There are passionate arguments on both sides of The Great Tampa Trap Debate of 2011 but I’m going to explain why I think the people defending Tampa here are wrong.  It comes down to 1) a distinction you have to draw between fighting to win at all costs and fighting to win and to entertain, and 2) setting a precedent has consequences beyond those in the short term.

A friend of mine once proudly told me he had firmly kicked a guy who wanted to fight him in the nuts.  I cautiously implied that this was maybe not the greatest way to fight, to which he replied, “Hey, if some big guy wants to give me trouble for no reason, he’s gonna get booted in the nuts”.  I find that hard to argue with.  Now, Tampa didn’t kick Philly in the nuts literally or metaphorically, but the point I want to make is that Tampa is not getting beat up by Philly: they are getting paid to fight Philly and it is implied that they should do so in ways that do not threaten the popularity of the league that pays them.  Their villages are not being burned down, their soldiers are not dying, their culture is not being destroyed: they are playing a hockey game where winning and entertaining are both important, and the idea of winning at all costs has no place.

Defending Tampa’s trap by deferring to the success of the strategy is missing the point.  It is obviously an effective strategy, and when you are feeling outgunned by a talented team it is arguably your best strategic bet.  Nashville made the second round trapping last year, everyone traps up a goal late in the third, and the Devils won an infamous Cup doing it.   However, this isn’t about strategy.  The point is, as Marc Crawford and Bob Mackenzie noted on TSN, a trap of this extent is bad for hockey. 

Some have questioned why Tampa should care about what is good or bad for hockey when they could be caring about winning. That argument ignores the reality that people need to enjoy watching the NHL and it should ideally be a product players, coaches, GMs, and fans are proud of.  Others have argued that this isn’t bad for hockey since other teams won’t do it just because Tampa did. That argument mistakenly treats the conscious decisions of other teams as though they are a natural law.

Rare footage of people actually moving last night

It’s like arguing that there is nothing wrong with insurance fraud because most other people will still be honest with their insurance companies even if you aren’t.  However, in Boucher’s defence, we should keep in mind that Tampa doesn’t do this very often: they’re 5th in the league in goals for and 23rdin goals against.  This was something Boucher did because his D-corps was thin, he was playing a healthy, hot Flyers squad and he wanted to win.  So I have to admit that I do think the reaction to this has been overblown, only in the sense that people are talking about Boucher like he’s trying to win 3-2 every night.  He’s not.

You’re probably with me or against me by now but let me take another stab at winning you over:

1) A 12-year-old, Tim, is being targeted for no reason by a 15-year-old bully, Bob.  Bob finds Tim after school and tries to beat him up but Tim keep his hands up, moves quickly and often, and makes it clear that Bob isn’t gonna catch him.  One time, Bob swings, slips on some gravel, and Tim slams him in the chin.  Bob’s friends accuse Tim of violating conventions on fighting. 

Now, in this case, I don’t care: Tim didn’t want to fight, he was going to be physically harmed against his will, and he had no choice but to make the best of a dangerous situation.  Screw convention.  

2) A 21-year-old, Eric, decides along with his friends that he wants to make a fighting league to make money.  The league does well, sells tickets, and allows Eric to make a few hundred bucks on the weekends.  He loses a few in a row but soon realizes that the best way to beat a superior opponent is to refuse to punch unless he is punched himself.  That way he will rarely be countered and he can stay protected all the time.  He wins some fights, makes even more money, and feels pretty good. 

However, one day a group of his friends who also fight in the league complain that the fighters don’t like his system.  Eric says “who cares, it works doesn’t it?  They can do it too”.  His friends tell him that if every fighter did that system, no punches would be thrown and the fights would be very boring.  Eric says “hey, the rules say I can fight how I want, and that’s what I’m going to do. My fans want to see me win”.  The other fighters argue that they will all make less money if they all adopt the system, but that they have no choice but to adopt it if Eric does since they will always lose to him and other fighters using this style.  If the fights remain exciting, it will be because the other fighters sacrifice their own probability of winning for the sake of the welfare of the fighting league. 

In this case, I would agree with the fighters: Eric’s system may be strategically sound, but it is bad for the sport if we assume that popularity and money are good and a lack of these things is bad.  

This is why Crawford defended the idea of the trap while condemning Boucher’s ‘forecheck trap’ last night (he’s a coach who got fired for not winning enough!) There are teams that trap a lot in the NHL but we can still have entertaining hockey games.  However, if every team starts playing Boucher’s neutral zone no-forecheck 1-3-1 trap… well, the only thing entertaining to watch will be GMs pointing fingers at each other. 

So I commend the Flyers for refusing to enter the trap because they made a point: if teams play a zero-forecheck trap in the first period of a 0-0, non-divisional game in November, then the other teams will start playing equally boring hockey because they want to win too.  Maybe the Flyers were just doing it because they didn’t want to turn the puck over, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a calculated decision to embarrass the Lightning in front of the league while making a point about what other teams ought to do when faced with five opponents that don’t want to cross the blue line.  I’ll defer to Bourne on what it would feel like to have a bench full of players standing and screaming at you on the ice for playing the world’s most boring system of hockey, but I would guess it’s not pleasant.  

It’s kind of the Sean Avery rule all over again: yes, it’s legal and could help you win, but no, it is not good for hockey.  It sets a dangerous precedent, it pressures other teams into doing it for fear of losing, and a few months from now we might be embarrassed of what hockey has become. 

On a similar note, I also want to point out what a travesty it was to see that kind of hockey in a game where Giroux, Briere, Voracek, Jagr, JVR, Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Stamkos are all on the ice.  Neither team hit double-digit shots in a single period despite 24 minutes of power play time.