In Defense of Ties

Posted by: realet

Donovan McNabb may not have known that a football game could end in a tie, but at least there’s a legitimate reason for his ignorance. Is there anyone out there who honestly believes that a football game should be allowed to end in a tie?

When it comes to hockey, it seems that we are now being asked by the powers that be to believe that premise as well. The NHL has banished the tie for the last four seasons now, and this year the CCHA became the first league to refuse the concept that two teams could be evenly matched.

In the four major North American sports, hockey is really the only one in which ties can really be deemed acceptable. Basketball and football both feature different ways to score different multiples of points, meaning that ties can usually be broken pretty quickly in an overtime period. The NFL still allows ties to occur, but they’re pretty rare (and fixing that issue is a column for another time and another site). Baseball scores things one at a time, but there’s no clock, so teams can just play until there’s a winner. Sometimes it takes all night, but that’s the way the sport evolved.

Hockey has the combination of a clock and a one-at-a-time scoring scheme, which is the perfect combination to allow for teams to finish the game without determining a winner and loser. As we’ve seen during the playoffs, simply continuing until finding a winning goal can sometimes take forever. That’s why the NHL and the CCHA have resorted to shootouts in their quest to abolish the tie – it ends the game faster than more regulation play.

But why this crusade against the tie? I have heard it said that fans simply don’t like ties, that people expect a winner to come out of every game. I have also heard it said that the leagues want to discourage teams from playing tentative hockey in overtime to avoid losing a guaranteed point in search of a second one (which brought us the silly “overtime loss” category in the NHL). The latter has at least some merit to it, but the former seems pretty ridiculous.

Is a tie the most satisfying result possible? Of course not. Both teams go home with less than they could have. Neither gets the satisfaction of a win, but neither takes the sting of a loss. And yet, at the same time, a tie can be a satisfying or a highly disappointing result. The underdog team that comes in and fights tooth and nail with the powerhouse and earns a tie can walk away with a sense of accomplishment. The team that was down 3-0 during the second intermission and comes back to tie can engender the same feeling. The “satisfying tie.” The reverse – the powerhouse that ties an underdog and the team that blows the big lead – the “disappointing tie.” And then, of course, you have the “sister kissers,” those games that are just evenly matched throughout.

Want to encourage the teams to go all out during the overtime period? Set up a points system that rewards wins more and provides an opportunity cost for a tie. Major League Soccer, along with most international soccer leagues, does just that already. A win is worth three points, and a tie is worth one. If you sit back and wait for the tie, you lose a chance at two additional points, but if you push for the win and give up the goal, you’ve only lost one.

Instead, the NHL decided to create a system that rewards the losing team in overtime with a point – the only major sport where you can lose the game and still advance your cause.

Now, all of this would be relatively moot if the shootout were an acceptable derivation of the game as a whole so as to be a worthy substitute, but the idea of one shooter taking on one goaltender is such a microcosm of the game of hockey as to render it generally unacceptable for determining the winner of a team sport.

Penalty shots are exciting when they take place during the course of the game, and often times their success or failure does determine the outcome of the game. Shootouts take far too many important elements out of consideration when determining a winner – passing, physical play, and team defense are rendered completely useless.

Then there’s the smell test. If shootouts were truly an acceptable method for determining a winner of a hockey game, there’s no reason they wouldn’t use them in the playoffs as well. Since there really can’t be ties in the post-season, why waste everyone’s time by playing long into the night to find a winner?

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just too much of a traditionalist and I need to just embrace the shootout – after all, it’s becoming more and more popular in various leagues.

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