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NHL At The Top of Its Game

July 29, 2014

I’ve been of the opinion for a while now that the hockey we’re seeing in the NHL is some of the best the circuit has produced in a long time. That is particularly true of the recent vintage playoff hockey we’ve witnessed. It is difficult to win in the National Hockey League on a night-to-night basis right now, and because any team that gets into the playoffs has a chance to win it all, it’s a significant achievement to reach the postseason stage as well.


There are, of course, a number of reasons for this. My own theory begins with the distance in time between today and the league’s most recent expansion. Columbus and Minnesota joined the NHL in 2000-01, bringing the league to 30 teams. The last time the NHL went as many as 14 years between expansions was in the midst of the Original Six era from 1941-67. Two-thirds of the teams in the league back then made it to the playoffs, and eight postseason wins were required to win the Stanley Cup. This followed a 70-game regular season in the latter stages of that era.


The modern era features an 82-game regular season and the champ must play two more months and record 16 more victories after that. And just over half the teams in the league get a chance to compete for the Cup at the end of a six-month campaign.


It’s also more of a global game now. Back in 1967, Canada accounted for almost all of the league’s roster berths. Of the 176 players who suited up for at least one game of NHL duty in 1966-67, only six were not born in Canada. Three Americans (Tommy Williams, Doug Roberts and Gerry Abel) combined to play in a total of 42 games between them that season.  Then there was Stan Mikita (Czechoslovakia), Ken Hodge (United Kingdom) and journeyman defenseman John Miszuk (Poland). Miszuk played in three games in ’66-67.


These days, there are 690 roster spots in the NHL – and 983 different players saw NHL action in 2013-14 – but players come from around the globe to fill those roster spots. Fewer than half (441 of 983) of last year’s NHL players feature Canadian birth certificates.


The salary cap and some of the rule changes instituted after the ’04-05 lockout have also had a positive effect on the quality of the game, but there’s more. I had a conversation along these lines with Caps coach Barry Trotz a few weeks back, and here are his thoughts.


“I think it’s evolution,” began Trotz. “Someone once asked me who is the greatest player who ever played. He hasn’t been born yet. There is a greatest player in each era. Right now hockey is bigger and faster. With all the technology and all the things that go into it, the game is as hard to play as it has ever been.


“There were teams back in the day that were a little rougher; the Broad Street Bullies, it was tough to go in there. How many guys can shoot like Bobby Hull in the National Hockey League now? Back then, there was only one. Now there are probably 200 in the league who can shoot it like him. That’s evolution and it’s technology with all the sticks and everything.


“The game is better in so many ways and athletes have to be better, but at the same time it might not be as pure as it was back in the day. A lot of the NHLers [back then] got part-time jobs in the summer. Now, professional athletes – if they’re good pros – they train year round and they get bigger and faster and stronger and find ways to get better. The game is so fast and getting faster. The things that players can do now are amazing.


“For the average fan watching on TV or even in the arena, you get a great sense of how good they are. But once you sit on that bench and you watch an individual battle happening and how great some of these guys are, I have to watch myself. Pavel Datsyuk, a couple of years ago when he was in his total prime, I used to go, ‘That guy is the greatest player I’ve ever seen’ because of skill, because of determination, because of battle, because of intelligence and the human spirit that he brought. I would catch myself as a coach being a fan for that second.


“I love the battles of great players. I loved when we’d play the Caps and I had Shea Weber against Alex Ovechkin. What a great battle. You see that in the playoffs; you get power against power and it’s star against star.


“Sometimes we look at the big picture, the score and the systems and all that. But the pure spirit of the game is the battle and the one-on-one confrontation. And if you don’t have that spirit to be part of that one-on-one confrontation, you’re never going to win. There is a lot of honor in commitment and desperation; the compete level that it takes to do something.


“Blocking a shot, there is honor in blocking a shot. You are putting yourself in harm’s way and putting the team above yourself. I’ve got lots of time for that. It doesn’t mean that everything you do is blocking a shot. If you’re in position, you don’t need to a lot of times. But it’s ice hockey. You’re going to be out of position. Guys are going to make mistakes. If there are no mistakes, there are no goals. If it’s your job to stop the puck coming from the point – and I know that will be a big change for these guys – then it’s your job to get in front of it if you can get in front of it. Make them shoot it wide. There is as much value in stopping them from scoring as there is in scoring.”


“It’s about winning. It’s not about ‘me,’ it’s about ‘we.’”


One question asked, many questions answered.