Hockey’s Game of What If

By Jason Menard

What if?

That’s the question we have to ask ourselves now that we hockey fans have been exposed to the new brand of hockey – complete with its free-flowing action, unimpeded displays of skill, and – for the first time in years – excitement from the drop of the puck to the final buzzer.

And it’s the question we have to ask ourselves now that some of the greats of our game have moved on to less-frozen pastures. Just this year we’ve seen The Golden Brett and now the Russian Rocket hang up their skates. Rugged stalwarts like Scott Stevens and Mark Messier have succumbed to a mounting injury toll and the effects of Father Time respectively.

But the what ifs will remain.

The fact that we’re seeing the grace, speed, and beauty of the game the way it’s meant to be played, akin to the glory years of the late 70s and 1980s when the Flying Frenchmen gave way to the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers – all franchises that combined dazzling speed, superlative talent, and enough toughness to keep people honest. But what did we lose during those intervening years?

We lost enough that we have to strive as fans to make sure it never goes back that way again – which means that we have to be as vigilant about the referees as they’ve been in calling the game to date.

Despite the greatness that these four players – and others who plied their trade during the same epoch of hockey – displayed, the fact remains that many more goals, many more highlights, and many more memories were prevented from ever appearing because of the NHL’s willingness to tolerate hooking, holding, and interference.

Too often the blame falls on the New Jersey Devils or, more specifically, their coach Jacques Lemaire who now toils behind the Minnesota Wild’s bench. But Lemaire refined a system that worked. He, along with Scotty Bowman, Dave Lewis, and the bunch in Detroit, determined that the left-wing lock, the neutral-zone trap, and whatever other obstructionist tactic, were the best way to maximize your talent and minimize the effect of your opponent’s gifted players.

It wasn’t illegal, it wasn’t immoral. It was intelligent. While the Lock and the Trap weren’t 100 per cent effective on their own, the fact that they were augmented by clutching and grabbing simply made those practices more effective, and more appealing, to other teams in the league.

And so the league devolved into one where defense ruled with an iron – and closed – fist. And the officials looked away, ironically to not disturb the flow of play — despite the fact that there was no flow of which to speak.

But now we’re here. We’re seeing the best of the best ply their trade on a clean and unimpeded surface. Defensemen need to refine their technique, not their tackling. Teams need to develop puck control strategies, zone defences, and positioning to prevent the puck from entering the net. And speed is at a premium.

We, the fans are winners, even if we can never know what we lost. But imagine players like Brett Hull and Pavel Bure being allowed to display their full range of talents, without a stick digging into their stomach or a hand grabbing their jersey. Think of how many more scoring chances would have been created, how many more potential goals could have been scored, and how many more moments of breathless anticipation the fans would have enjoyed. How unstoppable would Messier and Stevens have been if they were truly allowed to display their combination of speed, size, and skill?

And, most importantly for the league, how many more fans would have been drawn to the game? That’s the biggest What If of all. As the league hemorrhaged fans across North America, as teams struggled to find their footing in shaky markets, and vacated formerly strong ones, how would the NHL landscape look if the game was played then as it is now?

So now, as some of the old guard starts to bluster about the state of the game and the difficulties teams have defensively, the league needs to remember that the fans, overwhelmingly, love it. They don’t want to see coaches and systems rule the game. They have their place, but the games should be decided on the ice, not the chalkboard.

The only reason we want fans’ butts out of their seats is because of an exciting rush or a spectacular save – not because they didn’t bother to show up because they’re bored of the game. As such, the league must ensure its referees are more vigilant, not less, as the season progresses.

Because the question now is what if the next generation of Hulls, Messiers, Bures, and Stevens are allowed to fully shine on the NHL stage? That’s a question each and every hockey fan wants to see answered.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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