The NHL from a fan's perspective.

by Lyle Richardson 


From "Bidding adieu to Wayne Gretzky"

Sunday, April 18th, 1999. That was the date when a familiar era in the National Hockey League’s long history came to a close, and a new, uncertain one began. On that Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the 20-year career of the most famous hockey player in National Hockey League (NHL) history came to an end. In an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Wayne Gretzky bid farewell to hockey fans around the world. It was an emotional ceremony, as fans chanted his name, while former teammates and old friends looked on and applauded as Number 99 took his laps and waved a tearful good-bye....

...The 1993 version of the Canadiens would extract a measure of revenge against Gretzky for the defeat of the 1981 “Habs”, beating the Kings in five games to win the Cup. However, Gretzky would steal some of the Canadiens thunder by appearing on national television following Game Five to talk about his future. During the interview, he stated he felt he should be paid more money as one of the league’s better players. He also hinted at retiring if things didn’t go his way. I remember thinking to myself that Gretzky was turning before my eyes into just another greedy, self-absorbed, spoiled athlete. I felt myself losing some of that respect I previously had for him....

...As much as his finally leaving the game was a sad occasion, it was more depressing that there didn't appear to be anyone on the immediate horizon who could take his place. There were several fine players in the NHL, like the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Jaromir Jagr; the Florida Panthers’ Pavel Bure, and Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ Paul Kariya. But they paled in comparison to Gretzky and his achievements. Indeed, it may be many years before someone comparable comes along....

From "My farewell to Maple Leaf Gardens."

The last three decades in the history of Maple Leaf Gardens simply fails to measure up with the same period of history for three other now-closed hockey shrines: The Montreal Forum, Boston Gardens and Chicago Stadium...

...By contrast, Maple Leaf Gardens was a once glamorous, elite building, that had seen her special qualities cannibalized and laid waste, all for the sake of revenue. She came to symbolize how woeful the team had become throughout most of the final 32 years of her existence as the Maple Leafs home rink...

...Perhaps it's best that the Maple Leafs moved into a new arena at the same time the team’s fortunes were on an upswing as it neared the end of the 1990s. Perhaps the new Air Canada Center will be symbolic of a better Toronto franchise. The successful memories of Maple Leaf Gardens are so far in the past that they are faded, worn and old like the arena herself. Better for the Leafs and their fans to look to the future in a new arena, than to continue to be haunted by the bitter memories of the past in it’s old one.

From "Neil Smith rolls the dice."

...Ultimately, the Rangers spent nearly $60 million dollars for their 1999-2000 lineup. One would think such a payroll would see a team loaded with talent in the caliber of a Lindros, a Forsberg, a Pronger or a Kariya. One would expect, for that kind of cash, that the Rangers would become the powerhouse of the NHL.

Instead, New York fans had a team that - at best - might’ve finished seventh overall in the Eastern Conference. That was assuming their aging veterans didn't struggle with injuries, which they did. It was also assuming that youngsters like Brendl and Malholtra would make major on-ice contributions. They didn’t. It was assuming that Theo Fleury wouldn’t have a sub-par season. He did. Finally, it was assuming that opponents like Florida and Washington would continue to struggle as they did in 1998-99. They didn’t. Who knew mediocrity could cost so much?

From "Contract negotiations, Bruins-style"

...Sinden was upset that "Lord Byron" asked for roughly $3 million US per season. He insisted the netminder hadn't been able to sufficiently prove to him that he's worth this amount.

Consider the following statistics: in the 1997-98 season, his first as a Bruin following his trade from Los Angeles, Dafoe played 65 games, went 30-25-9 with 6 shutouts, put up a 2.24 goals-against average (GAA), and had a .914 save percentage. The following season, Dafoe played in 68 games, went 32-23-11 with 10 shutouts, sported a measly 1.99 GAA and a sparkling save percentage of .926. He earned a Vezina trophy nomination, awarded to the league’s best goaltender, for his efforts in 1998-99.

There were some goaltenders in the league that would not be worthy of the type of pay jump Dafoe was asking for. His salary for 1998-99 was a bargain basement $850,000 US, so going up to $3 million per season was quite a raise...But to say that Dafoe wasn't worth the raise after the two seasons he had in Boston was absurd. He was far more valuable to Boston than the three aforementioned Bruins(Jason Allison, Anson Carter and Kyle McLaren) who held out in the fall of 1998....

