By KEN DRYDEN
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
In the more than 125-year history of hockey, the game has changed a lot.
It began in the 1870s as a seven-a-side game, a goalie and six skaters, with no substitutions allowed. It stayed that way for the first few decades, a game played on smaller rinks with more players, just as in soccer, playing every minute of the game. That was hockey. Until somebody changed it.
For more than the first 50 years of hockey's existence, players could not pass the puck forward. Instead, they had to skate and stickhandle it forward, and if they passed it, like rugby, they had to pass it laterally or backward. In 1929, an average NHL game resulted in fewer than two goals, for both teams; George Hainsworth, goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, recorded 22 shutouts in 44 games that year; seven of the league's other nine goalies had 10 or more shutouts each. That was hockey. Until somebody changed it.
The forward pass transformed hockey.
Changes off the ice also greatly changed the way the game was played. Only in the past 25 years have players come to understand that time spent off the ice, in gyms and weight rooms, before and after practice, and in the months between seasons, could make them better players on the ice. There are now assistant and specialist coaches, and video tapes, to teach individual skills and team strategies. Teams study every tendency and pattern of their opponent, and devise strategies to shut them down, because defence, which is mostly hard work, discipline and conditioning, is far easier to teach and learn than offence.
Some other less obvious developments have also changed the game. League expansion, for example. What happens when you add new teams to a league? We know that these new teams can't be competitive with their talent. So they adopt a tight defensive style and look for a good goalie. The same for low-budget teams. They don't have the money to afford high-priced offensive players. So again, they play a defensive style, look for a good goalie and, losing by close margins, they create the illusion of competition necessary to keep fans coming.
There is also the size and speed of the players. In 1952, the average NHL player was 5 foot 103/4 inches and 175 pounds. In 2003, that same player was 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds. The extra 23/4 inches doesn't mean much. The extra 29 pounds does. And it really makes a difference when you add another change. In 1952, the average player each time he went on the ice played shifts lasting about two minutes. Today, an average shift lasts 40 seconds. Playing two minutes at a time, a player has to play a coasting/bursting style of game to save energy. You coast in the neighbourhood of the puck at most moments, then when there is an offensive chance or a defensive urgency, you burst. Playing 40 seconds at a time, you burst all the time. You play at a sprint. I remember little of high school physics, but I do remember: F = ma. Force equals mass times acceleration. So when a body that weighs 29 pounds more, moves at a sprinting speed, the force of collision is significantly, dangerously greater.
My point is that the game has not stayed static. In its more than 125 years, these changes have affected the game fundamentally. Much of it has been for the good. Some has not. In dealing with hockey's future, the point is not if change is to happen, but when change happens, what change happens ? and what we do about it.
Some changes have opened up the game, some have shut it down. They have made the game faster in general, but in the critical offensive areas of the ice ? in the neutral zone and near the net ? because defensive players, without the puck, can move even faster than offensive players with the puck, they have made the game more congested and slower. They have also made it more dangerous.
There are now more serious injuries. Tears of knees and shoulders are more common, as are concussions. There are also not just the greater physical demands of a single game, but the more debilitating grind of a whole season, the 82 games, plus four rounds of playoffs, and the shorter off season.
We treat injuries as if they are bad luck. They are not. We think of them as a regrettable but an acceptable fact of life. After all, these are professional athletes, paid loads of money. We have better medical treatment for them. We give them better care. It's all part of the risk they accept. For owners, there are more injured players that have to be paid even if they are not playing, but that's part of the cost of doing business. Because really, we say to ourselves, what can you do?
But the increase in danger on the ice has other implications. Big implications. For what about the impact of increased injury and danger on those who are watching? Who might be interested in playing hockey themselves? What does this make kids and parents think? Do they sometimes wonder about the wisdom of playing at all, do fewer sign up, and do injuries like this, along with the danger of the game, come to distance more and more Canadians from it? Simply, does it jeopardize hockey's place in Canadian life?
We hear a lot today about a loss of respect in the game. Of players doing things to other players that once they would never think of doing ? hits from behind, high sticks, cheap shots. But I don't think players of the past were really any more respectful than players are today. To me, the change isn't a loss of respect, it's the presence of opportunity. As a checker, if you are 10 feet away from a puck carrier, you can't hook or slash him. You can't high stick him, either. And you can't do much damage to him if you are moving at him at cruising pace and not at a sprint. But with today's shorter shifts that allow you to move faster, to get closer, it's different. Now you have opportunity. Now you can hook and slash and high-stick your and smash him into the boards. So now you do.
