National Hockey League (NHL)

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National Hockey League (NHL)

When the National Hockey League (NHL) formed in 1917, the game was dominated by Canadians and they were the greatest players in the world. NHL'ers hailed from the Canadian Prairies, Quebec and Ontario, and most of the franchises were housed in Canada and the northern United States. This trend of Canadian predominance continued until the 1950s, when the Soviets emerged as a postwar power-house. Their speed and brilliant passing revolutionized the game on a world level. And with the Soviets leading the way, the rest of Europe, especially Czechoslovakia and Sweden, had to keep pace, developing faster, more skillful players. In America, the growth of the U.S. college program in the 1970s, a gold medal in 1980, and NHL expansion into several American cities converted the U.S. into an elite hockey power. Moreover, with the fall of communism, and the accompanying blurring of amateur and professional status, the NHL had come to represent a confluence of superstars from all over the world by the 1990s. When the Olympics were held in Nagano (1998), there wasn't one super "dream team" but five dream teams laced with NHL talent.

But the NHL's beginnings were more humble. From 1917-41, the NHL went through a series of growing pains. The rival Pacific Coast Hockey Association, run by Frank and Lester Patrick, was actually much more progressive and innovative. The PCHA was the first league to allow goalies to flop to the ice to make saves, to allow forwards to pass the puck ahead in the offensive zone, to tabulate assists on goals, to place bluelines on the ice, and to put numbers on players' jerseys. The PCHA folded in 1926, but the league's innovations and the Patricks crossed over to the NHL. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Patricks led the New York Rangers to three cups with the help of Bill and Bun Cook and Frank Boucher. And there were other stars of the period, including tough, hard-nosed Boston Bruin defenseman, Eddie Shore, flashy Montreal Maroons forward Howie Morenz, better known as the "Babe Ruth of hockey" or the "Strat-ford Streak," and Fred "Cyclone Taylor," winner of five PCHA scoring titles. But despite the excitement and grit of the game, franchises in this period struggled to survive. By 1938-39 three of ten NHL franchises were claimed by the Depression. And following the 1941-42 season, and the death of the New York Americans, the NHL became a six-team league for the next twenty-five years.

From 1942-67 the National Hockey League took on a deeply Canadian texture, as the league was dominated by the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Each franchise won ten Stanley Cups in that span. And the "two solitudes" of Canada were divided around these two rivals, as French-Canadian Catholics rooted for the Habs and the Presbyterian Scots and other Anglophones cheered on the Leafs. The two teams represented Canada's culture clash: the Leafs played a reserved, defensive style of hockey: a tight-checking, clutch and grab game of grit. The Habs played a wide open brand of "fire-wagon hockey" that was fast-skating, crisp and explosive. The battles between these two proud rivals were always bitter and intense. The Leafs were lead by such stalwart defensive players as Syl Apps, Teeder Kennedy, George "Chief" Armstrong, slick-skating Davey Keon and the "China wall," Johnny Bower. The Canadiens had the fiery Maurice "Rocket" Richard, the innovator Jacques Plante (the first goalie to roam from his crease, play the puck behind the net, and don a mask), gentleman Jean Beliveau (hockey's classy Joe DiMaggio), and perennial Norris Trophy winner Doug Harvey.

The conflict between English and French Canada was most fully realized in 1955. That year, Maurice "Rocket" Richard, who had never won a scoring title, was leading the league with a few games remaining. But following a scrap with the Bruins' Hal Laycoe in which Richard slugged a linesman, NHL President Clarence Campbell suspended the superstar for the remainder of the season and post-season. Canadiens' fans regarded Campbell's actions as unjust, and yet another form of oppression from Anglo-Canada. And in late March, when the President attended a Canadiens game, he was slapped by a fan, and then a tear gas bomb exploded in the Forum. The Habs forfeited the contest, and the "Richard riot" ensued on St. Catherine's Street. Rocket Richard went on radio asking for the riot to be quelled, and it was, but the great right winger eventually lost the scoring title, and the Habs, without him, lost the Cup to Gordie Howe, Red Kelly, Terry Sawchuck, and the Detroit Red Wings.

Following the 1966-67 season, the NHL expanded from six teams to twelve and by the late nineties had twenty-seven. Boston Bruin Bobby Orr was a dominant figure in this transition period. A fast-skating, rushing defenseman, Orr revolutionized the position, making the defenseman the quarterback of the offense. His play brought the Bruins two cups and helped further expand the game in the U.S. Wayne Gretzky also helped hockey expand its markets. His trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988 was a major turning point, bringing the league's greatest player to the West Coast.

But the NHL's huge expansion in thirty years was largely brought about by a host of corporate synergies: the rapid growth in marketing and advertising, the five-team merger with the World Hockey Association in 1979, the signing of major television contracts with ESPN and ABC, and the rise in hockey's popularity in the United States. In 1980 there were only 100,000 U.S. youngsters playing organized hockey compared to 400,000 Canadians. By the mid-nineties that gap had lessened as 400,000 Americans to 500,000 Canadians played the game. Part of hockey's growing appeal lies in its combination of football violence and balletic speed and nuanced skill. Hockey players across Canada and the U.S. are admired for their toughness. Often, a player will get slashed in one period, stitched up and return in a later period, because as the sports broadcasters joke, "he's a hockey player." Perhaps an oft-seen bumper sticker best defines the sport's absurdly rugged appeal: "Give Blood. Play Hockey."