From "Tales of Halloween terror!"

...The “Habs” problems dated back to the early 1990s. Then-GM Serge Savard, rumored to be distracted by his outside business interests, made a series of questionable draft picks and bad trades. Worse, he allowed scouting for European talent to whither away. Replaced by Rejean Houle in the fall of 1995, the Canadiens scouting of European talent, as well as that of the North American junior leagues, showed minimal improvement. The draft picks, such as Mike Higgins, Jason Ward and Mike Ribeiro, failed to make an immediate impact, something that was much harped-on by the impatient press and fans in
Montreal. Houle also made his own series of trades that more often than not seemed to backfire.

They still had not recovered from dealing away character players over the years like Claude Lemieux, Brian Skrudland, Mike Keane and Guy Carbonneau for minimal returns. Those players continued to make major contributions with other clubs, which could have benefited Montreal, were it not for the front office’s short-sighted views. Also tossed aside over the years were notables such as Sylvain Lefebrve, Jyrki Lumme, Lyle Odelein, John LeClair, Eric Desjardins, Craig Conroy and Jonas Hoglund, who would go on to various degrees of success with their new teams.

Even more galling was the fact players like Pierre Turgeon, Valeri Bure, Darcy Tucker, and Vincent Damphousse, who failed to play to expectations in Montreal were shining elsewhere in the league. Throw in the controversial trade of future Hall-of-Fame goaltender Patrick Roy, and it was no wonder the Canadiens were struggling mightily. Due to the explosion of the free agent market in the late-1990s, possibly half of those afore-mentioned players would no longer be playing in Montreal anyway. However, even if half those players were still with the Canadiens, there would still have been enough talent left over for them to continue to be a strong playoff club....

From "What's wrong with Canadian Hockey?"

...There certainly should be more emphasis placed on skill development in the minor hockey levels. Anything that will improve the skills of young players can only improve the game at all levels. Furthermore, there is always room for improvements and new techniques in the world of coaching. Should there be rules in place to teach kids to respect the game, the rules and their opponents? Most definitely, as that is a quality that seems to be lacking at all levels of hockey, both in Canada and the United States.

It’s outrageous that kids should leave their homes and families at 12, 13 and 14-years-old in order to further their pursuit of a big league hockey career. We don’t ask kids to make that kind of sacrifice for their country during wartime. Why are we making them do it for a sport? The game needs to be fun for kids. It should be taught that way by parents and coaches. It’s important to learn the proper skills and systems, but it should never get in the way of the joy of actually playing the game.

How many times have those of us who’ve either played minor hockey as a kid, or attended the games our own children are playing in, witnessed scenes where the coaches were screaming and yelling at the kids if they were losing? How about giving them hell after a game if the kids didn’t play well enough? How often have we seen and heard parents exhorting their golden boys and girls to injure another player during a game? How about those who rant and rave from the stands if they felt Little Johnny or Janie wasn’t playing hard enough or well enough? How about those who tear into the coaches because they felt their kid wasn’t getting enough ice time?

From "The McSorley Incident"

During a late-February game between the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks, Bruins defenceman Marty McSorley's leveled a vicious, two-handed slash to the side of Vancouver Canucks forward Donald Brashear's head. The fall-out from the incidentwould leave an ugly mark on the National Hockey League for weeks afterward.

The aftermath saw McSorley suspended for the rest of the season and the playoffs for his actions, and may have finished his career in the NHL. Brashear, meanwhile, suffered a concussion and missed over a month of playing time, shortening what had been his best season to date...

...There was certainly no love lost for Donald Brashear, who is cut from the same cloth as McSorley when it comes to the role he's expected to play on the ice. But Brashear didn't deserve what happened to him. McSorley apologized after the game for what he did, saying he didn't mean to swing his stick at Brashear. He apologized to everyone, from Brashear, to his Bruins teammates, to the NHL brass, to the fans for what he did.

