Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Biggest Save

Photo courtesy of Josie Gold
Once upon a time, an upstart NHL expansion team decided if you couldn't beat them, you should beat them up. The Philadelphia Flyers built a reputation for destruction and mayhem and, inspired by their bloodthirsty fans, became the Broad Street Bullies. It was a proud label for the team in the orange Kool-Aid sweaters. They rocked the league, walked over teams that dared stand in their way and crushed those that still stubbornly defied them. They added two Stanley Cups to their plunder of the mid-70s NHL and figured to add more. Other teams sensed the way the wind was blowing and began to load up on goons and tough guys in an effort to compete.

Other teams, but not the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs instead built a team on skill, speed and team toughness, which wasn't the norm at the time. Ken Dryden, the lanky Hall of Fame goaltender, recalls the fear the Flyers inspired throughout the NHL.

"It wasn't the brawling and intimidation that finally turned me," Dryden writes in his classic book, "The Game." "It was their sense of impunity. They were bullies. They showed contempt for everyone and everything. They took on the league, its referees and teams; they took on fans, cops, the courts and politicians. They searched out weakness, found it, trampled it, then preened with their cock-of-the-walk swagger, "Come on, ya chicken. I dare ya!" For two years, they were kings of the mountain. Not many years from now, those two years will be symbols of the NHL's lost decade."

Sadly, in the thirty years since Dryden wrote those words, the NHL is in danger of losing another decade. It's already seen one complete season wasted because of labour strife. Now, teams are losing more salary dollars and, more vitally, days and seasons of players' health to head injuries than ever before. Never, since the days of the Broad Street Bullies, have the NHL playoffs been so influenced by the dirty tactics of teams attempting to use bigger, stronger and meaner to force their way into the W column. Less than halfway through the first round of the post-season, there have already been enough suspension-worthy incidents to exceed those of last year's entire playoff spring. Head shots, hits from behind, attacks on goalies: they've all been factors this year.

The question now is: who's going to save the league? And, following from that, who's going to preserve the integrity of the game of hockey itself? The Canadiens did it in the '70s. Rick Chartraw was a big, tough defenceman back then, and he remembers how the Habs were built to counter the Flyers.

"We weren't just the fastest team in the league, or the best puck movers," he says, "We were also the toughest."

Chartraw and his sizable mates played the Philly way when they took on the Flyers in an exhibition game in the fall of 1975 and proved they could fight as well as the Bullies from Broadstreet. After that, they were able to put the fists away and play a beautiful, clean game that showed NHL GMs there was another, and perhaps, a better, way to win. That understanding of the game as a thing of beauty rather than brutality is disappearing. Back in September, Ken Dryden wrote a piece for Grantland, calling out NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and demanding the lack of care for one's opponents be harshly punished.

"As a hockey commissioner today, you can't not know that many of your players this year, next year, and every year will suffer head injuries. Some will have their careers ended; some, like Paul Kariya and Eric Lindros, before age gets them will begin their downward slide from superstar to journeyman; and some retired players will die long before their time, their final years for themselves and their families in the living death of dementia. This isn't being alarmist. This is alarming," he wrote at the time.

A season has passed since Dryden wrote those words, and here we are, in a playoff season marred by a daily litany of suspensions. Respect is absent and the bully boys are running the shop. Calls for Bettman and the league to do something to stop it echo in the emptiness that exists where there is no purpose. The only thing missing from league cop Brendan Shanahan's suspension-explanation videos is a background of calliope music, reminiscent of the circus the league is once again becoming.

In the '70s, the league didn't fix the Flyers. Clarence Campbell didn't take a stand or force change for the good of the players or of the game itself. The Montreal Canadiens did it. Even though they proved they could be the biggest bullies on the block if they chose to be, they instead took the opportunity to show the world a different kind of game. Their hockey was strong, fast, skilled and dominant. Today Dryden reflects on that Canadiens legacy and what it meant to the game.

"There are good teams, there are great teams and there are important teams," he explains. "There are a lot of Stanley Cup winners and a lot of them are great teams or near great teams. There are not very many that are also important teams. And I think the Montreal Canadiens of that time were also a very important team."

When hockey was heading in a dangerous and unpalatable direction 35 years ago, the Canadiens changed the course of the game. They were able to do so because they had a roster of talent better than just about everybody else's, and the work ethic and coaching to enable them to use it to the utmost. They laid the foundation for the Islanders and Oilers dynasties that followed. They were the original blueprint for the Red Wings, now in their twenty-first straight season of playoff qualification. The problem is, with Bettman's much-vaunted league parity, no team can compile a roster of the skill and strength of those Canadiens squads, or keep it intact for long if it can.