The NHL also is noteworthy for being the most crosscultural of the major sports leagues. In 1967, 97 percent of hockey players were Canadians. By the mid-nineties, 60 percent were Canadian, 20 percent were American and another 20 percent hailed from the other dominant hockey cultures, including Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, and Russia. This growth in exported European talent came about through the Summit series between Canada and Russia in 1972. Since the late 1950s, Canadians complained that their amateurs weren't their best players and they should be able to send NHL talent to the Olympics. The IOC refused, and Canadians begrudgingly complained that the Soviets were really professionals disguised as amateurs. The Summit series, showcasing NHL-Canadian superstars, was supposed to give Canadians the chance to reclaim their hockey supremacy, but what happened instead changed hockey for the next twenty years.

The Summit series was watched by over 12 million Canadians, as school children were marched to the gyms and libraries to watch the afternoon games from Moscow. The Canadians led by the timely heroics of Phil Esposito and a series of clutch goals by Paul Henderson won the final game, 6-5, and the series 4-3-1. Although victorious, the NHL and Canadians were impressed by the Soviet game, a brand of tactical fire-wagon hockey, with forwards playing a series of set, positional systems and firing the puck with tic-tac-toe passing, and slashing through the offensive zone with blazing speed and cracker-jack shooting. Following the series, power skating lessons popped up all across the U.S. and Canada, and the NHL's dump and chase, brutal style of play became one of greater finesse and speed.The WHA's Winnipeg Jets, were actually the first North American team to evolve out of the Soviet model. Bobby Hull and the Swedes Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg, with their speed and passing, helped the Jets win three Avco cups. Later in the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers perfected the Soviet model, bringing speed, style, and a deadly offensive game to the ice with the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey. The Oilers won five cups in the 1980s.

NHL contracts went up 400 percent in the 1970s because of the rival WHA. And as the players and the game got richer through the growth of expansion and major television contracts, hockey seemed headed into a golden period in which it might even supplant baseball, basketball, or football for market share. But all of this corporate synergy wasn't enough to allow the fan base to grow as fast as it should have. In the late 1990s the game still needed to change as fans were bored with 3-1 games and desired the wide-open scoring of the Oilers era. Unfortunately, the Soviet speed game had disappeared as teams employed a series of defensive systems, including neutral zone traps that bottle up the ice surface and halt cross-ice passes. The players, too, were bigger. In 1967 the average hockey player was 5' 11" and weighed 175 lbs. In 1994, the average hockey player was 6' 2" and weighed 204 lbs. This difference in size created less room on the ice for plays to develop and offensive stars to make moves. And with all the clutching and grabbing allowed by referees, a superstar such as Mario Lemieux, prematurely retired. Furthermore, the rapid growth of expansion has improved revenues but hurt the talent pool, spreading the skilled players across several teams, instead of congregating them within four or five. In the 1940s, Hall-of-Famer Max Bentley was a third-line center with the Maple Leafs. In the 1990s it was hard to find much second line depth on any team, let alone first line depth on most.

And too, hockey which started in Halifax, and the NHL which formed in Windsor, Ontario, was originally Canada's game, but by the turn of the twentieth century Canadians felt alienated by the NHL's treatment of their national pastime. NHL president Gary Bettman, the first American to serve in that capacity, wasn't trusted north of the 49th parallel because he allowed Canadian franchises, such as the Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets, to move south (becoming respectively the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes). In the richer U.S., owners received breaks on taxes, cities agreed to pay stadium leases, and the American dollar was a lot stronger than the Canadian dollar. If Canadian markets are to survive and remain competitive, the NHL, Bettman, and the Canadian government will have to create some kind of compensation for the differences between the two dollars and find a revenue sharing plan to benefit all of the league's franchises, or else the country that first gave the game its passion will not be there to benefit from its rewards.

—Grant Tracey

Further Reading:

Davey, Ian. Forever Rivals. Directed by Robert MacAskill. T.V.Entertainment, 2 vols., 1996.

Gardner, Andrew. Legends of Hockey: 1893-1996. Directed by Derik Murray. Hockey Hall of Fame & Museum, TSN, and Opus Pictures Inc., 5 vols., 1996.

Greig, Murray. Big Bucks & Blue Pucks: From Hull to Gretzky, an Anecdotal History of the Late, Great World Hockey Association. Toronto, Macmillan, 1997.

Hockey Hall of Fame: The Official Registry of the Game's Honour Roll. Edited by Dan Diamond. Toronto, Doubleday, 1996.

MacSkimming, Roy. Cold War: The Amazing Canada-Soviet Hockey Series of 1972. Vancouver, Greystone, 1996.

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National Hockey League (NHL)

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National Hockey League (NHL)