While it was comforting to hear McSorley say these things, would that have made any difference if he'd killed Brashear with that swipe to the head? Would it have made any difference if Brashear had suffered a more serious injury, one that would've involved brain damage? Suppose Brashear’s playing career was effectively ended? Would a mere apology make it okay?

From "The Case for Visors"

In a horrifying accident during a Toronto-Ottawa game in mid-March 2000, the Senators Marion Hossa clipped Toronto defenceman Bryan Berard flush in the eye with his stick. If there was ever a prime example of why visors must be worn, not only in the NHL, but in all levels of hockey, the sickening image of Berard on his knees, holding his face while a widening pool of blood stained the ice beneath him, should be enough for those with common sense to be convinced.

The question immediately being raised is why, in this day and age, more NHL players aren't wearing visors. Why doesn't the league make it mandatory? After all, it had no problem passing a law making the wearing of helmets mandatory back in 1979. The reason why lies in the league's glorification of maschismo. In it's efforts to promote the game, the National Hockey League actively promoted how tough it’s players were. One need only to see a commercial that ran on ESPN during the 1999-2000 season, in which facial scars of several NHL players were shown in close-up detail, to realize this fact.

How often was it noted during the playoffs that players actually hoped to be seriously cut from a stick-foul, which would then warrant a four-minute penalty to the opposing team for the infraction, rather than a two-minute one? How many times did fans hear about players trying to play through serious injuries, putting off possible season-ending surgery, particularly during the playoffs. Then there were the comments made by notable color commentators and game analysts, who insinuate that because a player wore a visor, he was somehow less than manly....

From "Senators refuse to bow to Yashin."

When former Senators captain Alexei Yashin staged his holdout for either a larger contract or a trade in the summer of 1999, the consensus amongst observers was Ottawa would have no choice but to deal him by mid-season. Being a small-market Canadian team, there was no way they could meet his salary demands. It was also believed the Senators wouldn’t survive without their top player providing the offence...

...But this story didn’t stick to the script. The Senators did drop in total points overall, from 103 in 1999 to 95 in 2000. However, despite the absence of Yashin and the rash of injuries to their roster, Ottawa was never in danger of missing the playoffs, and would finish sixth overall in the Eastern Conference. More impressive, the amount of goal-scoring increased without Yashin, to 244 goals in 2000, up slightly from 239 in 1999...

...While experts were left confounded, none were more so than Yashin and his agent, Mark Gandler. The confidence they had displayed early in the season was now gone, replaced by a desperate siege mentality that they could still win the day when his case went before an arbitrator in May 2000, as requested by the NHL. While the Players Association offered token support to their cause, it was obvious they were not comfortable with it. The majority of players were against Yashin’s stand, fearing it would not only turn public opinion against them, but would possibly have an adverse effect on future contract negotiations with teams...

From "The NHL’s Y2K problem."

Fans of Canadian teams who breathed a sigh of relief that a proposed $20 million federal tax-relief package would bail out NHL clubs in Canada should have prepared themselvesfor a dose of bitter reality. $3.8 million in Canadian funds to each club was like a drop in the ocean. It would make no difference to the financial situation facing those teams as it wouldn't have been nearly enough. It was a band-aid solution for a major problem.

Some observers hoped that this would be enough for Canadian teams to hang on until 2004, when the next round of collective bargaining is scheduled to take place. But for fans of the Senators, Flames, Oilers and Canucks, there seemed a real possibility that at least one of those teams might no longer be playing in Canada by then, regardless of whether the tax-relief stayed in effect or not. In less that two years, and that's a liberal estimate, the NHL and some of the owners of the Canadian teams would have been howling for more. If they didn't get their way, they'd threaten to move their teams south of the border.

What had become glaringly apparent was the NHL's financial house is in a mess. The Canadian NHL cities and the respective provinces in which they're located, felt the same way, as their response was to reject kicking in "their fair share", as the relief programme stipulated. They saw this program for what it really was: a subsidy for Ottawa Senators owner Rod Bryden, a noted Liberal Party supporter, to keep him from selling his team and moving it to the States...

