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Here is the Dirt on a Game Gone Clean

January 1, 2019, 9:26 AM ET [16 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
Blogger •NHL Hall of Fame writer • RSSArchiveCONTACT
After covering the game for 45 years, we’re not one to tell you the old days necessarily were the best days. One year, we had to watch Denis Dupere play 60 games.

Tough duty, but it was our job, didn’t complain. Those Toronto trips were more interesting when they used to take the Flyers to jail when the game was over. But the Seals came to town three contests a year, too, so of course there were times we had to coffee up. Some of those exhibition games when Stewie was trying to make a team lasted until 2:30 am.

So, as 2019 dawns, we shouldn’t try to get all nostalgic on you. Alex Auld is in the radio booth, Robert Lang in retirement in San Diego, Father Time, Jaromir Jagr, couldn’t get an NHL job this year and there is no sign that even Chris Chelios is coming back soon. During the seventies and eighties there were plenty of unwatchable 7-2 games so, believe me, long ago we washed our hair of Bob Champoux. Where have you gone, Goran Hogosta? Frankly, no longer care.

The game has come a long way. It has stars raised in Arizona now. It is cleaner than Wally Harris’s whistle in the third period of a tight game, slicker than a Lou Nanne trade pitch, far faster than Jacques Plante ever was to take blame. Also more defensive than Harry Ornest became when you wrote he was cheap.

I just wish that once every three years or so–or on the occasion of a Brandon Manning goal, whatever comes first–there be a little controversy.

Maybe some Lou Lamoriello trash talking? The occasional Jonathan Huberdeau hubris? Brad Marchand going into Montreal with a declaration, “I guarantee those Canadiens can’t lick us”? You know, if not some outright fear, as when dinosaurs roamed the ice, then at least some honest loathing.

Please, every once in a while, some bruised feelings! It’s an emotional game. Or, it used to be anyway.

So it was with the greatest joy that I read Jim Lites, CEO of the Dallas Stars’ plantation, going off on his two best players. Well maybe they aren’t this year so far, exactly the Bossman’s point, leaving him a little, uh, lite on 21st Century player relations.

A public dressing down is the least likely way to right Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin's seasons. Needlessly antagonistic on the part of the head of an organization, yes. Ineffective, probably. Still, the fact that the Players’ Association would feel compelled to respond is so typical of our times. Oh the poor millionaires, above public criticism in their entirely public workplace.

“I don’t play for him, l play for these guys in the room,” sniffed Benn, like he also doesn’t owe anything to the guy who signs the checks. Ridiculous, but at least worthy of a good debate, certainly more interesting than the need to get the puck in deep, as we hear in the worthless interviews on the bench and between periods, a good time to go to the bathroom.

Then again, what comes out of postgame locker rooms isn’t much better, now that access is almost universally limited to pre-arranged scrums. The ability to get somebody one-on-one for another line of questioning and, heaven forbid, a different perspective, is pretty much gone.

As the players’ mouth their clichés and clutch cards to their vests, at least most of the games are close. But they can be as bland as the quotes. Forget fighting, which is a non-issue because it has virtually disappeared, you can go a week without seeing a hard hit. They have become so sporadic that teammates now feel the need to retaliate, uh sort of, even for clean ones.

There are businessmen out there in your favored team’s colors, taking excruciating career-extending care of themselves off the ice, patronizing each other, friend and foe alike, keeping not just all locker room issues to themselves, but even what they think about members of the opposition. Very little probably, beyond the lines and defense pairs posted on the dressing room blackboards
Critics of a schedule that reduces the number of divisional contests so that every team makes one visit to each city every season want to blame the vacuuming of passion from the game on diminished rivalries. But we’re not sure that’s the problem; more the change in the culture of a sport once known and loved for its rough and tumble atmosphere.

Two referees have greatly reduced the players’ needs to police the game themselves. Nobody hates the other guy any more. At the risk of dragging these 68-year-old knuckles along the ice, the most interesting player in the game has become Tom Wilson because of all the animosity he creates.

There used to be ten Tom Wilson’s in the league at any given time, now he is almost uniquely despicable. We’re not defending what he does, or decrying all the punishments he has richly deserved, only stating here that the sanitization of the game that has made it more acceptable also has made it less interesting.

When the guys who provided what Broad Street Bullies architect Keith Allen euphemistically referred to as “that certain element” would come over the boards, there was an anticipation of something happening. Now when the fourth line comes on, we get 40 seconds of pretty much nothing; the marginally higher skill level represented by marginally smaller fringe players not really adding anything compelling.

We can’t criticize the cleanup. The increasing size and quickness of the players had made high-speed contact increasingly dangerous. The Martin St. Louises and Johnny Gaudreaus have added to the game, helping to bring it out of a dead puck era, thank goodness. Prior to the season-long lockout, hooking and holding were epidemic, the carrying of fighters just to fight other fighters, ritualistic and of little strategic value.

No, hockey had to clean itself up. We can, however, concede that inevitability at the same time we mourn the collateral damage done to an increasingly tasteless, odorless, colorless game.

Of course, part of it is Wayne Gretzky’s fault for stashing every compelling record beyond reach, removing those storylines for more than two decades. The astonishing Golden Knights were a welcome reprieve last year, but as another December turns into another January, 90 percent of the undistinguishable teams in an oversized league are within eight points of each other. Hard to tell them apart.

The lovable furry creatures in Philly used to be on the ice, with long playoff beards. Now the Flyers apparently need one being lowered from the ceiling before the games. The league can fine and suspend players for publicly suggesting vengeance is coming for dirty deeds, real and imagined. Gone is any anticipation of retribution, except by something called the Department of Player Safety, not even a hanging judge like Brian O’Neill or Brian Burke left to decry for his rulings

After games, the corridors between the locker rooms are filled with fraternizing countrymen from the opposing teams. They try very hard against each other during the games; no one should question that. But the next contract drives today’s players more than settling any scores.

We went to Allentown last weekend to catch some prospects. The minors are the same, the desperation of players to fight their way to the NHL or whatever it takes replaced by having to prove they can play in structure. Nancy Dowd would have gone home after three days, bored to death, and we never would have had Slapshot.

Only the fans talk the game. Players largely abstain with their rehearsed lines. Gretzky was willing to share his insights and risk perhaps offending the thin-skinned more than Sidney Crosby ever has been, or feels he is allowed to do in this new culture of the less being said the better. Exposure, and the message, is carefully controlled by the clubs.

The sideshow which used to be almost as good as the big top, has disappeared, your new Barnum being uh,. . . Jim Lites? We know who the best players are and there are more of them than ever. But where are the personalities? Whether full of themselves or just plain full of it, they nevertheless were out there, not hiding in a back room closed to the media.

Attendance, ratings and cap ceilings are higher than ever, only because a new generation of fans doesn’t know what it is missing.

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