Sports Column

‘Is it too much to ask that they learn the rudiments?’

Trent Frayne December 24 1979
Sports Column

‘Is it too much to ask that they learn the rudiments?’

Trent Frayne December 24 1979

‘Is it too much to ask that they learn the rudiments?’

Sports Column

Trent Frayne

Carl Brewer, 41 but spry, tottered off to the farm club at Moncton, New Brunswick, last week—the first brave steps in a comeback attempt with his old team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brewer’s trek had a deep effect upon the current Leaf general manager, Punch Imlach, Brewer’s coach in a time, 15 years ago and more, when the Leafs were actually a Stanley Cup threat. And it brought tears of (a) gratitude or (b) nostalgia or, more than likely, (c) mirth to old Punch’s eyes.

“There wasn’t much choice,” Punch said about Brewer’s request for a trial. “Bobby Baun’s got a bad back, Tim Horton’s dead and Allan Stanley couldn’t skate 10 years ago. Who else could I get?”

Brewer has been in retirement so long that he could be mistaken for Juliette, but the quality of what passes for big-league hockey has become so diluted since his day that he figures he can make it back. The awful truth is that he could be right.

When Carl left the Maple Leafs in 1965, the NHL was still a six-team league. Now there are 3 xk times that number and it often seems that the quality of play is 3 V2 times worse. The same incubator that used to spawn six teams is now the hothouse for 21—a leap from 120 players in Brewer’s time to 420.

Where havé the players come from to fill the uniforms of all these teams? NHL owners gurgle over the recent contributions of the U.S. colleges and the ice floes of Europe, and observe that the Canadian juniors are bigger and better than ever, reaching the NHL in record numbers even while still eligible for junior play. What’s really happening is that kids who used to finish out their full apprenticeship in the juniors are now force-fed into the NHL, and league headquarters in Montreal says fewer than 75 Americans and Europeans — “36 of each”—have made at least one appearance this season. So, in point of fact, Canadians who used to grind out a livelihood in the minors or were junior grads maturing on farm clubs are

now filling out big-league rosters.

The latest figures on the average income of NHL players reach a tidy $103,000 and, the present brand of hockey being what it is, the searing question arises: is it asking too much to suggest that a man earning $103,000 a year cut his vacation time from four months each summer to two so he can learn the rudiments of his occupation?

There are certain qualifications required in his line of work, of course. He should be a good strong skater and, allowing for such exceptions as Gordie

Howe, Dave Keon and the aforementioned Brewer, he should be young, without fear and determined. It goes without saying that he should know how to hook, hold, cross-check, elbow, trip and fight. However, in earning his money, circa 1979-80, it’s not required that he be able to shoot, pass, think or do anything on his backhand side—such as shoot, pass a puck or take a pass.

The way things stand now, this fellow goes to training camp in mid-September and grinds out the next eight months in big-city arenas in three time zones averaging 2 V2 games a week until mid-May. It’s a long and demanding season but when it’s over he has tennis and golf and girls and boats for the best four months of the year.

Sure those eight months are a drain on his physical resources, a strain on his nerves and a tax on his peace of mind. Just surviving the travel and tension and 100 or so games is a test. There’s not much time in those eight months for him to be taught the basics of his occu-

pation, so he is left totally incapable of passing the puck properly, taking a pass properly, shooting a puck properly or stickhandling properly. What he can do is muck in, be truculent, fight anybody, shoot a slapshot and occasionally skate like the wind. He has great guts, he won’t quit, but the basics of his business are utterly beyond him. That’s why old men and young kids fill out today’s rosters. It’s also why the fantastically fundamentalist Soviets keep tearing us to shreds. (Did you observe last week that Moscow Spartak opened its Canadian tour by shading the Victoria Cougars 14-3 and nudging the reinforced— reinforced!— New Westminster Bruins 11-1?)

But there is a solution— or there could be. Summer school is advocated. Yes, hockey players should be encouraged to take extension courses, never mind how the idea torments their summer psyches. Amending for the attrition of the long season, everybody gets a month off, mid-May to mid-June. Then school opens for two months of work for all NHL hands in passing and shooting and stickhandling. Revolutionary concepts are proposed: players will not be allowed to pass the puck without looking; no one will be permitted to shoot the puck in from the centre red line; instead—steady, men—players will be encouraged to stickhandle or pass their way past the defence. To carry the idea of summer seminars to preposterous lengths, it is suggested that the slapshot slowly be withdrawn from general use. Nothing too radical, you understand, no cold turkey stuff, just gradual withdrawal and a slow introduction of wrist shots and backhand shots and long hours of rest in between as the old values are reborn.

The idea is to conduct courses gingerly in homey rinks or roomy community arenas softening the cultural shock. Courses end in mid-August, allowing the players another month of vacation before they undertake another grind in three times zones in mid-September. Bless their hearts.