The trouble with Canada's game – goons and bumper cars on ice

Paul Stothart

Few cultural or sporting pursuits are as intrinsic to Canada’s soul as the game of hockey. Given that it is such a rough sport, populated with violent players and unrefined media commentators, it is a stretch to con- sider hockey on a cultural level. It is certainly not the ballet or the theatre or the art gallery.

Hockey, like Canada itself, is winter. For kids, it is seven a.m. practices in cold rinks surrounded by snowy parking lots. It is mothers and fathers huddled by the heating ele- ments in the bleachers, while grasping a Tim Horton’s cof- fee. In small communities, it is the local Junior B game against the rival town fifty miles away. At the professional level, it is Canadian newspapers devoting five articles per day to their hockey heroes, to the exclusion of amateur and local sports coverage. For 60-year-old adults, it is old-timers leagues. In a city such as Ottawa, it is some 220 outdoor rinks, maintained by community groups and featuring nightly games of shinny.

Given such a fundamental marriage between the game and Canada’s cultural ethos, it is difficult to imagine that the sport could become as troubled as it is today. A profes- sional league, such as the National Hockey League manage- ment and its players union, would have to devote a dedicated effort of mismanagement and neglect, over a peri- od of several years, to erode the game to the extent that it has declined over the past two decades. Of most concern is that the troubles and characteristics of the professional level filter down to the junior and minor hockey levels.

Challenges facing the sport can be seen on many fronts, although three are particularly noteworthy. First, the product at the professional level — and by extension at the junior and minor hockey levels — has become a version of bumper cars on ice as the players have outgrown the size of the playing surface. Second, the violence of the game and the role of Canadians as goons have increased not dimin- ished in recent years. Canadians — some twenty years after the influx of Russians and Europeans — remain the dirtiest players, most likely to inflict concussions and back and facial injuries on their opponents. Finally, the game is troubled at the managerial and financial levels — with a dozen teams located in non-hockey markets and an economic structure that requires players to do battle, and sell tickets, every second night for some eight months. It is surrounded by inept management and media, many of whom remain part of an old-boy network.

This article examines these three challenges in further detail.

The average NHL hockey game costs a family of four over $300 — half of a monthly mortgage payment — yet the majority of games feature a plodding product of modest entertainment value.

The league and arena operators, and particularly the media, have done a good job of masking an inferior product with an ever-present veneer of hype, glitz, and glamour. In this sense, the game has evolved into an event to be packaged rather than a sport to be played.

Two decades ago, the only packag- ing one would find at a game in the Montreal Forum would be a Roger Doucet anthem, a trumpeter in the greys, and the world’s best hot dog. Today one is confronted by cookie-cut- ter buildings, jammed full of advertise- ment banners, with sponsored power plays and penalty kills, massive score- board video-screens, and packaged cues for the home fans to cheer like trained seals. The buildings themselves are named after their corporate spon- sors. Pauses in the on-ice play are filled with dancing mascots and loud-speak- er advertisements. The pre-game anthem and laser shows are, in them- selves, staged events. Many of the fights are equally staged. This packag- ing is reinforced before and after games through all-sports channels, hourly hockey replay shows, and other media that mesh in a seamless manner with the teams they are ostensibly cri- tiquing. Given the pervasiveness of this corporate packaging, one has to conclude that the ability of teams to churn more dollars from the product is slowly reaching a saturation point. When this saturation point is reached, it will be incumbent on the NHL to examine its product offering.

An ironic reality of the present product is that the players themselves have never been faster or more skilled than they are today. Where the profes- sional game of decades past drew from a Canadian supply base of a few hun- dred draft-age players, the present game draws from a supply of tens of thousands of professional-caliber play- ers — spanning Russia, Scandinavia, the former Eastern Bloc, the United States and other countries.

