Hockey Ain’t What It Used to Be

‘Systems’ rule over individual brilliance
January 21, 2021 Updated: January 22, 2021


As glad as I am that NHL hockey has returned to TV, I have to admit that hockey has declined in quality since the days of Dave Keon and Bobby Orr. Maybe it’s partly my age, but the game isn’t as exciting as it used to be. Sometimes I turn it off in favour of a book and the melodies of Tommy Dorsey.

Nor am I alone in this. Friends agree, and a few have stopped watching altogether, which as a Canadian I consider an act of apostasy.

Take heart, though, as this will not be a rant. Instead I hope to analyze what has happened, as there is a great vacuum out there in sports-writing land, and no one that I’ve seen has recently attempted to determine why the game lacks the lustre it once had.

In brief, my reasons are salaries, systems, and suckers.

In the 1960s, hockey players were paid like ordinary folks. Almost all worked in the off-season to make ends meet, often in construction or some other physical work. Don Cherry did this, and granted he played in the minor leagues but many in the NHL also worked summers to pay the bills. What did this do? It made them appreciate their hockey jobs, and with only six teams at the time there were few top jobs to go around. Always a youngster was nipping at your heels, eager for a chance to take your place on the team. So they played hurt. They played hard, night after night. They took their jobs very seriously and played intensely. Remember Boston’s Johnny McKenzie? Toronto’s Eddie Shack? Montreal’s John Ferguson? These guys were not natural goal-scorers (though all did light the lamp), and any one of them would have bitten your ear off rather than lose a fight for the puck, or a fight with their fists.

When big bucks entered the game with Bobby Orr’s contract with Boston in 1966, other players in his slipstream also got more money. Orr deserved every penny he signed for, and he helped a lot of guys get fair market value. Orr’s was the first big contract for a rookie—too bad he had trouble with his agent.

By the time of the World Hockey Association in 1972 salaries had skyrocketed, such as Bobby Hull’s $1 million contract with the Winnipeg Jets. Because of the new league and NHL expansion, there were far more jobs than ever before. The quality of pro hockey was watered down. The WHA could be a pretty thin gruel, as I saw at Toronto Toros games.

I don’t begrudge the players better pay; they often deserved it. But too much expansion and multi-million-dollar salaries since then have hurt the game, in my view. The players aren’t as truculent (hello, Burkie), ticket prices are through the roof, and who can keep track of all the teams?

Secondly, systems. Think socialism on ice. Think putting “the system” ahead of the individual brilliance of Gordie Howe, Jean Béliveau, Phil Esposito and others who grew up learning the game on wind-swept sloughs and lakes with other kids, playing keep-away and learning how to stickhandle through a maze of players because you had to if you wanted to score. That individuality, that spark of genius which others like Keon, Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert, Ron Ellis, and Brad Park demonstrated night after night, suddenly wasn’t wanted as much anymore. It became passé.

Why? Because of the 1972 Summit Series with the Soviet Union. The likes of Valeri Kharlamov and his peers played according to the political/economic system of communism they represented, not like the free-enterprise and free-wheeling laissez-faire performers of the NHL. And almost everyone fell for the Soviet “systems.” What the Russians basically did was take the game plan from soccer, what they call football in Europe. Lots of set passing plays.

Epoch Times Photo
Team Canada’s Paul Henderson (L) shoots on Team USSR’s Vladislav Tretiak while Gennady Tsygankov defends during the 1972 Summit Series in Toronto on Sept. 4, 1972. (The Canadian Press/Peter Bregg)

“Can you imagine me playing in a system?” the great Orr once said. What he meant is, No, the Bobby Orr you knew and admired was not a systems man, any more than Henri Richard or Bobby Clarke was. Orr’s game was based on his unique ability to read the ice well, to know where players were and what might develop, and then improvise accordingly, using superior speed and hockey sense to put his teammates in good positions to score. I think Orr was faster than Connor McDavid. Often he simply skated through everyone and scored. And he made it look easy, without ever showing up his opponents. Like all the great players of his era, he wanted the puck and made things happen when he had it. Today, the puck’s a hot potato; here, you take it, I don’t want it! Orr was also the best shot blocker in hockey, which he doesn’t get credit for.

I watched Orr play at Boston Garden and elsewhere dozens of times while growing up in Toronto; we got a U.S. television network with our rabbit ears. It was snowy, but hey.

Thirdly, suckers. After the close call of 1972, you would have thought that Paul Henderson’s brilliant individual efforts with game-winning goals in the sixth, seventh, and eighth games to win the series for Canada would have affirmed the intelligence of continuing to give these guys the freedom to improvise on the ice, to let heart and skill win over systems. It didn’t happen. Hockey socialism won the day.

There’s still some great hockey, thrilling hockey, and it’s often when a John Tavares or a T. J. Brodie thumb their nose at systems and play good old shinny and have fun, scoring on their own or feathering a pass to a winger in a moment of inspiration. Then we look a lot less like suckers for putting up with the rest of it.

Brad Bird lives in B.C. His book “No Guarantees” about the career and life of former Chicago Blackhawk Don Dietrich is a great inside look at how journeymen survive in pro hockey.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.