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Open Ice: Calling Off The Dogs

01/31/2012, 1:40pm CST
By John King

The fuzzy math of how much is too much


Several years ago I had a coach accuse me of running up the score while we shook hands after a U10 game. It was a surprising accusation at the time because the score wasn’t that lopsided. But the truth is he was probably right. Our team at the time was in the middle of a scoring rut, and earlier in the season we had a game where we had gotten off to an early lead before calling off the dogs, only to nearly lose the game. After confusing the girls that day, we had made a decision as a staff to “keep our foot on the gas” the rest of the season regardless of score. Years later the question “how much is too much?” remains a stirring debate, and the math isn’t as simple as you might think.

For years people have rolled their eyes as the Bobby Bowdens of the world have steam rolled lesser opponents. And scoreboard mercy or the lack thereof has made recent headlines as well. Lopsided scores in womens’ hockey (Team USA 12 – China 1, Slovakia 82 – Bulgaria 0 – no, I’m not kidding) have people debating keeping the sport in the games altogether. And Minnesota’s decision to keep playing the top power play line late in a recent rout of Michigan Tech resulted in a heated exchange between coaching staffs and police officers visiting both benches.

The debate goes on. One side will argue it’s a matter of sportsmanship, claiming it’s as lost an art as chivalry. They’ll make the case that’s it’s not polite to outscore an opponent and embarrass them. They’ll argue that it’s the obligation of the coaches to make changes to the game plan to slow, if not stop, the bleeding in real time.


On the other side of the coin people will use the “then stop us” argument. They will argue that it’s not any single team’s responsibility to level the playing field, rather only to get their own team playing their best and to give their best effort night in and night out.

The truth is the answer isn’t black and white. Anyone who has ever been behind the bench in this situation knows it can be quite complicated. The classic move when you get off to a huge lead is to move the forwards back to defense. The problem with this adjustment is that all a defenseman wants to do when given a cameo at forward is score a goal, or six. And after your forwards remember how to skate backward, the next thing they’ll do is start firing pucks from the point because it’s new to them, too. Even with best intentions, switching positions will often only put gas on the fire.


The other mistake – and I’ve done it – is to be vague. If you look any group of kids in the eye and say, “Let’s take things down a notch,” what they’ll actually hear is, “Don’t try at all the rest of the game.” This usually results in your team giving up a bunch of goals and making it a game. And it likely leaves you without a voice as you scramble to regroup, screaming, “Forget what I just said. Foot on the gas! Foot on the gas!”

So how much is too much? There are many factors that go into the answer. For starters, how is your team playing? Your first obligation as a coach is to your own team. So if you’re at a point in the season where you need to get the offense going, there are going to be games where you’ll let the motor rev a bit more than others. Who you are playing matters too, as does the history of the competition.

Turns out the best answer to the math of how much is too much is the simplest one of all, “You’ll know.” Or as a buddy of mine recently put it succinctly, “Some guys get it, some guys don’t.”

But for those of you who don’t get it, a couple simple rules to live by. First, double digits are always bad, always. The scoreboard isn’t wired for that, you shouldn’t be either. Second, it’s unnecessary to have your top unit on the ice at the end of a lopsided game. Lastly, provide clear instructions to your players when trying to slow the offense down in a game. Set “rule changes” like make 3 passes before shooting, only shoot from the outside, or don’t crash the net to keep them from being confused. Follow these simple rules and you should avoid the awkward conversation in your next handshake line.  

Tag(s): February 2012