Friday, 2 July 2010

History Might Be Repeating Itself

I've been thinking about the NHL's Competition Committee and the new rules they have been working to implement. For example, I'm all for reducing the size of goaltending equipment in order to make goalies look more like players rather than sumo wrestlers. I'm also for the committee's recommendation to remove the violent hits that endanger players' livelihoods and to reduce the staged fights. What may surprise you is that this happened in the NHL once before, and the man who spoke in favor of these changes will most likely surprise you.

The NHL is working to reduce the number of dangerous hits, concussions, and injuries that players sustain through checks to the head. This, in my view, is vitally important when it comes to keeping the superstars on the ice. The second major change the NHL has been trying to implement over the last two years is the increase in instigator penalties.

While I feel that fighting does have a role in the NHL today, the fights we normally see in games are reactionary to a hit on a star player. I understand that teams want to protect their stars, but the amount of violence seen after a clean check has sky-rocketed in recent years. By enforcing the instigator penalty, the NHL has stated that this sort of physicality will be reduced, and the game will be a far better place.

Well, we're still waiting on that one.

However, thanks to a Sports Illustrated article from June 21, 1976, there might be some actual value to the NHL's stance on this one.

Everyone in and around the game of hockey has stated that the best NHL hockey was played in the 1980s when players like Gretzky, Bossy, Messier, Coffey, and Trottier were free to skate up and down the ice. Were there fights? Of course there were. But the game was entirely different from the 1970s when the Broad Street Bullies literally beat teams into submission. And it was due to the NHL enforcing rules they already had written into the rulebook.

Sound familiar? It was Bobby Clarke, the president of the Players Association at the time, that spoke in favor of the NHL's new outlook on violence.

From the 1976 article:

"After the new rules were approved last week, Clarke told a group of sportswriters that his only objection was that the NHL had not gone far enough. Clarke felt the rules committee should have heeded the advice of the player representatives, who had voted 16-4 in favor of having all those who take part in any fight ejected from the game, not just the obvious aggressors."
Doesn't that sound like the instigator rule? Any player who takes part in any fight should be ejected, according to Clarke, and that would include those guys who are wrestling in the corner away from the featured heavyweight bout.

Clarke had more to say on the subject.
"'Hockey is good enough on its own that it doesn't need fighting,' said Clarke, 'yet apparently the owners and managers think the threat of violence is necessary to sell the game. But all the brawling hasn't made hockey popular. I know fans in Philadelphia—the best fans in the league now—who have been turned off by the mayhem. We've lost the TV Game of the Week in the States, and crowds are falling off. I think the message is there. I think hockey can be a lot better when you let the talented players perform without fear of getting worked over.'"
I'll say it again: doesn't that sound familiar? The NHL has gushed over the ticket sales figures since the lockout when the major rule changes were made, and attendance is always rising if you believe the NHL's numbers. The violence once seen in the 1990s - when hooking, holding, and interference ruled the ice - has now been replaced by scoring, skating, and entertaining hockey, and, according to the NHL, fans in the United States are returning.

Perhaps the most poignant statement in the entire article was this one: "I don't mind taking my hits in a game," [Clarke] said, "but I don't appreciate it if a guy who scores five goals a season and is six inches taller than I am is beating on my head all night. Now the little guy will get a chance to play hockey again."

It may have taken the NHL thirty-five years, but history is definitely repeating itself. The faster, smaller players like Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, and Daniel Briere are leading their teams to the promised lands more often, and we see less monsters on the ice who take the size and shape of an Eric Lindros.

Those who do not know history may be doomed to repeat it. In this case, I'd say the NHL is pretty lucky to have history appear to be repeating itself. After all, it only took five years after the NHL made the changes to clean up the game in the 1970s for the league to pick up some serious steam in terms of its popularity in the 1980s. Who know where the NHL could be in terms of its popularity by 2015?

The little guy is finding a chance to play hockey again, and that's great for the game!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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