A year ago no one knew quite what to expect. The NHL had just ended the longest work stoppage in the history of North American professional sports history.
There was a glut of free agents on the market. A handful of veteran players had retired from the game without the fans getting a chance to say goodbye. And two years worth of young players were ready to take roster spots on NHL squads. If that wasn’t enough change, the NHL announced an array of new rules.
Strict new standards were put into place enforcing hooks and holds. The offensive zones were enlarged by pushing the goal back and the blue lines out. Goalie equipment size was reduced. After years of discussions the two-line pass was finally approved. And yes, the shootout would settle all ties.
The NHL re-launch in many ways was the emergence of a new game, a game of speed and skill. How would teams fare? How would players fare in this new NHL?
After a penalty-filled preseason, the players adjusted with the result being a thrill-packed wide-open style of play. Not since the glory days of Gretzky, Kurri, and the Oilers, had NHL fans seen such high-flying, end-to-end action.
No lead was too safe. Goal scoring was up and players like Joe Thornton
, Jonathon Cheechoo, Jaromir Jagr and Alexander Ovechkin were at long last ‘allowed’ to play their game.
Fast forward one year. NHL brass is at it again. But this time it’s the rule changes are more subtle. Players’ sticks can now be curved 50% more than in the past. Formerly a curve of the blade was limited to one-half inch. The new limit is now three-quarters on an inch. The blade curve is measured at the greatest distance from the heel of the stick to the toe. Think of it as a dime now being the size of a quarter.
How to this make any difference? Well in the hands of diabolical snipers like Kovalchuk and Shanahan, NHL goalies may want to take out more life insurance. The larger the curve the more unpredictable shots become. Like a knuckleball, the puck can tumble and curve without explanation. If that wasn’t enough, look for more tips out front and more juicy rebounds to end up in the net.
In the old days all players used sticks with a straight blade. The game was played for the most part below the knees. Quick skating and pin-point passing would lead offensive attacks. Wings stayed on their side and defensemen rarely stepped up in the play. Thus the ‘stay at home’ defenseman was the rule rather than the exception. No one wore a helmet and goalie didn’t wear masks. For the most part, shots and sticks stayed below the waist.
But that would all change with the advent of the slapshot. Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion shocked the hockey world as he raised his stick with a high backswing and golfed his way to scoring success. Not long after, Bobby Hull took the slap-shot one step further as he customized his stick with an exaggerated curve. It was now open season on goaltenders. Players who could master the slapshot were hockey’s equivalent to the ‘homerun hitter’ in baseball. A generation of players worked long hours to perfect their wicked slapshot. Guys who weren’t gifted with great skating or playmaking ability could now make their mark in pro hockey.
Expansion took the NHL from six teams to twelve teams almost overnight. The NHL, afraid of the game becoming target practice decided to limit the maximum curve to one and one-half inches.
Then, along came a rival league. The WHA was looking to capture new fans in new markets with a high octane brand of hockey. The WHA had no limits on stick curves. Suddenly journeymen like Danny Lawson and Tom Webster were scoring almost at will.
In less than 10 years, big league hockey had gone from the original six to 32 teams. In many ways the slapshot allowed hockey to expand as many more players developed their shots.
So now we go full circle. The NHL last season revamped their game and they made it better. The fans responded, coming back in droves and knowing they would see big league skill and action at the highest level possible. No longer would hockey be held hostage to the trap. No longer would the least-skilled players control the game with their smother style.
So as we approach this new NHL season, we can look forward to even more scoring and end-to-end action.
For In The Crease, I’m Frank Albin.