Columns

A plea for open ice

James Deacon June 18 2001
Columns

A plea for open ice

James Deacon June 18 2001

A plea for open ice

James Deacon

The just-finished Stanley Cup final had great potential. It had the star power of Joe Sakic, Rob Blake and Patrick Roy on the Colorado side, and the underappreciated brilliance of Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora and Brian Rafalski from New Jersey. It had by far the most skilful teams in the National Hockey League, and the fastest outside of Edmonton. And by the time the exultant Avalanche players skated around the Pepsi Centre ice with the Cup over their heads, the series was responsible for enough broken teeth and stitched chins to qualify among the fiercest of finals. So do the math: scorers galore, ferocious defencemen, game-saving goaltenders, gritty grinders and a completely unpredictable ebb and flow of momentum that sent the series to the limit. It should have added up to be one for the ages.

It didn’t. Despite all those advantages and the can’t-miss drama of a sudden-death finale, the seven games that resulted in Colorado’s stirring victory fell short of what they could have been. The level of play was routinely superior, particularly as the series wore on. It’s just that the average was dragged down by the early games, during which the two teams seemed more intent on not losing than on finding ways to win. Purists could revel in the minutiae of line matchups and plusminus figures, but there were too few offensive explosions to satisfy most fans’ lust for end-to-end action.

Inside the game, coaches and managers and even, grudgingly, players say that’s the way they have to play to win. But given the talent available, it could have been so much more if the coaches had let the players open it up. On paper at least, New Jersey and Colorado are the best two teams to play for the Cup in more than a decade. It’s been 12 years since the No. 1 teams from the respective conferences actually played in the final (Calgary versus Montreal in 1989). And the last time two dynastic teams faced off was when the New York Islanders duelled the Edmonton Oilers in 1983 (the Islanders won their fourth straight Cup) and 1984 (the Oilers won, their first of five in seven years).

Longtime observers say it’s impossible to compare teams from era to era. Dick Irvin, the insightful analyst for CBC who covered the Montreal Canadiens before retiring three years ago, said it was too difficult to even pick a best-of-all-time series. But he did propose a fantasy Stanley Cup—those late’70s Canadiens against Wayne Gretzky’s mid-1980s Edmonton Oilers. “Now that,” Irvin said, “is a series I’d happily pay to see.” The difference today, he says, is stability. Great teams are usually built over time, yet free agency and payroll problems make it difficult for modern franchises to keep their rosters intact. “There were 14 guys who played on all four of

With a little more room to move, the Stanley Cup final between Colorado and New Jersey could have been one for the ages

Montreal’s Stanley Cup teams in the late-1970s,” Irvin says. “Four years from now, will there be 14 guys still on the New Jersey Devils who played there last year?”

Devils coach Larry Robinson, who was a star defenceman on that great Habs team, felt the impact of roster changes from last year’s team. Confoundingly, this year’s Devils seemed to lose their focus and fell behind in three out of four playoff rounds before pulling together and roaring back. The 2000 team was more consistent, he says, and one of the missing ingredients from that squad was Claude Lemieux, the gritty winger who left and signed as a free agent with Phoenix. “A guy like Claude is so important to have,” Robinson said. “I don’t think he had his best playoff' series last year as far as goal production is concerned, but he’s a guy who brings intangibles—he keeps everyone honest, on their toes.”

By today’s standards, though, the Devils and Avalanche have done better than most at holding on to their core players. And while neither team rises to the conventional measure of dynasty—more than two Cup titles in a row—they’re not oneseason wonders either. Jersey won its first Cup in 1995, Colorado won the year after that, and both have been contenders ever since. In today’s NHL, that’s as close to long-term dominance as any team is likely to get. And any close examination of game tapes reveals an uncomfortable truth: compared with the series that ended Saturday night, the play in the early 1980s was fairly sloppy. “These guys today have sophisticated defensive systems and offensive schemes,” says TV analyst John Davidson, who tended goal for St. Louis and the New York Rangers from 1973 to 1983. “When I played, you hardly ever heard about any of that.” The biggest change, though, is in the athletes themselves. Modern players are bigger, stronger, fitter and faster, and more of them now come from different countries with different approaches to the game. “People say the game was better 20 years ago,” Wayne Gretzky once told Macleans, “but I don’t know where they are coming from. There were 15 guys on my team when I broke in who could not make the team today.”

What the Devils and Avalanche lacked—and what would have made this last series so much more exciting—was space. The players cover more ice in less time, leaving precious little room to make plays. The ice surfaces are no longer sufficient to allow the kind of flow that old-time hockey enjoyed. But given that most NHL cities now have relatively new arenas built to the old dimensions, the bumper-car style of play will not go away in a hurry. That’s too bad, because teams that are as good as the ones that played for the Cup this year deserve better. Hockey fans do, too.