By Dan Ducharme
“It’s the greatest sport to watch in person”
“We have the best playoffs”
“These are the toughest players”
… the list goes on and on whenever a casual sports fan asks a hockey die-hard about their beloved sport. Sure, you know it’s a dynamic, fast-paced sport with the occasional fight, but for the average sports fan, the hockey season consists of the occasional goal highlight and a quick channel change during the 38th timeout of an NBA playoff game. When you try to learn more, hockey fans can be a little standoffish. Admittedly, I am one of those guys. I’m a die-hard hockey fan, BUT I AM CHANGING MY WAYS AND AM HERE TO HELP.
This is the first of a five-part series introducing the everyman to hockey. My goal is to break the barrier of general hockey knowledge – and maybe get you to watch a playoff game instead of a “First Take” re-run. The NHL has a presence in nearly every major market in the United States and Canada and, surprising to some, it’s available for you to watch on cable every night. Regardless of sport, we all want to relish in the amazing scoring plays that occur on a nightly basis, but first, you need some background. For us to reach our new-found camaraderie in dangles, snipes, and cellies, do I pick the chicken or the egg for our first in-depth analysis? Due to it’s versatile properties for home cooking, let’s investigate the egg. The egg for us today is the genesis and evolution of hockey and the NHL. I won’t go into details of the Montreal Maroons roster, nor how many stitches Terry Sawchuk got (it’s a lot though). Much like basketball’s creation of the three point arc, there are key moments in the history and rules of the game that have made it into what it is today.
So there’s a lot of bickering as to whether or not hockey was originated in Europe or North America, but that doesn’t really matter to me. Montreal is where organized hockey was born when McGill College students created the first hockey club. Canada’s Governor General, Lord Stanley of Preston, created the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, which later became known as the Stanley Cup. It was first awarded in 1893, and has been awarded to the best club in hockey each year since.
There were many hockey leagues that had brief stints in the early part of the 20th Century, but one stayed around and had the financial support to have sustained success: the National Hockey League, whose first year in existence was 1917. In the early years of the NHL, many teams were founded and folded such as the New York Americans and the Montreal Maroons, but since 1942, there have been six core teams that have been associated with the NHL and been dubbed “The Original Six” (Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, and New York Rangers). The rivalries between these teams run long and deep, as they were to the only teams in the NHL up until 1967, when the league was ready for expansion.
Expansion meant six more teams were created to compete in the NHL. Five of which remain (pour one out for the well-named Oakland/California Seals). These new teams also ushered in a style of play that defined 1960’s hockey: a hard, gritty game that revolved around physicality, with teams like the Flyers Broad Street Bullies. These guys didn’t just want to rough you up, they wanted you to remember when you played the Flyers, and they were good at it. HBO has a great documentary that dives deep into that mentality and physicality of the era. This style of hockey proved to be wildly popular with new fans – and much like today’s Golden State Warriors in the NBA – forced teams to make changes that would alter the makeup of NHL rosters forever. To combat the strong, slow Flyers, teams added faster, more agile players that made up scoring/skill lines. When teams wanted to wear down their opponents or hold a lead, they substituted in their more bruising checking/defensive lines. This is how the different lines function today – and later article in this series will break down the chess match that managers play every night when switching lines.
As the success of the NHL’s first expansion took hold, a competing league called the WHA popped up and posed a threat by luring away a few NHL superstars such as Bobby Hull, with then-unprecedented million dollar signing bonuses. The competition pushed the NHL to expand into even more markets and their established, deep pockets pushed the WHA into folding after seven seasons – a much more reputable stint than the USFL or XFL.
The 1970’s and 80’s were defined by dynasties in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens winning four consecutive Stanley Cups, followed by the New York Islanders in the early 80’s and the Edmonton Oilers in the late 80’s. These squads are known as some of the best teams the game has ever seen as they won in their own unique ways: Montreal with balanced offense and staunch defense, the Islanders with offensive firepower and gritty throwback defence, and the Edmonton Oilers with their overpowering offensive ability and solid goaltending. As these dynasties provided the gold standard of expectations for fans, there were two drivers that ushered the NHL in the 1990’s: the end of the Cold War and the surprising spread of the game to the American South.
The end of the Cold War presented a new style of play and introduced a different type of player. The Soviet national team had long been known for their amazing passing and free-flowing offense, but few players had defected from the USSR to North America. After the wall fell, Russian and Eastern European players were free to join the NHL and they brought fast-paced and unique flavor to the league. Superstars emerged overnight after their emigration to the US and Canada. Players like Pavel Bure, Jaromir Jagr (who at 45 years old is still playing!), and Sergei Fedorov were instant celebrities. Along with the infusion of Russian talent, the NHL announced bold plans to double league revenues and added nine more franchises and relocated a handful of franchises to the Southern US. That focus on league profitability has also been a burden on labor negotiations in the modern NHL, as there have been three lockouts in the past 24 years (two partial season lockouts and one full season).
For 2017, the league has added one more franchise, with the Las Vegas Golden Knights becoming the NHL’s 31st team. Expansion is again on the horizon as TV revenues increase and owners drive the quest for yet another team. There are key components that the league office must consider before awarding a new franchise, like the financial instability of some recent market expansions (such as the Arizona Coyotes), and player talent dilution that impacts league competitiveness and ultimately, overall on-ice product.
As you can see, after 100 years, the league is almost a completely different sport, but the core goal of putting the puck into a net while on ice skates remains the constant. In the second part of this five-part primer, we will dive into rule changes and innovations that have evolved the game into what it is today.
Let us know in the comments if you have any hockey questions or parts of the game you’d like analyzed.