Growing up watching NHL hockey in the eighties and nineties, I then realized that I was watching the best hockey ever. What I didn’t know back then was that the great hockey era was going to end. I thought the game and the players were just going to keep getting better and more exciting. Watching the Oiler dynasties with Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, and the rest of the boys was such a joy and I wish those days would have never ended. As I look at today’s game, the players are so much better than back in the day but the game is not as exciting as it used to be. Scoring is way down. Scoring chances are down. Fighting is all but eliminated from the game. What happened?
I would like to take a look at some of the components that changed this great game of hockey.
The Goaltender: The goaltending position is the most improved position not only in hockey, but I think in any sport. The butterfly and the butterfly hybrid styles have made the goaltender cover so much more net. In the old days, the goaltender would make a reaction save (usually a skate save), or an angle save (not move and hope the puck hits them). Looking at the old hockey highlights, if a player shot low and the goaltender was an inch off his angle, the puck went into the net. Nowadays, it is literally impossible to score on a low shot on the ice. The goaltenders now are some of the best-conditioned athletes on the team. In the olden days, they were typically the worst conditioned players on the team
Goaltender’s Equipment: If you look at the goaltending equipment from the eighties compared to today’s goaltender gear, you will see how ridiculous today’s goalie equipment is. Today’s goalies do need more protection because the player’s shots are harder than ever. But having leg pads that come up to the goalie’s waist and a big cheater on the glove that covers more of the corner of the net is unnecessary. Goalie equipment has to revert to more reasonable size/coverage if we ever want to see more goals scored.
Skating & Skills: Hockey players’ skills have improved across the board, so it is much less likely to see one or even a couple dominant players who monopolize the puck and determine the outcome of the game. Every player on the ice can skate now and they have some playing ability. The skating skills of the pro player is light years better than what they used to be. In the olden days, if you were a superior skater you had a very good chance to dominate. Nowadays, everyone can skate at a higher level and that ability gives less accomplished players a chance to negate the star’s ability.
Conditioning: Every player in the NHL is in absolutely phenomenal physical condition. In the olden days players would get in shape during training camp, which allowed the highly skilled players to get ahead. Nowadays, every player is in excellent shape, which in turn negates that edge that the highly skilled players might have had in the past. The players are so much stronger and faster that everyone can keep up with the star players now and really wear them down during battles.
Coaching and Tactics: There was no such thing as a trap or a left wing lock – back in the eighties. Only a few players in the league would block shots. Now coaches are teaching defensive systems for the team, so that they can compete and not lose the game. The NHL coaches want to keep their jobs as long as possible. So, as long as their team remains competitive and is not getting blown out, they have a chance to coach another day and get another NHL paycheck. They teach that shot blocking is an important skill that every player must perform. So, as a result, now there are not as many scoring chances as there used to be.
Personality and Individualism: In the olden days, before there were big money licensing agreements, the players could show their personality, style, and individualism on the ice through their equipment. Nowadays, with all the big equipment licensing deals, the players all look like identical robots. They all have basically the same equipment – mandated by their team. Gretzky’s trademark was tucking half of his jersey inside his pants. Nowadays there is a rule against that. Players would wear helmets and equipment that would identify them. Now, if that helmet company is not paying the NHL big bucks, it is not going on that player’s head! And, all the hockey equipment made nowadays looks the same, just with a different name on it. The classic Daoust skates and the Jofa helmets were legendary! Individualism is gone, and it’s a shame.
Intimidation Factor (Fighting): Now that fighting is almost totally taken out of the game, every player can be a tough guy. Kind of a contradiction, but true nonetheless. Every player can check hard and finish every check on the more skilled players. In the olden days, the players policed the game and you knew if you finished your check hard that you will probably have to answer to the other team’s fighter. As a fan, I enjoy the games without fighting as it adds credibility to our game – to the people who have never played it. But as a player, I fear for the player’s safety – as many players who would never fight are taking liberties on other players, knowing that they can and that they have no one to answer to. The game of hockey, as the rules were written, is a very dangerous game. And it is too fast for the referees to police every second. However, in the olden days – when there was much more fighting in the game, there was a code of conduct and the element of respect and fear that each player had to abide by. Without fighting, I feel the game is becoming more dangerous. I fear that it will become like football – where parents are afraid to allow their children to play the game because of so many concussions and injuries. We have to bring respect back into the game! Fear of retribution if they didn’t treat other players with respect is what kept the players in check – but now that is gone!
Here’s to the good old days!