Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Off With His Cred

It's been nearly five years since I dropped my subscription to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. One of the hardest things about giving up the local paper is missing out on the sports coverage. Yes, you can get everything a paper provides and more on the 'net, but there's still something lacking when you don't have it at your fingertips.

So I was pleased When the Wall Street Journal recently expanded their sports coverage. They now offer a small daily dose of sports in addition to the irregular articles that usually appear in the weekend editions. It's only a page, but it's better than naught.

This expanded coverage has meant more hockey stories too. Not nearly enough to sate my appetite, but again better than before.

After reading one article last month on Why the Red Wings Are Such Sackless Wusses (actual title "Why The Red Wings Don't Fight") I was tempted to upbraid the author, Reed Albergotti, for a glaring misstatement:

Fights have always broken out during physical hockey games, but in the 1960s it became a strategy. The Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers used intimidation to win Stanley Cups between 1969 and 1975. Without players who specialized in fisticuffs, a team's star players would be beaten to a pulp.

In the 1980s, the NHL doubled the number of divisional games teams played, creating more intense inter-divisional rivalries that sparked even more fighting and led to the advent of the bench-clearing brawl. The league averaged an all-time high of one fight per game in the mid-80s.

The advent of the bench-clearing brawl occurred in the 1980s? Not bloody likely. While there may have been more bench-clearers in the 80s than in other decades, they started long before that. You can find easily find videos online of a 1970 brawl between Montreal and Boston.

But don't just take my word for it. Take this:

The NHL instituted Rule 72, just months later, in the summer of 1987 - basically suspending any player for leaving the bench for 10 games, without pay. Coaches also faced suspension and fines as high as $10,000.

The rule was seen as a slow, but necessary, reaction by the NHL to what really started in the early 1970s shortly after expansion. When the league grew by six teams in 1967-68, then added two more in 1972-73 and another pair in 1974-75, the talent pool became diluted. Clubs lacking skill found that fighting and intimidation created another avenue to winning hockey games - highlighted by two Stanley Cup wins by the notorious Philadelphia Flyers.

Bench-clearing was in decline by the mid-1980s, and was nearly completely eradicated from the game after Rule 72 hit the books.

More evidence is supplied by this list of NHL Bench-Clearing Brawls by year. This particular one will bring back fond memories for North Star fans.

So no, the advent of the bench-clearing brawl did not happen in the 1980s. But being a generous sort I elected to give Mr. Albergotti a pass on his error at the time (plus I was a little concerned about the sort of associations a gentleman with his surname might have).

However, this claim by Albergotti in another hockey piece in Friday's WSJ on Alex Ovechkin called A Game-Changer From Moscow, forces me to break my silence (and possibly enter the witness protection program):

With the Ovechkin-Crosby matchup, the NHL finally got its long-desired showcase for talent. Hockey has had terrible luck in its playoff matchups. Its last set of superstars, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, never met in the postseason, even though their careers overlapped for 12 seasons. In the first game of the series, Messrs. Ovechkin and Crosby both scored in the first period. In the second game, they scored three goals each, the fourth time two opposing players have done that in the playoffs. And Wednesday night, the game went into overtime. Pittsburgh is 43-28, all time, against the Capitals in playoffs.

Hockey has had terrible luck its playoff matchups? Really? Funny 'cause I've been a hockey fan for a long, long time and I've never heard that before.

While it is true that some of the recent Finals matchups haven't been classics, it's because the teams involved aren't traditional hockey powers. When you have Carolina, Anaheim, and Tampa Bay playing for (and winning) the Cup, it does take a little luster off the most famous trophy in all of sport. But that's hardly what I would call "terrible luck."

Yes, it would have been interesting if Gretzky and Lemieux had met in the playoffs. But the comparison between them and Ovechkin and Crosby is quite inapt. While their careers did overlap, they weren't both at the top of their game at that same time as Ovechkin (23 years old) and Crosby (21) are now. Gretzky's best five years were probably 81-82 through 85-86 while Lemieux's were 87-88 through 92-93 (he was hurt most of the 90-91 season--except for the playoffs of course).

But worse than that is falling into the tired trap of comparing the NHL to the NBA. This isn't about loving hockey or hatin' on basketball. The games and leagues are just different and the constant comparisons are annoying.

The NBA is all about individual stars, matchups, and one on one battles. For the most part, the NHL is not. The reason that NHL playoffs series are great is not because of the star players involved, it's because of the teams. The rivalries, the geography, and the history is what usually sets them apart.

Yes, Gretzky was part of the great Edmonton teams of the 80s. But he wasn't the main reason the Oilers-Flames playoff series were so heated. Think about Detroit-Colorado during the Nineties or the Boston-Montreal playoff rivalry that has been rekindled during recent years. The great players on those teams are part of the story no doubt, but they are not the keys to those compelling playoff plots.

So instead of worrying about whether Ovechkin vs. Crosby will end up being the NHL's version of Bird vs. Magic, why not just enjoy it for what it is? Two tremondously talented, fabulously fun to watch hockey players are leading their teams on the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup. That alone should be reason enough to watch. Especially on Wednesday night when they face off in a series deciding Game Seven in Washington.

As for Mr. Albergotti, I will continue to read his work in the Journal. But until he proves otherwise, his hockey credibility is on ice.

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