Wayne Gretzky in his prime would have been at best a third-line centre in today’s frenetically-paced game. Those who doubt this assertion need only measure the significant decline in Gretzky’s statistics as Europeans increasingly joined the NHL and as games became dramatically faster in pace. More than any other player, Gretzky’s 20-year career straddled the two eras — a pre-European decade where he was fleet relative to other Canadian players and scored 65 goals per season, and a fast-paced post- European decade where he was rela- tively slow and his performance declined to a benchmark of around 25 goals per season.

Watching an NHL game from decades past — as I did last summer at a cottage on a rainy day — would pro- vide a shock to the system of any long-time hockey observer. The play- ers seemed to be skating in sand — clad in small equipment, goaltenders in skinny pads and gloves. Players routinely remained on the ice for shifts of one-and-a-half to two min- utes. Teams, such as Montreal in this particular 1979 playoff game, alter- nated only three defencemen for long stretches of the game. Mind you, not any three, but the Big Three — Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe.

Fleet-footed Europeans had not yet arrived to the North American game in any significant numbers. The incidents of body contact were rela- tively few and the notion of “finishing every check,” including by ramming players face-first into the glass, was largely unheard of. Ironically, despite the slower pace, the game itself was more entertaining and better suited to the dimensions of the playing surface than today’s game.

The present game is played by behemoths, skating at full-speed for forty-second shifts, clad in football- style equipment, batting rolling pucks around tiny playing surfaces. Moreover, it is dominated by Europeans who have far superior skat- ing skills to those Canadians who played in past decades. Players today are about 25 percent bigger than a few decades ago. It is not a stretch to esti- mate that skating speed is at least 25 percent faster. Indeed, where players of past decades would generally have a second or several seconds to make a play or create a scoring chance, today’s players have a fraction of one second of reaction time — generally enough time to bounce the puck off the boards, dump it into the opposing end, or chop at a rebound.

The result is a game of bumper cars — constant contact, minimal skating room, where players are encouraged to “skate through” the hooking and grabbing that is seen at every point of contact. Passing is gen- erally limited to power plays. Beyond power plays, the lack of skating room forces all teams to play a dump-and- chase style. Clean goals are increasing- ly rare. Scoring itself has declined dramatically — averaging 5 goals per game in the most recent season versus 8.5 goals per game in 1984. Where the Ottawa Senators led the NHL in scor- ing this season, with 262 goals, fully 19 of the league’s 21 teams exceeded this level two decades earlier. Worse still, those goals that are scored in bumper-car hockey generally bounce off of shin pads or require multiple video replays to determine how the puck actually entered the net. The term “picture play goal” has largely disappeared from the lexicon.

At no time is this style of play more rewarded than during the cher- ished Stanley Cup playoffs. After the annual “first game crackdown,” the league and referees generally put the whistles away and “let the players decide the game” by “fighting for space” and “gaining real estate.” The exact moment when the league should be showcasing a clean and wide-open style of play unfortunately becomes the time when holding and interfer- ence skills are most rewarded. Scores of 1-0 and 2-1 become the norm — and, while play-by-play announcer hype may suggest otherwise, there are very few legitimate scoring chances beyond these goals.

Less-skilled teams realize that playing a continuous game of hooking and holding will not result in a signif- icant penalty differential. Referees are loath to call more than two consecu- tive penalties on the same team regardless of what is transpiring on the ice. This is particularly true during the playoffs. Rhetoric from coaches of slower or less-skilled teams in the lead- up to the playoffs is aimed specifically at ensuring that skilled teams will not receive appreciably more power play opportunities. As a result, it is not unusual for one period of playoff hockey to feature 20 or more clutches, hooks and grabs, each of which negates offensive skill and reduces scoring chances.

A further by-product of bumper- car hockey, which unfortunately rein- forces the decline in entertainment value, is the prevalence of injuries. In decades past, “injuries” often meant a player had a “pulled groin” so as to take a few games off and rest for the playoffs. This is no longer the case.

