It is almost inaccurate to say that I started covering hockey in 1973. The game that I wrote about in that year bears no resemblance to the game called hockey in 2011.
Here are twenty quick facts about hockey in 1973 that are not true about hockey in 2011:
1. All sticks were made of wood.
2. Helmets were optional and rare. There was even a goalie – Andy Brown of the Pittsburgh Penguins – who played without a mask.
3. All two-line passes were illegal.
4. There was no advertising on the rink boards or on the ice surface.
5. Most teams were coached by one man with no
6. The crease was rectangular.
7. Bench-clearing brawls were commonplace.
8. Players wore tube skates.
9. Teams were not allowed to call time out.
10. There were sixteen teams in the National Hockey League.
11. There was no instigator rule.
12. There were no European players in the league.
13. Overtime did not exist during the regular season.
14. Shootouts did not exist.
15. There was no video replay.
16. Most games were not televised.
17. The goaltender could play the puck anywhere in his half of the rink.
18. Players’ pads were soft.
19. The Stanley Cup was always awarded in early May. In 1973, the ceremony took place on May 10.
20. The game was officiated by one referee, not two. Those are just some of the tangible differences that are obvious to anyone who has been watching throughout the last four decades, even to those who do not understand the nuances of hockey.
There are many others. And there are also many more subtle changes that have significantly affected the way the game is played today.
In 1973, a winger skated up and down his wing. Because the NHL had been exposed to Soviet hockey only a year earlier, during the Summit Series, there was no European influence. There was none of the swirling, wideopen game that every team plays today. And while those wingers were dutifully skating up and down their wings, they were often checking their opposite number, who just as dutifully stayed on his wing. The checking, such as it was, was implemented by skating alongside the opponent.
Today, wingers and centres skate backwards to do much of their checking. A player breaking out of his own end can look up and see six opponents facing him. That would never have happened in 1973.
If a more physical approach were required, you would bump your opponent into the boards. Although there was the occasional exception, it’s safe to say that for the most part, you bodychecked a player in an attempt to get the puck.
Today, you bodycheck him to take him out of the play. It’s called finishing the check, and it’s all but mandatory.
The concept was initiated by Mike Keenan, who wanted to make opponents leery of being in possession of the puck. In theory, they’d get rid of the puck as soon as possible, even if it was dangerous to do so, and their timidity would give Keenan’s boys an opportunity to capitalize.
The problem is that the practice of finishing the check has become so widespread that it has resulted in a host of players who don’t really care whether there’s a puck on the ice. They just want to go out and finish their checks.
When a scoring chance developed in 1973, the shooter looked for an open area of the net and aimed for it. Today, as often as not, there is no open area of the net to see. The goalies have mountains of padding, and their skating ability is so vastly superior to that of their 1973 counterparts that they can come out and cut the angle without worrying that they’ll be trapped.
You didn’t have to shoot high to score in 1973. When I once goaded Ken Dryden by announcing that the scouting report on him said he could be beaten by low, hard shots to the stick side, he responded with a sigh and a statement that was perfectly true in those days: “Al, every
goalie can be beaten by low, hard shots to the stick side.”
Today, goalies drop into the butterfly position at the first hint of a shot and thereby cover the lower fourteen inches of the net. Low, hard shots to the stick side rarely go in.
There were no butterfly goalies in 1973. Far from it. The legendary coach Eddie Shore insisted that his goalies remain standing. He was so adamant on this point that in practice, he was known to tie one end of a rope to his goalie’s neck and the other end to the crossbar. Shore was involved in hockey until 1976, and even though he was no longer coaching, his approach to the game was widely followed.
The players’ regimen in 1973 was totally different as well. Training camp lived up to its name. It was for training. Players relaxed all summer or “worked” for beer companies – often by playing softball at a brewery sponsored event. When they came to camp, they did so to lose excess weight (if you’re playing beer-league softball, you don’t drink milk after the game) and to get in shape for the coming season.
A common refrain from coaches in the early part of the seventy-eight-game season used to be, “We’re not in shape yet.”
You never hear that any more. Players today do not get out of shape. They might cut down their workout load for two or three weeks, but by August, they’re back in the rink, getting ready for the upcoming eighty-two game season. They also have team trainers and personal trainers.
The 1973 trainer carried equipment bags, sharpened skates, and kept the stick rack full.
Today’s trainer is qualified to make a number of medical decisions and is an integral part of the players’ conditioning. After games, he or the team masseur – another position that did not exist in 1973 – can work on players while they’re on their charter flights.
In 1973, a team might have had a charter during the playoffs, but the rest of the time, it travelled on commercial flights the morning after the game.
Today, visiting teams are usually on the way to the airport forty-five minutes after the game. At the time of day when the 1973 team would have been on the bus to the airport, still in the city where it had played the previous night, today’s team is getting up for breakfast in the destination city or at home.