First the caveats: Yes retirements and fraternal bonds have left my Devils a shell of their former self; yes the rules were by and large designed specifically to deter them; and yes it’s still far and away the best sport – but twenty games in Gary “NBA” Bettman is getting his wish. Hockey is turning into basketball.
Shootouts, tag-up off sides, two-minutes for shooting the puck into the seats, eliminating the red line, shrinking goalie equipment, and increased divisional play were all inspired changes. The crackdown on goalie puck handling, however, was vindictive and stupid. The ability of Brodeur, DiPietro and others was not Wilt Chamberlin dunking from the free throw line. Their puck handling was an expansion of the goalie’s roll based on athleticism and mostly skill. Legislating their talent out of the sport is like making it illegal for Wayne Gretzky, in his heyday, to operate behind the net because he is too darn good.
That said the real problem with the new state of affairs is the crackdown on general physical play. Yes, the clutching and grabbing had become too much, but the dearth of physicality has fleeced the sport of too much of its toughness, emotion and sensation. Forwards no longer fight through checks, instead defensemen get two-minutes for the equivalent of a hand check.
I’ve seen it a few times this season. A forward backing in on his defender, his back to the goal, forcing his way closer, waiting to spin and shoot.
I’ve seen it, a defensemen shooting the puck into the zone, one beat later his defender crunching him into the boards, elbows down, shoulder to shoulder and being penalized for interference. Interference?! That’s hockey! At least it used to be.
It was the physical play, the under-the-skin match ups that used to make hockey unique and should have been increased with additional divisional games. I recall a Devils/Flyers game from the late 90s where the Flyers, on the opening face off, had one of their fighters on the ice. The Devils changed lines and put ou their fighter Krystof Oliwa. The anticipation in the building was electric; a sensation that no other sport comes close to matching. The puck was dropped and just as the game began so did the fight.
That manner of emotion is not in the game any more.
True that fight was an exceptional case, but another fault of the new NHL is that goals are not as exciting as they used to be. One of the great things about hockey was watching a team, especially if they were the home team, be down a goal and tilt the ice and keep on coming close before finally breaking the goaltender and tying the game. For acquaintances that weren’t hockey fans I said that it was like watching a basketball team will it’s way back from a twenty point deficit and tie the game late in the fourth quarter. That used to happen several times a season for most teams. Now it’s as rare as the twnty point comeback is in basketball.
The NHL is being as transformed into a game of stars – something I always thought could never happen. The best team will probably still win, but the brightest highlights will get the attention and the emulation until the NHL becomes a sea of egos like the NBA is now.