was instituted by John Shannon, the league's senior vice-president for broadcasting. How you get to be a senior vice-president when you're in your first year on the job is something only the NHL can explain, but we digress.
Shannon is the best hockey producer in the world. That's why he was repeatedly hired by the International Olympic Committee to produce its host feed, and it goes a long way to explaining why he was fired from Hockey Night in Canada by Nancy Lee, who, on a good day, knows which end of a camera to point.
But Shannon's job now is to improve the level of NHL broadcasts, especially in the United States, and it was his contention that with TV timeouts of 1:40, fans were not getting to see enough replays of a game's most exciting moments.
After 90 seconds of commercials, only 10 seconds remained, and one or two of them were invariably squandered before the commercials started.
By the time one replay had been shown, live action had resumed. But as any hockey fan knows, it often helps to see a play from a second or third angle. And sometimes, more than one play deserves a second look.
So Shannon added 20 seconds to the break, imposing the condition that the extra time can not be used for commercials. It doesn't seem like a big difference. But to a professional coach, it is.
"It's a gold mine," said the Maple Leafs' Paul Maurice.
"It's seems like a very small detail," said the Atlanta Thrashers' Bob Hartley, "but that two-minute timeout, rather than a minute or a minute-and-a-half is a huge difference."
In Maurice's case, it's the reason Mats Sundin's ice time has increased so dramatically this season. In Hartley's case, it's the reason Ilya Kovalchuk is third among NHL forwards in average ice time with 22:22.
"There's nothing wrong with that," Maurice said. "People come to watch these guys play.
"I've always thought that the best players could play a little bit more, that they're more exciting to watch play."
In today's hockey, shifts are usually in the 40-second range.
In two minutes of playing time, a coach could send out his second, third and fourth lines. In two minutes of TV timeout, he can pretend that those lines had their turn.
If the first-line players were out before the break, they can go right back out after the break.
Those 20 seconds have changed the nature of coaching. When the TV timeouts were shorter, a coach would plan his strategy based on who would do after the next timeout. Now his plans are based on who goes out before the next timeout.
And since the timeouts are taken according to a precise schedule, with a little variance for power plays, a smart coach can get his stars out much more than he ever did.
But the stars aren't unduly tired because the rest between shifts hasn't been reduced. And most of them thrive on the extra work.
And from the fans' point of view, it makes a better game because the stars are having a greater impact.
All because of 20 seconds.