Teams in the present era typically amass 200 to 500 man-games of injuries during an average season, an average of over 10 games missed per player. It is not unusual for teams to be missing 6 to 10 starters from their line-up at any given moment and many of the league’s star players miss 50 games or more each season due to concussions, broken bones, torn knees and neck injuries. It is not unusual for the NHL casualty list to include over 125 names at any given moment.

In recent years, numerous players have been forced to retire from the game because of concussions — includ- ing Brett Lindros, Pat LaFontaine, Jay More, Geoff Courtnall, Nick Kypreos, and Jeff Beukeboom. Others such as Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Jeremy Roenick, Patrik Stefan and Scott Stevens will undoubtedly have their retirements hastened due to concussions and brain problems. The NHL reported 68 concus- sions and 63 fractures during the 2001 season — a startling figure which con- tinues to increase.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal generates an ongoing registry of spinal injuries in hockey, with a data- base containing 20 years of data. This date shows that 40 percent of hockey spinal injuries resulted from checking from behind and 77 percent from con- tact with the boards. Bumper-car hockey makes these two occurrences inevitable and, through consistent non-calls, tacit- ly supports both.

The past two decades, since the influx of highly-skilled Europeans and Americans, has seen the decline and marginalization of Canadians at the professional level. The decline has been quite dramatic.

In 1964, fully 24 of the 24 players selected in the amateur draft were Canadians — reflecting the pattern of previous decades. In 1970, exactly zero of the 115 players drafted were Europeans and, as recently as 1975, only six of the 217 players selected were Europeans. The European influx began in earnest during the 1980s and accelerated further after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. By the year 2000, 25 percent of NHL players were European, a figure which increased to 29 percent in 2003 and which will continue to grow. Where Canadians filled close to 100 percent of NHL posi- tions in 1970, this propor- tion has declined steadily to the present 53 percent.

Perhaps more note- worthy than this overall decline is the fact that many of those Canadians remaining at the profes- sional level have migrated toward a marginal role. Many Canadian players have based careers around banking pucks off glass, face-washing after each whistle, hooking Europeans in the crotch, and crashing the net — acts that seem to have been elevated to art- forms. The “energy players” are prima- rily Canadian. The dump-and-chase corner men are primarily Canadian. And, regrettably, the goons are almost all Canadians.

Peruse the roster of virtually any NHL team and one will find the name of one or two prominent Canadian goons on each, whether Tie Domi on Toronto, Chris Simon on Calgary, Donald Brashear on Philadelphia, or Andre Roy on Tampa Bay. An interest- ing list of the top 10 career penalty minutes leaders indicates that all 10 are Canadians, namely: Tiger Williams, Dale Hunter, Tie Domi, Marty McSorley, Bob Probert, Rob Ray, Craig Berube, Tim Hunter, Chris Nilan, and Rick Tocchet.

One of the more popular myths that circulates among Canadians in the professional hockey industry is that Canadian players do not play a “cheap” style, unlike their European colleagues. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many Canadian play- ers, including the aforementioned, have a long history of cheap play. Visible examples — such as Dale Hunter assaulting Pierre Turgeon, Tie Domi blindsiding Scott Niedermayer, and Marty McSorley clubbing Donald Brashear’s head — are sprinkled among hundreds of less visible instances. Even rugged and skilled players such as Gary Roberts can be seen several times each game cross- checking opponents from behind in the spine and lower neck area or plas- tering opponents face-first into the glass. While Todd Bertuzzi, to take the most topical example, is not a goon, he is certainly a physical forward — arguably the best in the game — and also has a history of hitting opponents from behind or to the head and neck area. The blow that broke Steve Moore’s neck was not an isolated inci- dent. With the exception of the unfor- tunate end result in this case, this type of vicious contact and payback is encouraged at the professional and junior levels.