From "NHL TV ratings down in United States"

Following the end of the first round of playoff action, it was reported that television ratings for the National Hockey League in the United States reached an all-time low. Apparently, the switch from FOX to ABC failed to improve ratings that were already slumping. Furthermore, ESPN reported only a tiny rise in their ratings for NHL hockey broadcasts, despite showing more coverage than in previous years.

One article stated the reasons for these poor ratings were as follows: the game didn't translate well to the small screen; it had regional appeal only; and the game's biggest stars weren’t "home-grown". It went on to state Americans continue to be unfamiliar with the game, despite the increased television exposure and the rise in interest of roller-hockey, which was felt would boost interest in the on-ice product.

Whatever happened to the NHL's grandiose plans under Gil Stein and then Gary Bettman to boost professional hockey's stock and visibility in the U.S. markets? Remember the excitement that followed the 1994 season? The Rangers and Canucks battled it out in the most exciting Stanley Cup finals in years, and FOX had picked up the TV rights for the next four years. Professional hockey was supposedly poised to join the big three of pro basketball, football and baseball in terms of popularity. Instead, six years later, it was little better off than it was at the start of the 1990s....

From "Financial trouble in Calgary."

...There was subsequently much hue and cry about this possibility, with the local and national media either defending or slamming Flames ownership for making such dire predictions. Regardless of whether it was scare tactics to boost ticket sales or a very real threat to sell and move the franchise, it couldn’t be overlooked that support for NHL hockey was slumping in Calgary.

The problem was not that Calgarians were spoiled, but rather they were fed up with the present situation in the NHL that has ruined the once-mighty Flames. Consequently, it drove away the fans from the Saddledome. According to media reports, season ticket sales had dropped steadily since the early 1990s, when the Flames were still one of the best clubs in the NHL. Why?

Calgarians have always loved hockey, and always will. But, as noted earlier in Chapter One of this book, they're sickened by the greed and the uncaring attitude displayed by the players. They realize it's only a matter of time before top young Flames like Valeri Bure, Fred Braithwaite and Derek Morris stage prolonged holdouts for more money. Forward Jerome Iginla already missed part of the ‘99-’00 season due to a holdout. They know eventually these players will either force a trade, or they’ll walk away. Why support a team whose players loyalty is to their contracts and not to the team or the city in which they play?

From "Toronto Maple Leafs/New Jersey Devils"

...Following a close loss in Game Five, where tempers flared, punches were thrown and blood was spilled at game's end, most predicted the Maple Leafs to come storming back in Game Six. Down 3 games to 2, there was talk of retribution and desperation hockey by the Leafs. They were supposedly determined to even the series and force a seventh game back in Toronto, or at least go down fighting.

Instead, the Leafs offered up one of the most listless performances in playoff history. In a farce of an effort that put some fans in mind of the feeble "Maple Laughs" clubs of the 1980s , Toronto dropped a 3-0 decision to the Devils. Worse, they mustered only six shots the entire game.

Where was the passion? The emotion? The desire to battle like hell, no matter what? Despite their tough talk, the Leafs were finished before Game Six even began. The Devils had intimidated them with their tough, but clean, fore-checking style. Led by Scott Stevens, who knocked down Toronto forwards like bowling pins, New Jersey took it to Toronto physically. They extracted a stiff price again and again that, in the end, was too much for the Leafs to bear....

From "Russian hockey under scrutiny"

A scenario familiar to Canadian hockey fans in recent years unfolded at the 2000 World Championships. A certain country's team, with some of the best players in the world on the roster, fully expected to win gold playing on home soil. Instead, to the horror of it’s fans, this team come up woefully short. Questions were raised about the state of hockey in that country, and the quality of the players it produced. Meanwhile, that nation's press devoted numerous articles on "the national disgrace".

Canada in 1972? 1981? 1996? 1998? Nope, this took place in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Russian national team, bolstered by notable NHL stars such as Pavel Bure and Alexei Yashin, were unceremoniously bounced from the 2000 Worlds without even getting close to medal contention. For hockey fans in Russia, expecting their team to win it all in their home country, this was a bitter shock. Russian national team coach and former star of the great Soviet teams of yesteryear, Alexander Yakushev, his job now in jeopardy, apologized for his club's poor performance. Sadly, all he could offer up was little more than excuses...

