To save the NHL, damn the Torpedo.

The stadium scene.
Jan. 10 2002 5:06 PM

Damn the Torpedo

The NHL needs an innovative offensive scheme. But not this one.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Several weeks ago, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman admitted that his product wasn't as explosive as some might like—leaguewide scoring was 80 or 90 goals off the pace of last season, which was itself more than 1,000 goals down from a decade ago. A short piece in the New York Times Magazine offered a solution: the Torpedo, a "fast-paced, full-tilt style of hockey" set to make its prime-time debut at the Salt Lake City Olympics. As practiced by Team Sweden, the Torpedo, according to the Times, "disdains the tired dump-and-chase tactics that have ruled the game for years." It promises more goals, more speed, more action near the net, and less of the "clutching and grabbing" that exasperates players and fans alike. So will it transform the NHL?

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No. Even if NHL teams implemented the Torpedo, the average fan wouldn't be able to tell the difference; the puck moves too fast for television to reveal subtle strategic shifts. More important, the NHL's game conditions—its rules, its history, its talent pool—make the Torpedo virtually impossible to implement leaguewide.

In the traditional hockey formation, responsibilities are divided simply among three forwards (left wing, center, right wing) and two defensemen, whose duties and placement more or less conform to their names. The Torpedo converts two of those forwards into super-forwards (the "torpedoes") and sends them into the corners of the offensive zone, where they press the opposition relentlessly for half-minute spurts, or else they hang high in the defensive zone for fast-breaking outlet passes. Two more players become all-purpose "halfbacks," who quarterback the offense from the top of the face-off circles and are relied upon to work the corners (fighting off the opposing torpedoes) on the defensive side. A lone, central defenseman (the "libero") protects the front of the net for his goalie and brings up the rear on the offensive attack. (Click here to view a diagram of how the Torpedo stacks up against a standard formation.)

The Torpedo, the Times argues, is the cure for a more defensive-minded scheme, the neutral-zone trap, which has taken hold of the NHL in the last decade (more than 20 teams currently play a form of it) and spurred the decline in scoring. In essence, a team running the trap sends a lone pursuer deep into the opposing zone on the forecheck while an army of defenders waits near center ice to smother the approaching forwards. Thus, the neutral zone begins to look like a traffic jam, and offensive players rarely glimpse the net. The Torpedo takes the opposite tact: It smothers the opposition's defense with an excess of offensemen. The result, says Torpedo pioneer Mats Waltin, who's been fine-tuning the system for the past two years with his Swedish Elite League club, Djurgarden, is that "we're now thinking 80 percent offense and 20 percent defense."

But the Torpedo is nothing new. As with a healthy majority of hockey innovations, it owes much, if not all, to the Russians—or, more specifically, to their legendary midcentury coach Anatoli Tarasov, the "father of Soviet hockey." In his autobiography, Tarasov asked whether, "with the system of play consisting of two defensemen and three forwards, there may be a flaw." He worried that with advanced training regimens, players had become too big and fast for standard, three-across play. Sure enough, at the end of his illustrious career, which included nine consecutive World Championships and three straight Olympic gold medals, Tarasov experimented with a system for his top lines that employed a pair of front-leaning forwards, two "highly maneuverable and creative" halfbacks (he called them the "motor division"), and a center defenseman. So, despite the Torpedo's catchy name, the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games may really be little more than a re-enactment of the 1972 Sapporo version.

Novelty aside, there are a number of reasons why the Torpedo won't be the NHL's savior. For one thing, as the Times points out, it was conceived with international rules in mind, where the torpedoes are free to spring for 50-foot breakaway passes, effectively eliminating the neutral zone entirely. The NHL forbids a "two-line pass" (one that crosses both the blueline and the center redline), however, which means that the torpedoes' abilities to stretch opposing defenses and thus open up the ice surface are limited; the stifling transition game played between the bluelines will remain.

For another thing, the Torpedo demands too much of its halfbacks, who get no reprieve. (Click here for a diagram of the scheme's coverage responsibilities.) While the NHL is full of ideal torpedo types and stay-at-homeliberos abound, there simply aren't enough good skaters in the league with both the defensive and offensive capabilities required of the halfback job; there aren't enough motors to form a division. (Think of Bobby Orr as the ideal halfback.) Even the Soviets, famous for their grueling conditioning, could only employ such a system for their top one or two lines—and that was on their national team. How are 30 NHL teams each going to come up with the eight halfbacks necessary to implement the Torpedo in full?

And perhaps most important of all, there's no indication that "high-octane hockey," as the Swedish National Team's GM put it, will revive goal scoring after all. Although the press (the Times' excitement follows earlier buzz from the Hockey News and the Sporting News, among others) has been keen on pointing out that Waltin's squad torpedoed its way to the Elite League championship last year, it's worth noting that Djurgarden was not the highest-scoring team; an anemic goals-against total was its recipe for success. The finals-clinching game, far from a free-wheeling exchange of firepower, was deadlocked at 1-1 for hours and ended, at last, on a fluke goal from the rear-guarding libero, of all people. It was the second longest championship game in the 80-year history of Swedish hockey.

In other words, it sounds an awful lot like the NHL playoffs of the last few seasons. Gary Bettman, take note.

Ben McGrath is on the staff of The New Yorker.

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