At the other end of the spectrum, the most skilled players on the majority of NHL teams are Europeans. Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Markus Naslund, Jaromir Jagr, Marian Hossa, Saku Koivu, Alex Mogilny, Daniel Alfredsson, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Kovalev — every team with the exception of a handful is led in hockey skills by Europeans. These play- ers, along with the skilled Canadians and Americans in the game, are doing their best to adapt within a bumper-car environment. New skills, such as cycling the puck and one-time slap- shots, are as prevalent today as they were unheard of in past decades and reflect an effort to adapt to a game with limited time or space for creativity.

It is interesting to note that Americans have not gravitated toward the goon role. Most American players have come to the professional game via a university program — which features a high practice-to-game ratio and pro- duces players who are older, more mature, and better educated than their Canadian counterparts graduating from junior hockey programs. The US gradu- ates also have a university degree in their back pockets — in contrast to Canadian juniors who try to juggle weekly 10-hour road trips and 4 a.m. returns with their grade 10/11 school workload.

The on-ice contrast between Canadian junior hockey and US collegiate hockey is also noteworthy. The former involves banging in the corners and jostling after the many whistles. It is essentially a teenage ver- sion of NHL hockey. The latter is wide- open, clean and, allowing two-line passes, features relatively few stoppages. There is a certain irony in noting that the NHL used to justify goon hockey, such as Philadelphia in the 1970s, as a way of selling the sport in the United States. The US has moved beyond this and arguably now develops faster and more skilled young players than does Canada. Where very few Americans were drafted as recently as the 1970s, presently around 19 percent of league players are Americans. The NHL ama- teur draft of 2003 saw 7 Americans chosen in the first round and a fur- ther 10 in the second round, indicat- ing that this upward trend will likely continue. The 2003 world junior championship victory by the United States provides a further indication of this trend.

From this perspective, the NHL is evolving in the same direction as the Canadian Football League — where Canadians occupy the less- skilled positions while imports play the skill roles of quarter- back/playmaker and receiver/ goal scorer.

The game, as proposed later in this article, is in dire need of fundamental change. One obstacle, perhaps the main obstacle, preventing transformative change to the game is the prevalence of dinosaurs among the coaching and managerial staff of NHL teams. Coaches such as Pat Quinn and man- agers such as Bobby Clarke have a long history of thuggish behaviour in the game and bring this bias to their present teams and to the league exec- utive on which they play influential roles. While a progressive hockey thinker such as Ken Dryden cannot make such assertions directly toward his own colleagues, it is evident from recent remarks that he is of this view.

With respect to the media, it is also evident that Don Cherry, and particularly the soapbox provided to him by the CBC, has played an influ- ential role in reinforcing the present game. Cherry is watched by around 1.5 million people each week, and more during the playoffs, and his two-decade run as a hockey analyst has allowed him to build a cult fol- lowing. Under normal circumstances, one would think that the same shtick would wear thin after a year or two, let alone twenty-four. However, as Molson and Labatt’s and other spon- sors have obviously concluded, one could never go broke underestimat- ing the intelligence of Cherry’s Canadian fan base. His well- rehearsed shtick is, to his credit, never-changing — anti-European, anti- Quebec, pro-thug, pro-clutch- and-grab, anti-visor, and pro-fight- ing. His shtick sells his videos and celebrates virtually everything that is wrong with the game.

With respect to Cherry’s position on mandatory visor use, for example, a recent study of head injuries found that wearing full face shields reduced the risk of facial and dental injuries without increasing the risk of concus- sions or neck injuries. Research by the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine concludes that the use of visors has sig- nificantly reduced the incidence of injuries in hockey. In unwritten refer- ence to Cherry and his ilk, the academy notes that “some have postulated that this added protection has created a false sense of security, leading players to take excessive risks resulting in other injuries. Recent evidence suggests that full face protectors do not increase the risk of neck injuries, concussions or other injuries.” In addition, this study suggested that full facial protection decreases the severity of concussion. In other words, Cherry’s view on this, as on other similar issues, is full of bom- bast yet without substance.

