No one was looking, apparently, when the ancient art of defence returned to hockey. Overnight, it seems, the game has reverted to a time when keeping the puck out of the net was even more important than putting it in.
So what has happened in key games in world tournaments and in the National Hockey League playoffs is that the tension and drama of sudden-death overtime have now collared the entire third period and sometimes, in the tighter fits, even a little earlier.
Consider the recent world championships in Helsinki where Canada, by the skinny margin of goaltender Sean Burke’s pads, shaded an aggressive Swedish team by scores of 3-1 and 2-1 after dropping the opener of a best of three final series by 3-2. Earlier, in preliminary rounds, the Canadians played haphazardly and were crushed by the Swedes 7-2. That set off the alarm clock and they reached the final with one-goal wins over Finland and Russia.
In the NHL, consider the best quarterfinal series of this spring’s endless gallops.
This was the one between the highly favored New Jersey Devils and the rivals across the river, the aging New York Rangers of creaking veterans Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, both 36, and going on 64 to read the papers.
The smooth-attacking Rangers shifted into reverse for this one. Their top thinker, Colin (Soupy) Campbell, devised a defensive plan whereby the goaltender, Mike Richter, was relieved of responsibility for rebounds.
‘You stop the first shot,” said Campbell, the calm pride of London, Ont., “and defence guys will look after the rebounds.”
Here was the strikingly remindful method of Scott Bowman when he was handling the thinking for the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s. With the broad sixfoot, four-inch frame of Ken Dryden fending off the first shot, the finest assemblage of defencemen in hockey history, Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard, Larry Robinson and any one of Bill Nyrop, Brian Engblom or Pierre Bouchard, was clearing away rebounds along with any visiting forward foolish enough to be snooping for the loose puck.
For the current Rangers, the switch to defence denuded New Jersey attackers and produced victory in five games. Three were shutouts for goaler Richter and his alert rebounders, who earlier had worked similar stultification upon the favored Florida Panthers in the first round of the NHL’s interminable playoffs.
Meantime, while the Rangers were moving on to Philadelphia for the current engagement with Eric Lindros and his giant playmates on the Legion of Doom line, Canada’s returning world tournament champions were being hailed for their European comeback.
However, until victory was in sight, most of Canada’s newspapers had given bare backdoor attention to these new champs—all but one NHLers from teams out of the playoffs. In highly competitive
Toronto with its four dailies, only the Star bothered to staff the tournament. The Globe and Mail hired a Europe-based freelancer, and the Sun and Financial Post used wire services.
Nowadays, normally astute but obviously blinkered observers are declaring that defence is boring. They also brand this modern version of tag-team wrestling too violent now that the players are bigger and stronger than they were a generation ago.
But no one who pays attention to history should cringe from defensive hockey. One of the most spellbinding of Stanley Cup finals developed in the dark ages of 1945 when Detroit and Toronto engaged in a seven-game wrap-up that produced not one, not two, but five shutouts, three in succession by Frank McCool in the Maple Leafs net, and two by Harry Lumley for the Red Wings.
The McCool trio opened the series. Suddenly there was a burp when Detroit exploded for a 5-3 win. Whereupon Lumley contributed his pair of shutouts, deadlocking the set at three games each. In the seventh game, Babe Pratt’s late goal presented the Leafs with a 2-1 victory. It erased Detroit’s opportunity to duplicate Toronto’s still unmatched finals record of coming back from three opening losses in 1942 to win the series.
For students who feel today’s bigger, stronger players have turned the game too violent, every generation feels that way. King Clancy told me in 1970 that the current violence was nothing compared to that of his era. King had played for the old Ottawa Senators, then the Leafs, then had turned to coaching and refereeing, then had settled in as a Leaf vice-president in charge of making people feel good.
“Our problem now,” he said grumpily of a not very good Toronto team, “is that we don’t have a soul who 11 walk out there when the whistle blows and hammer somebody into the seats. They’re all thinkin’ about their money, I guess. If we had some dirty son of a bitch like Sprague Cleghorn, who played for Ottawa and the Canadiens, who’d just go out there and kick the bejesus out of somebody, I tell you we’d win the Stanley Cup.” He sighed. “But we haven’t,” he said, “and we won’t.” And he was right.
Also, during the violent era of Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay with Detroit there was the testimony of their hard-boiled boss Jack Golly Jawn) Adams. “When I played, it was murder,” he told me one morning in his Red Wings office. “When a stick cut your head or your face, you’d skate to the boards where the trainer stood with a pail of water and some sticking plaster. He’d sponge off the blood, stick on the plaster, and back out you’d go.”
So nowadays, true, defensive hockey is back and, yes, there’s still bloodshed. But the wounded don’t stand at the boards for a trainer with a pail of water anymore. Now, at Maple Leaf Gardens, it actually is a gleaming infirmary and a plastic surgeon wearing surgical gloves to insert stitches.
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