How do we protect ourselves?
We have built arenas with more forgiving boards and glass. We have developed more protective equipment ? elbow pads, shoulder pads ? that at times also gets used as a weapon itself and makes play even more dangerous. And, like nuclear powers during the Cold War, we deter. We threaten. If you hit me, no matter how cleanly or accidentally, I will hit back. I will get even. With more collisions, more injuries, more danger, more often, in today's game there is more to get even about. Because there is, we have created "get even experts." Every team has at least one. The desire to "get even" is human nature. So the issue is not to deny the urge, it's what we do with it. Do we get even within the rules ? which most players most of the time do, getting even "on the scoreboard?" Or do we go outside the rules, or go way outside the rules? You know how these "get even experts" are going to handle it. It's their job, and they're going to do it in their destructive, danger-escalating way, even if their teammates, without them, might have found another way.
We have learned to protect ourselves, from bigger bodies moving faster, in another way as well. We have learned to "obstruct." Obstruction is something new in hockey. There was very little obstruction in the 1960s and in every decade before, because you can't obstruct unless you are close enough to an opponent to obstruct. And you don't need to obstruct unless you see one of your teammates going back to your own zone to get the puck as if with a target on his back. As I said before, the game is only congested on offence. On defence, players don't have to carry a puck to slow them down. They don't have a red line and blue lines to hold them back. A fore-checker can fly around the ice, and even if he arrives a little late, after a pass has been made, it doesn't matter. He can plaster a defender up against the glass, and it's perfectly legal. Even encouraged. We call it "finishing our checks."
In hockey, we face a dilemma. It's a dilemma that everybody in every business or organization faces all the time. We allow changes to happen if they just seem to happen ? the size of players; the length of shifts; the protectiveness, then size, of goalie equipment; the composition of sticks ? without really considering the consequences. As if these changes are natural and there's nothing we can do. Then when we realize the consequences, we don't reject the changes that have produced them; instead, we come up with changes to deal with the changes, except that any change big enough to do anything, we reject because it seems "engineered" and violates the purity of the game. And anything small enough to be unobjectionable has no relationship to the essence and dimensions of the problem, and is too small to do anything. So we focus on what is easiest and least controversial to change, and end up with a game that is a mishmash of new developments and old codes of play that bear no relationship to each other. We end up with our normal, average, one-out-of-82-in-the-schedule game, with its routine mayhem, toughness and danger, that is too high risk. We have left no margin for error. So when exaggerations happen, and they always do, we have a big problem. I believe that's where we are today.
Let me give two examples of aspects of the game that have dangerous consequences but have largely avoided examination, and suggest a different understanding and spirit of approach to deal with them. Once, an "intent to injure" meant a player striking an opponent, usually in the head, usually with his stick. In recent years, a knee-on-knee hit, while not called "intent to injure," has been treated much the same way.
But what about a hit from behind? What about hits to the head? Are they not intents to injure? Nothing makes me cringe as much as a hit from behind into the boards ? the force of the hitter, the vulnerability of his target, the out-of-control fall, the unmovable boards.
When Dallas Star forward Mike Modano was sent like a rag doll into the end boards a few years ago, I thought he was dead. When he wasn't, when he wasn't even paralyzed, I thought how unbelievably lucky he was. How lucky we were. We had all just experienced the catastrophic incident that makes you finally do what you never had the will to do, except this time we had avoided the catastrophe. We got a second chance, but we haven't done much with it. What is the possible intent of hitting someone into the boards from behind, except to injure? There's no other understanding. The same for a hit to the head. You can stop someone dead in his tracks with a hit to the shoulder or the hip. The only reason to hit someone in the head is to hurt him. Even if you say, "Well, I didn't want to really hurt him," you wanted to shake him up, put him off his game, intimidate him, just not put him in the hospital. But the intent to injure is still there.
