by Joe Tasca on 05/22/12 at 07:00 PM ET
Of all the major sports, it seems like hockey is the one game that’s constantly evolving.
The Flyers and Canadiens ruled the rough-and-tumble 70’s. The Islanders and Oilers dominated the high-flying 80’s. The Devils and Red Wings gained prominence in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, commonly referred to as the dead puck era. Parity has ruled the day in the post-lockout years, during which the NHL has undergone a drastic on-ice metamorphosis.
Coming out of the lockout, the league made a point to implement a series of rule changes designed to open up the game. The emphasis was on creating offense, something that many hockey fans felt had been neutralized for the better part of the previous ten years. By rewarding skill, the NHL was hoping general managers would start building their teams around talented, creative players who could stick-handle in a phone booth and skate like the wind.
That seems like eons ago.
The game on display this spring is a far cry from the one the league envisioned in 2005. Instead of enjoying a plethora of scoring chances, fans are being treated to a shot-blocking bonanza that even the brightest minds in the sport never could have foreseen seven years back. Instead of profiling the gifted offensive stars on the ice, commentators are heralding the defensive prowess of pluggers like Matt Hendricks and Dwight King on a nightly basis.
Women’s hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser isn’t impressed:
“I think the game is boring to watch that way, no question. I prefer it when there’s much more offense and a lot of run-and-gun. The creativity of the game and offensive plays, that’s where the true skill is to me.
“I think the game is a pro-active game, it’s not a reactive game. You want to take your game to the other team and not react to their game and defensively position around them. When you have the puck, you want to keep it, not just chip it in and make the safe play.
“If you block shots and have great goaltending, you can rely on that but, as a fan watching the game, it certainly isn’t very entertaining. I’d rather lose playing creative, free-flowing, skillful hockey than win playing, I guess, boring hockey. Of course, it’s easy to say when your job is not on the line.”
Of course, Wickenheiser is referring to the coaches who adopt suffocating defensive strategies that zap the life out of what should be the greatest sport on earth. And while it’s not particularly surprising to hear a skillful player like Wickenheiser rail against passive hockey, it’s quite telling to hear an athlete of her stature fervently denounce the way the pro game is now being played.
Indeed, winning cures all ills. Ranger and King fans, by and large, have absolutely no problem with the style of play employed by their respective teams because its led to incredible success. When it comes right down to it, the average hockey fan would likely disagree with Wickenheiser, and would have no problem with his favorite team winning the Stanley Cup by posting 16 mind-numbingly boring 2-1 victories.
It’s interesting to note that should the Rangers not win the Stanley Cup, their inability to score goals will be tabbed as the primary culprit. The same would be said of the Kings, who’s goal-scoring woes have been well-documented all season. But of course, it’s extremely difficult to score goals when a team is playing not to lose.
Even the most ardent Ranger fan will admit the way his team plays the game is painful to watch. Hockey fans fall in love with the sport because of the incredible speed and skill of the players and the breathtaking goals that litter the highlight reels. They don’t marvel over the majestic shot-blocking techniques of fourth-line forwards who ascend to cult-like status in the playoffs.
That’s the point Hayley Wickenheiser was trying to make. And while some would argue she’s being disingenuous by saying she’d rather lose a high-scoring affair than win a low-scoring chess match, it’s not that difficult to understand why a woman who’s grown up trying to emulate the great offensive talents of her generation would cringe at the prospect of playing ping pong on ice.
Hockey fans are an ornery lot. No matter what the state of the game, we always have something to complain about. No sport tinkers with its rules, its officiating standards, its playing surface, and its equipment, all part of an effort to satisfy the fanbase, more than hockey. And while progress is very often made, a new crisis always develops. The shot-blocking craze of the Stanley Cup playoffs is the latest chapter of that ever-expanding novel.
And the band played on.
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About Tasca's Take
Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.
Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.