NHL reaping results of '72 series

Canadian players no longer have "monopoly" on intangibles

27.05.2008
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Passion, heart, determination are no longer "exclusive" Canadian hockey qualities as Russian Alexander Ovechkin is as keen for success as any Canadian. Photo: IIHF/HHoF/Jukka Rautio

Splat!

There was something wonderfully charming about Marc-André Fleury's embarrassing entrance last Saturday night at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

The Pittsburgh Penguin goaltender, who has more teeth than mouth, took one step onto the ice and fell flat on his face before the first puck in the Stanley Cup final had even been dropped.

Thirty-six years ago during the Summit Series, Phil Esposito, who had more mouth than most, took a step on the Moscow ice surface, landed on one of the flowers that had been handed out - and promptly fell arse-over-teakettle.

Perfect bookends, when you think about it, for the history of today's hockey.

The modern era did not begin, as is often suggested, with the 1967 National Hockey League expansion from the Original Six to 12 teams.

It began in 1972, when the country that gave the world the game gave the world a chance to play. Barely six minutes after the puck had dropped, Canada was up 2-0. By game's end, down 7-3. And Canada's national game was never again seen in quite the same light.

The 2008 Stanley Cup, which didn't exactly get off to the anticipated stellar start Saturday night, is the end result of what the '72 series began. The stars are Canadian (Sidney Crosby, Fleury, Chris Osgood), Russian (Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin), Swedish (Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg) and even the journeyman playoff surprise - once an entirely Canadian institution - turned out to be Sweden's Mikael Samuelsson, who scored the winning and insurance goals in Detroit's 4-0 victory over Crosby's Penguins.

The international appeal of Canada's game was never on better display than over the previous three weeks in Halifax and Quebec City, as the International Ice Hockey Federation celebrated its 100th anniversary by holding the first-ever World Championship in Canada.

Canada had an excellent team, was well-coached and might well have won the gold medal but for a late surge by the Russians. Russia came from two goals down to win, while at the same time showing the hockey world they now possess in quantity the very Canadian hockey qualities they have always been said to lack: passion, heart, determination.

All bodes well for 2010, when the Vancouver/Whistler Winter Games will put on what may be the greatest hockey tournament since the legendary '72 series. Russia has shown what it can do on the small ice. The Canadians, with the likes of Crosby, will be better. The Americans - surely the most interesting team at the World Championships with such youth, speed and skill - will be a threat. The Swedes will have all those top players currently tied up with the Red Wings. And there will be surprises, as Norway was in Halifax, as Switzerland was at the Turin Olympics.

So much, obviously, has been learned by other countries from playing against NHL-calibre players and by having their own growing rosters of NHLers.

The NHL, on the other hand, could still learn much from international hockey, as those three weeks in Halifax and Quebec City demonstrated.

Kill the sound system. The Latvians, Finns, Germans and Russians brought their own music. The music played at most NHL venues is not only out of sync with the demographic in the stands - Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock called it "annoying" - it has eliminated the leather-lunged arena wit and drowns out any chance of crowd spontaneity.

Hits to the head. International hockey has wisely deemed there can be no such thing as a "clean hit to the head." If you can get a penalty for accidentally tossing the puck over the glass in your own end, then surely you can live with a penalty that cuts down on hits to the head, even the accidental ones.

Fighting. If you fight in international hockey, it's a match penalty. Hockey will never get rid of fighting - any more than baseball is rid of fighting - but real punishment will almost get rid of it. Fighting in the NHL carries no penalty whatsoever.

Automatic icing. Surely no explanation required. Just think of the broken legs saved.

The goal crease. Old-timers recall when a goalie was fair game outside the crease but sacred inside. In today's NHL, it is now exactly the reverse, with more goals scored by bulldozer than by shot. International hockey does not allow attacking players to stand in the crease.

This is not to say that international hockey cannot also still learn from the NHL. George Kingston, a former Team Canada coach who this year helped coach the Norwegians, says the new NHL rules means international hockey now has "much more interference than NHL hockey.

"I'm really thankful the NHL went that way."

There is, however, one more way the NHL could still go.

And that is north - to Canada.

What Halifax and Quebec City showed, more than anything else, is that the game thrives when the stands are filled with people who actually wish to be there.

Quebec City and Winnipeg are just the first two places to think about when the time comes to relocate those dying southern franchises.

ROY MacGREGOR

This column is reproduced with the kind permission from The Globe and Mail (Canada) and writer Roy MacGregor

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