After 20 years and enough diet soda and press box nachos that would kill a lesser man, I should not be surprised, but I am. In a sad and disappointed way, I truly am discouraged by the NHL playoffs and the stubborn, unmovable force that are the plumbers and plugs who have ingrained themselves into running the NHL and controlling the game’s culture.
Star players known for grace and skill do not get to direct the NHL game. No, they get less input.
You see, those star players are naturally talented. They didn’t have to work for everything, they didn’t have to fight the bully in juniors, they didn’t have to eat the knuckles to defend a teammate, and the star players certainly didn’t have to do the dirty work for their teams.
The plumber and plugs, the muckers and grinders, the clutchers and grabbers, the fighters did. And so, in NHL thinking, it is they who are the stewards of the game, not the talented players.
The league office is full of grinders. Washington, PA native George Parros heads Player Safety. In 474 career NHL games, he had 18 goals and 1092 penalty minutes.
Player Safety department member Stephane Quintal was a comparative sniper with 63 goals and 1320 PIMS in 1037 games.
NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, formerly notorious goon-friendly coach Colin Campbell has retained special influence in the league offices for nearly two decades. As a player, he had 25 goals and 1292 PIMS in 636 games. Campbell’s 2007 leaked emails in which he impugned players with concussions (well after we knew how dangerous and serious concussions are) showed the steadfast belief that tough players are hockey and talented players are there for show.
There are no players who would be considered “skill” listed publicly in NHL offices. None.
After a bout of enlightenment that featured Stanley Cup wins by the star-laden Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins, the noble warriors are again in control of the NHL playoffs. The game has been allowed to revert to the muddy grind of the late 1990s that originally chased away Mario Lemieux.
The New York Islanders might, and the Montreal Canadiens will play for the 2021 Stanley Cup. Both teams finished the regular season in fourth place in their division because they could neither skate nor score with their faster, more talented division rivals.
Sorry, but it’s true.
But hey, both are really good defensively and tough. THAT’S what the playoffs and Stanley Cup are all about, right?
If a team can squeak into the playoffs with an undertalented team but full of physical defensive-minded grinders, then dominate in the playoffs–what does that say of the regular season?
What GM in his (or eventually her) right mind would build a regular-season team with talent and skill when cheaper, less talented players are how you win the ultimate prize?
Imagine the NFL deciding defensive holding and pass interference calls should be reduced in the playoffs because they want to let the teams decide the game?
Imagine the NBA limiting foul calls to three or four per team, so the teams decide the game?
Yet the hockey culture says shut up, suck it up, fight through it, prove you’re tough enough to win the Stanley Cup. This is the noble warrior’s time to shine. The regular season is for talent. The playoffs are for grinders.
How long would it be before the NFL or NBA ratings were on par with Kitchen Ninja infomercials?
Nikita Kucherov is better? Cross-check the daylights out of him until he can’t play anymore. The other team is faster? Hold on for dear life, get in their way so they can’t get to the puck, scrum after every whistle, hack, whack, punch, cross-check, and punch some more.
That will slow them down! In the NHL playoffs, it’s allowed.
Somewhere after the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL began its crackdown on obstruction. After some adjustment period, the league settled into a nice niche in which the game sped up, scoring was way up, yet hockey games were not special teams competitions.
A few years ago, the NHL also cracked down on the little stick fouls. The hooking, the little slashes were called.
The game sped up. Scoring was way up. We were treated to the most thrilling hockey we’ve seen since the Joffa covered mullets of the 1980s.
And the funny thing is–I defend grinders and tough hockey more than most of my U.S. colleagues combined. I admire and revere the blood and guts characters who define locker rooms. Josh Anderson has a place on my team every day. Anders Lee or Brock Nelson? Hell yes.
But I also know the game grows when Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Sidney Crosby are on national TV doing the things that make them special. Young kids aren’t practicing their edgework to be like Jon Merrill (Genuine apologies, Jon). Young kids aren’t buying punching dummies to be like Cal Clutterbuck or re-enacting the post-whistle scrums and cross-checks when they play street hockey (or ball hockey for my Canadian friends).
Go ahead and tell the police officer who shows up that’s just hockey–it’s allowed!
It’s time to make the plugs and plumbers the supporting characters they were meant to be. Those players are vitally important, but they should not be the main attraction. It’s time to free the star players.
But the 2021 Stanley Cup Final will have at least one team that doesn’t fit the bill. Mathew Barzal and “Goal” Caufield’s pizza slices are excluded, but their teams are the primary beneficiaries of the dark ages rulebook.
It’s time the NHL playoffs kept the rulebook open, referees kept whistles in their mouth, not their pocket, and may the best teams win, not the least.