There are no important teams left in the NHL, and without one, there's nobody to pull the game out of the mire into which it's descending and say, "Look at us! We'll show you how it's done." When there's more interest in who will fight next and the suspension tally leads the sportscast, it's not a good thing. The Canadiens aren't in a position to stop the madness this time around, but some team must stand up and take charge. Otherwise, the clowns running the NHL circus will win, and, if they do, hockey will be the loser.


StuartInAlberta said...

Ah yes, the Broadstreet Bullies. So many memories from those times. The years when Dave Schultz would catch players at the end of a shift and thump them senseless -- and the rest of the team was like Hells Angels, ready to pile on if anyone had the temerity to fight one of their boys. Then that fall exhibition game when Mr. Sam had loaded up with Chartraw (a fellow brakeman on the railway had roomed with Gillies in Junior and said that Gillies and Trottier thought that pound-for-pound, Chartraw was the toughest player in the league), Bouchard, Lapointe and Big Bird (who no one messed with). Finally, came Game One of the Stanley Cup Final and Jim Roberts' response to "how many games?" in an HIC interview between the 1st and 2nd periods of Game One with Philly was succinct: "Four". Hockey was saved.

But the difference now, seems, that individual players are inflicting devastating punishment. Cheap shots are tolerated by the authorities and the damage is being done to the game, not just the recipient. I agree with you, and hopefully, someone will step forward and do what the Habs did 36 years ago -- but he/she will have to be a LARGE individual.

Anonymous said...

While there isn't any team that can stop the madness there might be one player who can - Matt Cooke.

Prior to this season Cooke was a serial offender who looked destined to a never ending series of suspensions. But after his last suspension for elbowing McDonagh something clicked and he changed his ways.

Cooke explained what changed on an interview a few months ago on FAN 590.

He said he had no intention of elbowing McDonagh, but he had committed early to the big hit and when McDonagh moved, he put up his arms to absorb the impact with the boards and ended up hitting McDonagh in the head.

He said the problem wasn't the elbow, but that he had committed himself to the hit and had not left himself an out in case McDonagh moved.

He said he then vowed that he would never put himself in that position again by always making sure he had another option, an out, when he was going to make a hit.

He then spent several weeks studying video of other players he considered very good forecheckers (Datsyuk and Zetterberg). He noted they didn't go for the big hit, but instead focused on the arms and stick of the other player.

He adopted this style of checking this year and has been a very effective player while cutting down on needless penalties.

In addition, to teaching players how to check safely and effectively the NHL needs to change a few rules. I would like to see the following:

Game misconducts be given for persistent face-washing, excessive taunting/chirping, and other nonsense that goes on in scrums.

A game misconduct would include one of the following consequences:
1) Loss of pay for the game. A fine equal to one games pay would apply in the playoffs.
2) The player would be out for his teams next 60 minutes of regulation time plus any overtime or shootouts that occur before his 60 minutes is up. That would mean that if a player got a game misconduct at 15 minutes of the second period then, while he would dress for the next game, he would not be able to play until 15 minutes of the second period.
3) The player wwould not dress for his team's next game if he got the game misconduct in the third period.

Players be on probation for their first 100 NHL games. I'm tired of hearing that rookies like Hagelin, Shaw and Marchant are first time offenders. They should be as they have no history - good or bad.

Suspended players cannot be sent to the minors. There always seems to be some idiot that gets suspended in the pre-season who then gets sent to the minors. He should stay on his teams roster until his suspension is up.

For every game a player is suspended his team's cap for the next season be decreased by $250,000 and the floor be increased by $250,000.


Anonymous said...

Hockey Canada has it right at least for minor hockey.

-2 minutes for ANY head contact - even accidental contact.

-4 minutes for deliberate head contact (elbow, crosscheck, high stick) and by the way, it includes all face washes. That 4 minute deterrent has really cut down on the nonsense after the whistle.

-5 and a game for deliberate head contact that results in an injury. If the 5 minute, injury-causing penalty occurs in the last 10 minutes of the 3rd period then the offending player misses the next "meaningful" game.

The apologists from the NHL say, things happen very fast at this level and it would be hard for the refs to make those calls. I argue bull! If amateur refs can figure out how to make those calls then surely the NHL's professional refs can do it. After all, the league claims that they have the best officials in the world. If that's true, then doing anything less than what Hockey Canada has implemented is nothing more than a lame excuse at best and its borderline criminal at worst.