With respect to Cherry’s support of fighting in hockey, the Cana- dian Academy of Sport Medicine notes that it is an endemic and ritualized blot on the reputation of the North American game and that, beyond this, it causes many injuries ranging from hand and face fractures to eye injuries. Mike Bossy, one of the purest scorers in league history, stated of fighting, “I find it hard to find a reason why it should be there and what it accomplish- es.” As others have stated, the NHL is to real hockey what the World Wrestling Federation is to traditional wrestling — the existence of fighting is the sin- gle biggest contributor to the deserved ridicule the NHL game receives in many circles. The tacit encouragement of fighting to help sell the game to broader audiences is not effective and may have backfired. Indeed, the troubles facing the professional game on the ice and in management are reflected in television ratings. As noted in a March 2004 Associated Press story, US fans are tuning out games that do not involve their local teams — as a result NHL rat- ings on ESPN had a 0.2 to 0.5 rating (i.e. between one-fifth and one-half of 1 percent of all US television homes) — a rating which is described as being on a par with that of infomercials. In this sense, the NHL’s US hockey ratings rival that of a 3 a.m. K-Tel commercial. Ratings have long been below those of bowling and the weekly figure skating show. For example, a critical Philadelphia playoff game in 2003 rated on a par with something called the Hallmark Figure Skating show. These low ratings are expected to result in a smaller US television con- tract in the near future — perhaps only one-half of the present $600 million, five-year deal with ESPN and ABC. This lost revenue may also force a re-exam- ining of the on-ice product at the pro- fessional level.

Beyond the television ratings, a number of US teams are having diffi- culty attracting spectators to watch the product in person at present prices. Regular-season games in Carolina, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Nashville, Boston, Chicago, San Jose, New Jersey, Anaheim, Florida and others often fea- ture half or two-thirds full buildings in terms of true paid attendance — reflecting both a malaise with the product and the fact that the league has located teams in so many non- hockey markets. The $50 million in expansion revenue that each new team brought to the existing team owners has led to several regrettable franchise decisions in the past two decades and also allowed owners to avoid the on- and off ice improvements that were required.

The upside regarding the challenges facing the game is that the solutions are relatively straightforward and easy to implement. The downside is that those who have run the game down to its present state over the past 20 years remain in positions of influence. They can therefore continue to recirculate the juvenile views that have tradition- ally passed for “analysis” in these cir- cles. (i.e. visors encourage high-sticks, fighting serves as a needed release in such an emotional game, referees just need to enforce the rules, the instiga- tor penalty causes high sticks, Europeans need to keep their sticks down, and so forth). There is also sig- nificant pressure among the players’ fraternity to maintain the macho posi- tion. For an individual player or man- ager to diverge from these accepted views risks inviting ridicule or decreased respect from fellow players — a factor which also acts as an obsta- cle to fundamental change.

Implementing the following nine changes would serve to reinvent the professional game. The reverberations of implementing these changes, from the professional level down through junior and minor hockey, would be dramatic and instantaneous.

  • Eliminate fighting: A no-brainer, this move would greatly reduce the ridicule factor that is attached to the NHL by media and hockey observers in many parts of the US, Canada and Europe. Other sports in which emotion and strength play an important role do not allow fighting. For example, one does not see football players try- ing to tug each other’s jersey over their heads so as to bang fists against helmets. One does not see rugby goons pairing off in twos, so as to dance around the field. One does not see players in European/ Scandinavian hockey leagues going through this pathetic cha- rade. Eliminating fighting would send a message, both symbolic and substantive, that thugs will start to play a smaller role in the Canadian game. Most important- ly, once this message is received at the professional level, it would quickly filter down to the junior and minor hockey levels.

