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Charlton's NHL: Same Old Game

Rick Charlton

November 13th, 2001

It was the last game of the Golden Era; the NHL scheduled to add six new teams the following year before rolling onward like an unstoppable train to 30 franchises in every corner of North America.

The last game before expansion.

The last game before the NHL was ruined through reckless dilution if you believe some critics.

HNIC's replay of the 1966-67 game six final between Montreal and Toronto, which resulted in the Leafs last Stanley Cup, was a cultural eye-opener for those willing to stay awake until 1:30 Sunday morning.

Arguing the relative merits of different eras in hockey is often an unwinnable philosophical exercise for both sides since the evidence, replay's of contests decades old, seldom happens, with black and white footage buried in archival vaults or already destroyed in the mistaken belief no one is interested in witnessing ancient history.

That would be a very wrong assumption, as HNIC should have realized from their wildly popular restoration of classics during the 1994-95 NHL lockout.

Those who point to the Golden Era, prior to endless expansion, say the game will never be as good while their detractors argue the game has never been as well played as it is today.

Most days of the week, this ancient argument is left to be settled on the dubious basis of fading memories, the kind that always elevates the past over the present.

Shown after Saturday's Calgary/Colorado tilt, the deciding game of the 1966-1967 Stanley Cup playoffs provided a remarkable contrast for the best and worst of the past and present.

For those who believe the game was better in a six team NHL, the evidence in your favour was the persistent end-to-end rushes led by the likes of Jean Beliveau, Bobby Rousseau, Yvon Cournoyer, Frank Mahovlich, Ron Ellis and Dave Keon.

There was Dick Duff, his team down by two goals, picking up a pass deep inside his own blueline and racing the full length of the ice, throwing himself past a startled Tim Horton and driving the net to stuff a backhander short side behind Terry Sawchuk.

When analysts in the 80's and 90's were comparing Doug Gilmour to an earlier Keon you could at last see why.

Unlike a typical modern game, where the objective is very often to force a series of bad choices on the opposition, very little of the play between Toronto and Montreal took place in the neutral zone, with fans instead treated to a continual exchange of offensive chances.

There was some of the usual hacking and whacking one might expect in a contest of such importance but there was also a notable absence of the hooking, holding and picking prevalent in today's game, leaving the road open for nifty smaller players like Keon (5'9", 163) and Duff (5'10", 163) to show their ample offensive talents.

Yet it was indeed fortunate the Leafs/Canadiens tilt was re-broadcast immediately following the Avs/Flames for the deficiencies of days gone by were also keenly evident when offered up in comparison.

For all the excitement of hard skating, slick passing and deft stick handling, it was also apparent this game was far less physically intense than a typical game of the modern era, a charge sure to raise the ire of purists.

In the preceding Calgary/Colorado match, the two teams meted out a total of 55 hits, yet an average NHL statistician would have struggled to find half that number - seriously - in the NHL classic.

There was no Scott Stevens or Rob Blake on either the Canadiens or Leafs in the game, no in-the-corner hammer jobs on unfortunate forwards, no Ronald Petrovicky's trying to pound his doppelganger through the wall on every shift. There was hitting to be sure but none of the teeth-rattling, board wagging variety common in today's NHL.

Both Avs coach Bob Hartley and certainly Flames mentor Greg Gilbert would have been left red-faced with apoplexy at the number of times attackers and defenders turned away from laying the body on their opposite numbers. Any modern coach viewing the game would have felt an overpowering urge to whip out his notebook to scribble criticisms for post-game review.

And there was no talk of a pre-game strategy to grind down an opponent as you often hear from the Flames.

Is that right or wrong?

The reliance of deft skill over brawn - in spite of the presence of ferocious looking tough guy John Ferguson of Montreal - was interesting to say the least and in context with the era, carried a certain intensity in itself.

Yet any Stanley Cup final in recent memory was easily far rougher physically than that seen in the last game before expansion.

Perhaps it had something to do with the equipment of the day, sparse to say the least, which often led to the hitter getting hurt as much as the victim.

Maybe it was the refereeing which had established a standard of conduct which forbade the defensive hooking and grabbing so prevalent in today's game.

Yet it is also interesting to note that in spite of the differences so wildly evident in HNIC's two presentations on Saturday night, scoring totals in the Golden Era were pretty much the same as they are today. And the Canadiens/Leafs contest, for all its frenzied action, was a 2-1 nail-biter until an empty net goal salted the game away.

Different era.

Different style.

Still low scoring.

Both have their merits.

And it's probably still an unwinnable argument as to which is better.

ONE ENDURING IMAGE FROM THE LEAFS/CANADIENS game was Terry Sawchuk holding the side of the net, glove raised, one knee down, his paddle splayed across the ice in true Roman Turek fashion. A picture that could have been taken yesterday.

THE ADVENT OF THE CURVED STICK was still in its infancy in the 1960's, led by the daring of Bobby Hull, and the result was self-evident, all players consistently playing the puck off their backhands for shots on goal or passes at high speed. Something you rarely see in today's NHL. One is left to wonder if increasing restrictions on curved sticks might in turn lead to a higher overall skill level for today's players.

