Charlton's NHL
A Season of Irony

Rick Charlton
October 16th, 2003

If there's one thing you can say about the NHL these days it's that irony is alive and well.

Where else would you have a union, usually the paragon of collective thought, defending vigourously the principles of the free market system.

And where else but the NHL would you have the captains of capitalism, owners, preaching the need to collectively cap spending because the free market system is killing them.

Its pretty darned ironic too that the Leafs, the team with the most dedicated fans in the league, would be strapped with easily the wealthiest owner in the NHL, yet an owner with the clearest profit directive. While we stand back agog at the ability of normally brilliant men to make unbelievably stupid decisions in the hockey business we see in Toronto the clinical precision of the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, with a legal and moral mandate for maximum profit, running the one franchise where fans and media can't accept profit taking precedent over doing anything to win.

Now . . . . . that's ironic. And pretty funny.

Here's another irony. In a year when owners across the NHL will surely cry financial foul, wailing competitive disparities are destroying the league, we could well see Ottawa, a team in one of the smallest markets in the league, as a Stanley Cup champion, seemingly blowing a hole in the theory that only the largest markets can compete for hockey's holy grail. The other half of the irony is the early season implosion of the richest team in the league, the Rangers, already panicking from top to bottom at the prospect of a seventh consecutive season out of the playoffs.

There is also much irony in seeing the Canadian dollar smoking through the roof at a time when Canadian clubs are gearing up for Armageddon, the do-or-die point of their collective existences as the result of the next CBA determines their fate. Cynics have long pointed out the Canadian teams don't have a problem so much with the CBA as they do with the Canadian dollar, that a par dollar would mean a $50 million (about $32 million U.S. last year) payroll in Calgary would leave it as one of the big economic hitters in the league, able to compete on a fairly even keel with most of the larger markets in the USA. At a moment whe the PR dials are being turned to the max, with stories of poverty crippling the league, the situation with Canadian clubs is only getting better. Bad timing. And ironic.

It's also ironic that the coming salary cap in the 2004 CBA - or any form of Gary Bettman's "cost certainty - will nip in the bud any hopes the Colorado Avalanche might be giving desperate hockey fans for a return to pure offensive run and gun hockey. The new CBA, presuming "cost certainty" is achieved, will still ensure the best players will get the most money, but no one team, regardless of the size of market, will be able to sign more than a handful of offensive stars lest it not have enough money to fill out the rest of its roster with credible NHL players.

Yes, it's very ironic that we might be so close to escaping the current defensive quagmire only to be pulled back from the tipping point by, of all things, economics, the very thing that tipped it towards defensive hockey in the first place.

Which makes this ironic but sad as well. While I've long argued in this space that scoring trends today are fairly consistent with historic averages, with the 1980's standing out as an aberration, do not presuppose that yours truly wouldn't mind seeing the long-term average edging closer to the high end of its normal range, about six goals per game, versus the low end of five goals per game where we are currently mired.

It would also be a very cool irony if hooking, holding and obstruction were far less of a problem in today's game than has been previously believed. It's been a suspicion in this space before that tackle hockey was actually far more pronounced in prior era's than it is today but of course that would be a distinctly minority view . . . . . until Brian Burke, GM of the Canucks, stood up and agreed with that proposition just the other day.

"I went back and looked at games from when I was GM in Hartford some 10 or 11 years ago," Brian Burke told the Globe & Mail. "The obstruction was horrible, just horrible. Players were being physically tackled in the neutral zone. It's way better now so I think the league has made a step but not enough to suit me. It's got to be more."

The irony, of course, is that the obstruction crackdown of the last few years - well in force this year as well - might have actually been working but no one noticed. Let me be the first to congratulate Burke for subscribing to The NHL Network and ESPN Classic where its easy to view the evidence on a weekly basis.

Although obstruction is an easy thing to point to, particularly with scoring down dramatically at only 4.52 goals per game so far this young season, that's more in line with our thoughts that the NHL is less diluted today than it was in the 1980's and that scoring is back to historic levels because of better competition and not because of defensive fouling.

Burke believes the game is being as tightly called as it ever has but he wants more, more, more so that the skill players in the game, the thoroughbreds, can pull away from the mules.

In retrospective, given Burke's comments, it might be fair to say the 1995 Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils took all that hooking, holding and obstruction, common through the 1980's and early 1990's, and organized it into a plan of action, a weapon for success which was then copycatted for the last eight years, hence the league-wide push to eliminate it altogether.

Weigh that thought for a moment then compare it ironically with this comment from Ken Hitchcock, coach of Philadelphia, watching a recent exhibition game between his Flyers and the AHL Philadelphia Phantoms.

"The game itself, because there was no body contact and very little checking, showcased the skill level of all of the players," observed Hitchcock from his press box perch. "What I realized in watching that game was the small difference when the emotion and intensity are removed from the game of hockey. I know the difference between the American Hockey League and the NHL, but as I was observing the game, I found out that it isn't necessarily skill. Most of the skill plays were made by the Phantom players and their team was more organized than the Flyers. What makes the NHL game so special is the emotion and intensity that goes with it. And when that is removed, anybody can play. In watching the two teams play, you couldn't help but be impressed with the skill level of the AHL players. But I also couldn't help feeling that to take the elements out that make the game special - body contact, physical play, one-on-one battles for the puck - would make the game boring."

