When the New Jersey Devils took game four in Los Angeles to prolong the Stanley Cup Final they made a little bit of history. They made this the first playoffs in NHL history to feature 47 road wins. This gives the road team a winning percentage over .500 in these playoffs. This seems odd.
Mr. Bourne and Mr. Pizzo expressed their dismay at the stat during the June 7 Backhand Shelf Podcast especially when you look at the seeming “auto win” that home field provides in other sports. Basketball, football, soccer, baseball, etc. all seem to have the home team’s scales massively tipped in their favor when they play at home, so why is hockey an exception to the rule?
I have a theory for you.
If any of you have been to a pro hockey rink that is fairly recent in its construction, you know that you are increasingly removed from the rink. Between higher glass around the rink, more separation from tunnels, the addition to mesh in the end of the rinks, fans have never felt further apart from the players, and you better believe the players notice this as well.
In basketball, there are fans physically on the court. In football, there are fans within reach of the players on the bench. In baseball, you can have a conversation with any number of players on the field of play. It’s not hard to see all of the opportunities a fan has to add their mark on the outcome of the game. Know a good story about player X from high school when they were struggling with puberty? They can hear you. Want to tell LeBron James he’s going bald? Boom, he’s right in front of you.
There is no equivalent interaction of this calibre in hockey anymore.
I say anymore of course because rinks didn’t used to be that way. Glass used to be cut low enough that you could stick your head into a bench and have a few words with the resident goon or backup goaltender. The stands used to be built right on top of player seating, be it the penalty box or player benches. You knew they were that close and they knew you were that close. It was physically uncomfortable to be in a hostile rink.
While safety measures have been largely responsible for the increased separation between players and fans, it has also led to a decrease in truly intimidating atmosphere. During the 2011 playoffs, Aaron Ward said on a TSN broadcast that the Shark Tank in San Jose was the toughest rink to play in simply because you feel the fans right on top of you. It’s an intimidating place to play. The Sharks .603 home record certainly supports that and it includes their struggle-laden expansion years to boot.
It’s a shame in many ways but it appears as though the advancements that have come with hockey have diminished the impact of a crowd on the play of a game. While home court in the NBA, NFL, and MLB, among other leagues, will continue to be an auto-win for clubs, the NHL can expect more years of split play between home and the road.
The real tragedy of this is we’ll never have a Patrick Roy trade request ever again. Everything is too far away.