THE 1966-67 GAME SIX FINAL is actually the first game I have a conscious memory of as a kid growing up in a small Alberta town. My mother was in tears as she gazed at our grainy 13 inch black and white console TV, Red Kelly carrying the Cup around Maple Leaf Gardens. I was thinking of that as I sat at home the other night watching the re-broadcast on my 35" colour Toshiba. Jeezus!! A 13 inch screen? There's a lot to be said for scientific advances.

"I SEE A LOT MORE SPEED IN THE LEAGUE." - Jim Rutherford, GM of the Carolina Hurricane, talking Saturday on the TEAM 960. Rutherford has had a dubious performance as a GM but was Detroit's primary netminder in the worst of times for the Red Wings franchise in the 1970's. If you think the Flames have been terrible lately, consider that Detroit fans had a team between 1974-75 and 1985-86, twelve consecutive seasons, which averaged only 26 wins.

"PLAYERS HAVE NEVER BEEN BIGGER, STRONGER OR FASTER THAN THEY ARE RIGHT NOW." - Former NHL coach turned television analyst Pierre McGuire on TSN's "That's Hockey" on Friday, disagreeing with fellow commentator Dave Hodge who was arguing the NHL is heavily diluted from expansion. McGuire believes the game has never been better than it is today.

IF I WEREN'T ONE OF THE LONGEST-SUFFERING EXPOS FANS IN EXISTENCE, I might find this entire baseball contraction thing hilarious. If owners have $400 million or $500 million to buy out the Twins and Expos then why don't they just use the money for meaningful revenue sharing while pressing players for a salary cap? A cynic is left wondering if baseball really WILL contract two teams or if this is merely a negotiating ploy to get the salary restraint owners would like in the CBA negotiations set to begin this winter. In turn, NHL owners will be watching this situation closely, not only for the outcome but also the relative success or failure of this particular scare tactic when hockey has its own labour issues in 2004. Meanwhile, when the baseball players and owners finally settle on a new CBA - after a summer without baseball in 2002 - don't bet against a 30 team league with two teams relocated.

"I THINK THAT WE'RE NOT GOING TO BE A SURPRISE to anybody anymore, not just another game on the schedule for them. People are going to be well-prepared for us." - Flames coach Greg Gilbert predicting the easy days are over for his team. At 12-2-1-2, the Flames have close to 33% of the wins they'll need for a playoff spot with only 21% of the season gone. They're on pace for 58 wins, a statistical improbability.

"WHAT DO SANDY MCCARTHY AND SANDY KOUFAX HAVE IN COMMON? Each has each thrown an inordinate number of no-hitters." - Larry Brooks, columnist for the New York Post.

BROOKS, BY THE WAY, used the words "Lindros" and "Hart Trophy" in the same sentence after a Ranger victory last week. Lindros, stung by criticism he has been reduced to a perimeter player, has stepped up his play with several dominating performances. In doing so, however, he began moving into the danger areas on the ice where at least one cheap shot artist, Vaclav Varada of Buffalo, went right for his head with a butt-end. And Varada won't be the last. The Lindros situation is one that appears simple on the surface - opponents should respect his noggin. On the other hand, if you're a coach or team needing a win, letting a gigantic Lindros run rough-shod over you probably isn't an option either. Varada went way too far and will pay the price, a three game suspension. But the further Lindros moves towards his old self, the greater the risk becomes. Although the circumstances of the Lindros injury are well known, his situation nevertheless regurgitates the age-old debate of whether or not teams are obligated to report to the media the specifics of injuries. The media would have you believe truth and honesty are somehow in play when most teams know full well opponents will go after a known injury like a junk-yard dog on a piece of baloney. I've never had a problem with teams being deliberately vague about injuries. Safety first.

"DON'T BE RUNNING AFTER THE BEST PLAYERS. That's goon hockey. That went out with disco." - Devils Coach Larry Robinson after resident monster Wade Belak engaged in fisticuffs with New Jersey's best player Patrik Elias in a 1-1 tie in Toronto. The incident also caused the Devils best centre, Jason Arnott, to step into the fray and save his beleaguered comrade from certain doom. After a comment like Robinson's, you have to wonder what the real role of a tough guy is. Is his only job to fight the tough guy on the other team? If that's all his job entails then it sounds like a colossal waste of roster space. So let's think about this - Belak and Corson are sacrificed for Elias, Arnott and Colin White at a critical point in a divisional contest. The Leafs would take that deal any day of the week. Using tough guys to intimidate the weak isn't anything new in the NHL.

"HE'S GOTTEN SOME BAD BOUNCES, but he's been getting big points and set up the tying goal for us (in Anaheim) the other night. He's a skilled guy and he's been a workhorse for us, so the bounces are going to start going his way. He's really coming on." - Jarome Iginla on snake-bitten teammate Rob Niedermayer, now without a goal in 13 games, although on pace for 44 points.



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