MANNHEIM – In three of the four Olympics since NHL participation, there have been fewer goals at the World Championships that succeed the Olympics, but the decline is usually small. This suggests that it is, indeed, more difficult to recruit the best players for the Worlds in an Olympic year.
In 1998, for instance, the 35 Olympic games averaged 6.00 goals a game while the World Championship in Switzerland averaged 5.63 goals. Four years later, the Salt Lake Games averaged 6.09 goals while in Sweden it was 6.07.
Turin averaged only 5.42 goals a game, the lowest ever total for the Olympics with the exception of 1936 (4.46). The World Championship in Riga improved on that, averaging 5.88 goals, but it appears the numbers in Germany will once again be lower than in Vancouver.
The 2010 Olympics averaged exactly 6.00 goals again, and through 38 games in Germany the number is well down, to 5.13 per game.
Scoring in general has seen a slow and inconsistent decline in the history of international hockey, and in the last 20 years goals have dropped more than one a game. In 1989, 1990, and 1991, for instance, goals per game averaged 7.05, 6.90, and 6.80, respectively. There have been only two small blips in the last 20 years with remotely similar numbers. Beyond that, the number has fallen to fewer than six per game.
In 1994, at the Olympics and Worlds, the numbers were 6.70 and 6.85, and in 2007 and ’08 they were 6.45 and 6.61. In fact, if this year’s 5.13 average holds up, it will be one of the lowest totals of all time. In 2004, the number was 5.11, the lowest total since 1938 when the average was a mere 3.98.
The 1930s are where all the lowest averages occurred, the lowest of the low total coming in 1933 with an average of just 3.48. These were the days of defensive hockey, to be sure, but the years after the war saw an immense jump in scoring.
In the period 1947-50, games averaged more than 11 goals a year, reaching an all-time high in 1948 with a 13.39 average (excepting 1924 when the average was 17.3, but this was bolstered by the extraordinary scores posted by Canada and the United States against vastly inferior European teams of the day).
The last time we had double digits was 1962 when the average was 11.07. Since then, the decline has been absolutely irrefutable, going down to eight and seven in the 1970s and ‘80s, and lower ever since. Interestingly, while the Edmonton Oilers were setting scoring records in the NHL in the 1980s, there was no similar spike in international scoring (perhaps because the great players on those Oilers teams were winning Stanley Cups more than playing at the World Championship).
The decline in scoring has nothing to do with quality of players. In fact, just the opposite. The big cause is “system hockey”, something that didn’t exist, really, until the 1990s when teams started playing the trap and other forms of defence-first hockey. Today’s players are bigger and faster and more skilled than ever, but as a result they are more expert at playing whatever system the coach preaches.
Anyone who wants more goals should find a way to eliminate sound positional play and defensive strategy, and then we’ll see ten and eleven goals a game like the old days.