Ironic, isn't it, that Hitchcock would say the AHL is boring because the skill players are allowed to ply their trade while the attraction the NHL offers is the physical attributes that take those same skill players down a notch or two.

Effectively arguing the opposite of the Canucks Burke.

Perhaps that's the ultimate irony.

"WE SAID WHEN WE FIRST DELVED INTO THIS LAST SUMMER that this would be a three-year project, to teach not only the players but the coaches and referees how this should be handled.I think we made some real headway last year. In our minds it's going to be another two years before it has its full effect." - NHL VP Colin Campbell speaking on the continuing crackdown on obstruction.

"I THINK THEY MADE PROGRESS LAST YEAR. As the year went on, it backed off a little bit. I think you have to be patient with it. It's going to take more than a season or two. I'm sure they're going to try to go back to where it was early last year and call the games as close as they can." - Mario Lemieux on the same topic, offering an astonishing opinion given he has consistently been the NHL's biggest critic, even citing obstruction as one of the reasons for his early retirement in the late 1990's.

THE NHL HAS SEEN THE LARGEST ONE YEAR DROP IN AVERAGE AGE SINCE 1972-73 according to figures compiled by USA Today. The average NHL'er starting this campaign is 27.4 years of age, down from the 28.1 average of last season. This is in line with past demographic columns here at Calgarypuck predicting just such an occurance but it should be noted this is only the beginning of a trend that should extend a decade or longer. Right now we are in the earliest moments, where older NHL'ers, the remnants of the baby boom bubble that peaked in the late 80's and early 90's, finally begins to fade from the scene once and for all. Their absence will create a vacuum, which we are seeing in the numbers this year, filled by the younger crowd, the leading elements of the Baby Boom Echo generation, the group born between 1980 and 1995, the next dominant force that will push the league to a much young age within the next 10 years. All of this is quite normal as we have seen several such periods of advancing and retreating ages throughout NHL history. As noted in my last column on this topic, however, recognizing the fact of this age shift might have had a significant effect if it had been acknowledged when the last CBA was being crafted in the mid-90's. In 1994-95, it was presumed by ownership that players 31 and older would be a minor force when all along the demographic trend was moving towards an dramatically older league. That in turn caused all sorts of economic problems for owners as up to one-third of the player pool, players 31 and older, were routinely UFA's. With an opposite trend occurring, it might be possible for ownership to surrender a lower UFA age in exchange for a salary cap or other form of cost certainty, all without economic impact.

"KAREN (Dr. Karen Johnston) CALLED ME AND SAID SHE WANTED TO TALK TO ME ABOUT MY CAREER. She said, 'You can't play anymore.' I was like, 'OK, that was a good talk.' She said that there was no maybe; no choice. She told me she could guarantee I'd recover fully from this, but that there was no guarantee I'd recover from another concussion, that there was simply too much risk.What I have to remember, with a wife and a 1- and a 3-year-old at home, is that what I'm giving up in hockey, I'm gaining in life." - Mike Richter. The long-time Ranger stalwart, on his decision to retire, one of a horde of older NHL'ers who've reached the end of the line or are nearly there.

"I WAS SO DRAINED EMOTIONALLY AND PHYSICALLY AT THE END that I just wanted to go somewhere and rest. I was standing in the middle of the ice with my hands in my pockets looking up, thinking, 'Geez, it doesn't look like this on TV.' " - New Jersey coach Pat Burns on the moment he realized a Stanley Cup ring was finally his.

"I THINK I'VE WORKED VERY, VERY HARD IN CAMP. I've come to work in practice, I've come to work in games. ... I've worked hard and tried to do what he's wanted me to do, so if he's not happy with the camp that I've had then I think we have a big problem." - Philadelphia's Jeremy Roenick, sounding off on coach Hitchcock. Not that Hitchcock hasn't heard it before from Brett Hull in Dallas.

THESE GUYS ARE IN TWICE AS GOOD CONDITION AS OUR GUYS WERE. They train twice as hard - look at all the equipment they have. Everything is so much better today. Maybe the worst guy on this team would be a star on [the 1967] team. Hockey is not going backward. If it is, it's the only thing in the world that is. The players today skate faster, they shoot harder, they're twice as big. You think a goaltender could play with no mask today? If he got hit in the head with a puck, they'd have to take him to the hospital and dig it out. In our day, you'd stitch him up and send him back out there." - Leaf great George Armstrong, captain of the 1967 Stanley Cup champions, on the state of the game.

''I'M KIND OF SPEECHLESS. They're a great team. They make a great play in the middle of the ice with a guy wide open and then there's another guy open by the net. They're tough to defend because they move around a lot.'' - Chicago goalie Michael Leighton after letting in five goals against the super-charged Avalanche.

WHEN HE WAS COMING OFF, HE KIND OF LOOKED LIKE JOHN WAYNE AND ONE OF HIS PILGRIMS THERE." - Darryl Sutter talking of Roman Turek's last moments on the ice after being kneed in the head by Alyn McCauley of San Jose.

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