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June 2003

    Boring Hockey Need Blast From Past

    John Hughes

    Much has been made of this year’s dullsville National Hockey League playoffs despite the assurances from NHL head office that the on ice product is in fact marvelous.

    Turgid 1-0 games have become the norm as teams that light up the scoreboard like the Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks have been unceremoniously dispatched by boring teams that treat goal scoring as though it were bubonic plague. The tedium reached its apex in a semi-final series between the Minnesota Wild and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks where the Wild achieved the back of the net on just a single occasion. The four game series between the two teams made the recent Tory leadership convention look like a barnburner by comparison.

    Hockey that is enjoyable to watch has been in obvious and precipitous decline directly proportionate to the speed with which the NHL has expanded over the last 12 years. Expansion was once good for hockey. When the old World Hockey Association closed its doors to merge with the NHL in 1979 it brought back Bobby Hull with the Winnipeg Jets and Gordie Howe with the Hartford Whalers for one final season. More importantly, it gave the NHL the Edmonton Oilers and Quebec Nordiques. The Oilers were, of course, hugely successful, winning five Stanley Cups. The Nordiques were a very exciting squad that provided a natural rivalry for the Montreal Canadiens. Since that time nine new teams have been added. Such forgettable disasters as the Nashville Predators and the Atlanta Thrashers have sprung up, spreading the talent pool to a painfully thin threshold. 

    All the sensible talk of expanding the size regulations in NHL rinks in order to stop the mid and defensive zone flooding that is the wont of talent-free expansion teams is doomed never to become reality. The owners are too greedy to take seats out in order to create more skating room. The only solution that is going to work toward sparking an era of exciting hockey is to split the NHL up into two competing leagues in the east and west with the champion of each competing for the Stanley Cup. This will allow for a more localized character to be introduced into the sport and will cut down on travel time. Most importantly, it will force habitually boring franchises to put together flashy teams in order to sell tickets at their own arenas because there will be precisely half of the good teams left in each league who are saddled with the de facto responsibility of selling tickets in other cities. No longer will killjoy hockey clubs be able to sell out their arena on the backs of Dallas Stars or Ottawa Senators while praying to eke out a one-goal victory.

    History has shown the east-west league idea to produce some of the most exciting hockey lore ever. For example, the legendary 1903 challenge by the Dawson City squad to the awesome Ottawa Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup saw the Klondikers travel several thousand miles to Ottawa by dogsled, steamship and train. The Silver Seven had the magnificent “One Eyed” Frank McGee in their lineup who scored 14 goals in the second game of the two game total goal series! The Yukon side beat a hasty retreat from the nations’ capital and back home the same way they came following their defeat by a cumulative score of 31-4.

    This is not so much an endorsement for a return to travel by dogsled for professional hockey players, as it is advocacy for cross-continent challenges for Stanley Cup supremacy. Some of the best hockey stories come from the days when pre-NHL teams competed for the Cup. Near and dear to the hearts of Vancouver hockey fans is the tale of our very own Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey League who won the trophy over the Ottawa Senators (a later incarnation of the old Silver Seven) in 1915. That team was comprised of high priced stars such as Si Griffis, Cyclone Taylor and Hugh Lehman who had formerly played for teams in the precursor to the NHL, the strictly eastern National Hockey Association. The victory was especially sweet for Taylor, who previously played for Renfrew of the NHA and was routinely pelted with lemons and whiskey bottles by Ottawa fans when visiting that city.

    The inter-league competition for the Stanley Cup continued until 1925. The Victoria Cougars, led by sniper Frank Fredrickson, defeated the Montreal Canadiens 3 games to 2 that year in the best of 5 Stanley Cup final and were the last team from outside the NHL to skate away with Lord Stanley’s silverware. Observers at the time such as hockey legend Lester Patrick remarked that the quality of play in the inter-league days was far superior to that of the hermetically sealed NHL. A return to this kind of a set up in professional hockey would give renewed impetus for the long suffering NHL fan to part with money for egregiously over-priced tickets. It would also introduce the sort of mystery that comes in sport only as often as the World Series is played between the National League and the American League for baseball supremacy when the rules are different and the players do not know each others’ style. So there you have it: history, mystery and an opportunity for boring teams to light a fire under their torpor if the route of separate leagues is taken. Best of all this advice comes free of charge.   


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