What about hitting a player with his head down? His head leads him toward you. It's low to the ice. You use your hip or shoulder, and hit his head. What else can you do? Besides, he deserves it. He shouldn't be playing with his head down in the first place. He knows the code of the game. If you have to look down at the puck to control it, you are seeking an unfair advantage and must live with the consequences. For years, I never had an answer for this. Then I realized this code and this way of thinking came into the game before the forward pass, when the best way to move the puck up the ice was by stick-handling it yourself. When the opportunity to look down at the puck was a great advantage. But today, the best way to move the puck up the ice is by passing it, and to pass it you have to have your head up to see where your teammates are. Having your head down is now no advantage. It's a disadvantage. A hit to the head is now no proper justice.
"Finishing your check" is so familiar a phrase it seems it must have been part of the original game. It wasn't. It means, as a checker, going after the puck carrier so that even if he makes a pass, you keep going and run into him, too late to stop the pass, but not too late to stop him from continuing up the ice with the play. This is allowed. Indeed, it's a strategy coaches insist upon. Yet if a player is hit before a pass gets to him, this is interference, and everyone agrees. Worse, "finishing your check" rewards the player who is too slow to reach the puck carrier in time, and penalizes the puck carrier who is quick enough to make the pass ahead of the checker. Worse, it puts in physical danger the puck carrier who has to deal with a checker coming at him at high speed, and the checker who has to deal with a puck carrier with his stick up to protect himself. Or worse, it encourages teammates of the puck carrier to take protection into their own hands and "obstruct." All this happened because coaches decided it was a good thing for players to go hard at a puck carrier, and referees got tired of reminding them it wasn't.
What would happen if "finishing your check" was understood as interference? If a checker faced the challenge of getting to the puck carrier in time, or risking a penalty? If a checker was made responsible for his speed, if he had to have it under control, able to go in fast enough to make the hit but slow enough to stop or veer off? To depend on the legality of personal choice, not on the illegality of "obstruction?"
We need to see hits from behind and hits to the head for what they really are. We need to see finishing a check for what it really is. These and other plays are not traditions of the game worthy of protection. They have brought danger to the game. They have hurt the game.
This is hockey. Until somebody changes it.
To all those people who want a more open game, but who want the rules mostly the same, I suggest we go back to an NHL where players are 5-foot-103/4, 175 pounds and play two-minute shifts. Because if we don't, nothing much else is going to happen. And because that is not going to happen, I suggest we open our eyes and minds to something more fundamental that can work. We need to look at the way we play, and at the code of how we play, and we need to look at what our public standards are today. What is publicly acceptable in a game, in a national sport, and what is not. Not what was, but what is.
To do this, we need to look at the whole game. Not at obstruction by itself, not at concussions, not at the quality of ice or the size of a goalie's pads. At all of it together. As NHL president Gary Bettman is fond of saying, "everything is connected to everything else," and it is. We need to take that long, hard, broad and decisive look now. In the late 1920s, the introduction of the forward pass opened up a stagnant, stifling game. What is today's equivalent of the forward pass?
My hope is not to debate the merits of this change or that. We've done that long enough. This approach only leads to fights over things that, of themselves, don't matter much; it divides people who agree on the most fundamental question ? that significant change is necessary ? and robs all of us of the energy we need to see this through. My hope is to make enough of a case, to help generate enough of an agreement, to help generate enough of the determined will needed, that we do what needs to be done.
I have felt most of these things for some time. One thing, though, in these past few weeks, I am feeling about differently. We often hear about the challenge of increasing the popularity of the game in the United States. And it is a challenge. And the effort matters. But that's not all that matters. Hockey has held a special place in this country. There is something about its hardness and toughness, the uncomplaining attitude of Canadian players, our never-say-die approach, our willingness, through injury and pain, to focus on something that matters to us more than injury and pain, on the game itself, on winning and losing, on that bigger prize at the end. There is something Canadians like about all this. Something they see, or want to see, in themselves. Something they have always seen. Something, I think, many aren't quite sure they see any more.
That, I think, is what the voices of the past few weeks have been saying. That is the change for me. That's why I'm saying what I'm saying. Hockey has always been dead-square, mainstream Canadian. But hockey is at risk today of becoming an extreme sport, with excitement and danger, thrills and spills, but without the same emotional, in-the-bone connection. Something to watch, not something to do yourself. Something to be amazed about, not something to identify with. Something other, not something me.
That is what is at stake. It is up to us to hear those voices; not just our own. We need a complete, ambitious and fundamental review of the game. We need it now.
Ken Dryden, goalie for the Montreal Canadiens from 1971-1979, and author of The Game, is vice-chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.