  • Widen the ice: Adding 10 feet to the width of the ice would pro- vide almost 15 percent more skating room — thereby rewarding fleet forwards, penalizing lead-footed defensemen, and decreas- ing the ability of defending teams to create a “Sherwood wall” across the blue-line. Unfortunately, the league and its teams have gone through a recent period of building new arenas and may not have the necessary commitment to invest further money in adjust- ing the size of the playing surface, including removing a few rows of premium seats. As evidenced by the breathtaking entertainment of the Olympic Games hockey on the larger ice surface, this short- sightedness and penny-pinching would be unfortunate, albeit not surprising.

  • Create more four-on-four play: The most entertaining and skilled hockey, outside of the Olympics, occurs during the five-minute NHL regular-season overtime peri- ods. Speed, puck possession, pass- ing and scoring chances are on full display. The NHL needs to create more of this — certainly through having all coincidental penalties played as four-on-four and per- haps through playing a portion of each game — say the final five minutes of each period — in four-on-four format.

  • Eliminate the two-line offside rule: This change is easily implemented and would again reward skilled forwards and punish lumbering clutch-and-grab opponents. It would result in players being spread out over two-thirds of the ice surface, rather than being con- gested in one-half as is the case in bumper car hockey.

  • Continue with the incremental adjustments: The league should continue with its annual exercise of minor tinkering to the game. In this sense, changes such as mak- ing goalie equipment smaller and implementing the hurry-up face-off are positive. In this vein, touch-icing is unnecessary, causes injuries, and should be eliminated. Similarly, a smaller and softer version of shoulder and elbow pads should be mandated. The Canadian Hockey Association has also made significant progress in recent years in implementing and enforcing a coaching certificate program and in promoting clean and fun play at the minor hockey level. This should be con- tinued.

  • Eliminate blows to the head: While this would not be the easiest rule change to implement, the cost of the current state of neglect is too high to continue with the status quo. Referees should be tasked with judging whether a player has forcefully hit an opponent’s head with his fist, elbow or shoulder — penalties should be applied accordingly and consis- tently.

  • Reward referees for calling consecu- tive penalties: This recommenda- tion is unusual, although it speaks to the serious need to remove the stigma associated with referees’ calling consecutive penalties on the same team. In implementing the rules that already exist, refer- ees should not be bound by the unwritten NHL rule of “even-up calls” and providing similar power play chances to both teams. Above all, referees should be freed of the burden of managing the game and ensuring parity. If one team is superior in speed and skill, and dominant in puck possession, then they should be expected to receive far more power play opportunities – game after game. This recommendation is funda- mental to rewarding fast, clean and skilled hockey.

  • Impose real fines on players/manage- ment to reduce dirty play: The market economics of hockey work as in any other business — increase the price and demand will fall. In this sense, a more significant fine structure should be introduced to the collec- tive agreement — one that reflects an average present-day player salary that approaches $2 million. Illegal contact and dirty play that leads to serious injury should be greeted with fines in the hundred thousand dollar vicinity — paid equally by the offending player and his team man- agement and directed toward minor hockey programs and charities. This would encourage more respect among players and management and would in turn lead to fewer injuries and a reduced need for thugs.

  • Restrict the goaltender’s freedom to play defence: Puck-handling skills of most present-day NHL goal- tenders are virtually on a par with defencemen and they in effect play an active role as third defencemen — this serves to fur- ther reduce scoring chances and, in particular, to restrict play to the congested centre-ice zone. The game is already overly congested in a five-on-five format, let alone once a sixth “skater” is added to each side. While penalizing goal-tenders for playing the puck is probably an unworkable solu- tion, there is a need to restrict their freedom to act as third defencemen. The best solution would be for goaltenders to be treated as defencemen when they handle the puck outside of their crease — in others words open for marginal body con- tact.

Hockey, when played at its best, remains a passionate sport — generating excite- ment and entertainment beyond that offered by virtu- ally any other sport. The pres- ent product, particularly at the professional level, is regrettably a long way from reaching its potential. As discussed in this article, Canadians have been the key figures in leading the game’s decline in recent decades. One hopes that Canadians can lead the way in advo- cating and implementing the funda- mental changes needed to ensure our game is played at its best.