From "Thirtieth anniversary of “The Goal”.

For most Canadian hockey fans, ask them what "the goal" is, and they will say Paul Henderson's series clincher in the memorable 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union. For Boston Bruins fans, and indeed probably a lot of American hockey fans, "The Goal" is none other than Bobby Orr flying through the air after scoring the Cup-clinching goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup final series between the Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

...Seeing the replay of the big moment on ESPN thirty years hence, one can't help but feel it's a bittersweet image for Bruins fans. The decade that started so brightly with Orr's heroics would end in sadness by 1979. Orr, his knees too battered to continue to play, and having finished out his final two injury-shortened seasons in the uniform of the Chicago Blackhawks, retired. Seeing his then-agent Alan Eagleson both in the Bruins joyous locker room in 1970, and at Orr's farewell ceremony at the Boston Garden in 1979, makes one viewing the footage today cringe. The subsequent betrayal of Orr by Eagleson would eventually become one of the main reasons Eagleson ended up in prison for fleecing the very players he represented...

...Still, this anniversary is special for those who love the Bruins, and those who love hockey. That goal forever immortalized Orr's legacy, and remained a constant reminder for New England hockey fans of a time when the Bruins were on top of the hockey world, and Orr was it’s undisputed king.

From "The Lindros era ends in Philadelphia."

...How strange it seemed. The Lindros story was supposed to follow the usual script. The franchise player, and next great superstar, was supposed to stick with Philadelphia and bring championships back to a city starving for them. He was supposed to win universal love and acclaim as one of the greatest ever. Instead, the story had gone awry, with bitterness and angry words; the dreams of championship glory and the promise of a great career unfulfilled.

In hindsight, it was easy to pinpoint the moment where Clarke became disenchanted with his captain. That would be in February 1998, when Team Canada failed to win gold at the Nagano Olympics. That was a team assembled by Clarke and Dallas Stars GM Bob Gainey, with Lindros as the hand-picked captain. After leading the Flyers to the Cup Finals in 1997, Lindros was supposed to lead Team Canada to gold and back to it's rightful place as hockey's superpower...

...In 1997, Clarke wouldn't have spoken of Lindros and his family in the manner he did in June of 2000, but times had clearly changed. Back then, Lindros was considered the irreplaceable lynchpin to the Flyers success. In 2000, however, Philadelphia wound up the best regular season team in the Eastern Conference, playing well down the stretch while Lindros was absent from the lineup and publicly feuding with Clarke. Then the team had their best playoff run since 1997, coming within one game of advancing to the Cup Finals. Given all this, Clarke no longer felt he needed Lindros to have a successful team in Philadelphia. While he didn't come right out and say it, all one had to do was read between the lines...

From "A tribute to Maurice “Rocket” Richard."

...There was one name that stood out from the rest. One player whose heroics seemed larger than life. That was Maurice "the Rocket" Richard. I was already a Montreal Canadiens fan before I read about the Rocket, thanks to my aforementioned hero Dryden. After reading about his great career, I gained a far deeper appreciation of the great history of the “Habs” franchise, and what Richard meant to the team and it’s fans....

...One of my most favorites stories about Richard concerns a tough-guy player named Dill, whom the New York Rangers brought up to match up against Richard. Apparently, the Rangers management was tired of the Rocket running roughshod on their players, both physically and on the scoreboard. It was no contest. Dill called out Richard, who promptly beat up the Rangers tough. When Dill accused him of being lucky, the Rocket knocked him out with a single punch. The headline in a New York paper the next day said it all: "DILL PICKLED"...

...He was clearly aging now and could no longer play to the level of even a good-natured Old-timers game. Still, he was out there with the players during the warm-up as the Saddledome crowd filed in , wearing a referee's uniform and lazily taking a few shots on goaltender Gilles Gilbert, who had no trouble blocking them. Then, he scooped up a puck at the blue-line, picked up a little speed and, with a quick flick of his wrists, rifled one over the right shoulder of Gilbert from about ten feet out. Those of us who were already in our seats, watching from where I was sitting, behind the net about ten rows up, burst into
spontaneous applause. Richard turned, looked back at us, smiled and raised his stick to acknowledge our gesture....

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