Kids? Who Needs 'Em?

Rick Charlton

August 7, 2001

Wall Street financiers have long felt that "a good war never hurt no one," but the aftermath of conflict is where numbers for the NHL have proven to be the most interesting.

Through the last 50 years, the NHL has experienced a curious pattern of graying, then going young before graying again, all in lock step with population demographics.

"In my day, when a player turned 30, they all but shot him. Now, it seems teams are building franchises around 35- and 40-year-olds," observed former Toronto Maple Leaf Carl Brewer a few weeks ago.

Brewer actually played through two radically different demographic periods. He was there in the mid to late 60's when the NHL was a league for graybeards, with a full one-third of the roster of the Stanley Cup champion Leafs, sans Brewer, in 1966-67 comprised of players 31 and over (playing 10 games or more that year) and the overall league average at 26%.

Into the early 70's, Brewer left for the WHA and when he returned to the NHL as a 41 year-old in 1979, he was coming back to a league which was already well along a spiraling 20 year trend towards youth.

They shot him after only 20 games.

Two large population booms have occurred in the last 90 years, in each case following a global conflict. The first was World War I between 1914 and 1918 with a population bubble from births between 1919 and 1926. The second occurred following World War II (1939-1945) with the emergence of the famous boomer generation, those born between 1947 and 1966.

The proportion of players 31 years and older in the NHL has followed that demographic line closely.

As waves of younger bucks have come on the scene, the geezers have been forced to the sidelines, only to reappear in force later when the bubble had made its way through the system.

More interestingly, as the baby boom generation moves along in age, we are seeing the percentage of players 31 years of age and older returning to the same levels evidenced in the last year prior to expansion, 1966.

The cycle has come full circle once again.

The leading edge of the first boom in population, born in 1919, were reaching geezer status at 31 years of age in 1950, just as the bulk of their generation, born in 1926, were stepping into the NHL in their mid-20's. The result was that only 9.2% of NHL players in 1950 were 31 years of age and older.

By 1956, the percentage of players 31 and over was only 7.3%, just as the first boomer generation, born in the mid-1920's began to peak out.

As the Great Depression enveloped the globe and World War II came along, the North American birth rate plummeted.

Older players in the NHL - those born in the 1929 through 1935 period - suddenly became more valuable. In 1960, players born in 1929 or earlier comprised 15.8% of the NHL player pool. By 1966-67, those born amid much economic hardship in 1935 or earlier, made up an incredible 26% of all NHL players.

The first wave of the post World War II baby boom generation had begun to make its presence felt by 1973-74 when only 19.3% of the player pool was 31 years of age and older.

In 1979-80, the year Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and the Oilers joined the NHL, those born in 1948 or before comprised only 15.6% of the player pool.

Gretzky's 1961 birth date, by the way, is significant - there are more people in Canada with that birth date than any other year, the peak of the boomer generation.

By 1988-89, the year the Flames won the Cup, you could literally count on one hand the number of players 31 years of age and older, those born in 1957 or before, making an impact in the NHL.

This was probably because the great wave of births had peaked between 1961 and 1966. Gretzky, then 27, was in his prime, as was his generation. Only 9.8% of the player pool in 1988 was born in 1957 or before - the only standout names in the NHL to mention at that point were Peter Statsny, Joey Mullen and Larry Robinson. The others of their age group were generally second-tier players, including Bryan Trottier, then only 32 years of age.

But the demographic tables began to turn. With a lengthy stretch of relative peace and prosperity, the North American birth rate began to crumble. The massive influx of young talent into the NHL began to fade into a "Baby Bust" in the words of David K. Foot, author of Boom, Bust & Echo, referring to the years 1967 through to 1979 when the North American birth rate sank dramatically.

By 1993-94, the tide had turned with 12% of the player pool born in 1962 or before now 31 years of age and over.

As we roll the calendar over to the coming season, it seems probable that a full 26% of the player pool, mirroring 1966-67, will be over the age of 31 with a birth date of 1970 or earlier.

The rising prominence of players 31 years of age and older has been laid down to a couple of factors. Some say expansion has created a shortage of players, thus allowing those who might have been given the Carl Brewer treatment an extension to their careers. Others might ascribe the long-lived performance of some athletes to better conditioning.

But we need only look back to 1966-67 to counter those claims. The demographic of the league mirrored what we see today. It was a six team NHL and the number of roster spots available hadn't wavered in decades. And for most players of that era, the summer wasn't about weight machines and diet. It was about cigarettes, partying and generally laying about the cottage.

Getting in shape was the purpose of training camp.

Looking into the future, "the Baby Boom Echo," as Foot refers to it, will be upon us shortly. These are the children of the boomers, born between 1980 and 1995, the first batch of which is only now making a tentative appearance in the NHL. As of 1998, according to Foot, there were 6.5 million Canadians in this generation.

Will the NHL begin going young again between 2005 and 2011, just as this demographic group reaches full flower?

Only time will tell.

SCORING AND DEMOGRAPHICS - I've used this space in the last year to soapbox various unorthodox opinions as to the rationale behind league scoring totals fluctuating as they have since 1930, asserting, with some success I hope, that expansion actually increases scoring rather than hinders it. I've also pointed out that the roughly 200 new jobs created by expansion in the 1990's almost exactly mirrors the number of East European imports currently playing in the NHL, players previously unavailable to the NHL when the Flames won the Cup in 1988-89 in a 21 team league. The assertion there is that the NHL has achieved expansion without dilution. Hence the drop in scoring totals through the last decade to levels in line with the period 1930-67.

One has to admit though, that it is curious that NHL scoring totals through the 1980's, vastly out of whack with the historic norms, neatly line up with the demographic push to younger players. In 1966-67, in an era when the older set dominated league statistics, the Leafs won the Cup with a team comprising some 35% of its roster 31 years of age and older. Not coincidentally perhaps, the worst team in the league that year was the Boston Bruins, with only a few veterans peppered through their roster.

By 1988-89, the combined rosters of the Canadiens and Flames, the two Cup finalists, held only six of 48 players (10 games or more during the year) 31 years of age and older.

In 1966-67, the NHL averaged 5.96 goals per game, only modestly different from what we see today and consistent with the 5.5 goals per game the NHL saw through the 1930-1966 pre-expansion period. In 1988-89, just as the wave of young talent was peaking, the league averaged 7.48 goals per game, emblematic of the scoring explosion seen throughout the 1970-1993 period.

It could easily be stated that the younger an average lineup, the more likely mistakes will be made and the more probable it becomes that each side will score more often. Conversely, as we have seen lately, and as we have seen throughout much of NHL history, older players tend to be more experienced, and more likely to be aware of their defensive responsibilities.

It would be instructive perhaps to take this thought back to the first boomer generation, those born between 1919 and 1926, to seek confirmation. Unfortunately, World War II intervened at a most inconvenient moment. While it is true that NHL scoring totals climbed dramatically through the war years that might also have had something to do with the fact that many of the best players were engaged in combat of a different type.


``WHEN WE PLAYED THEM (ST. LOUIS) in the playoffs two years ago, they had 10 guys under 25 years old and we did, too. But in the last two years, they've given up a lot of those young players. Obviously, they've loaded up to go for it now.'' - San Jose GM Dean Lombardi.


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