Back in the 1970s, hockey was characterized by violence more than anything else. Whether it was the “Broad Street Bullies” (Philadelphia Flyers) or the “Big Bad Bruins” (Boston Bruins), physical strength and intimidation played as important a role in on-ice success as did the crisp playmaking of teams like the Montreal Canadiens. As the joke went, “I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out.” And the spirit of 1970s hockey was captured for posterity in Slap Shot, a seminal sports film that featured the Charlestown Chiefs, a team based not-so-loosely on the NAHL’s Johnstown Jets.
In the film, the Chiefs were struggling at the gate and on the ice, doomed for extinction and playing in a town on the verge of serious economic ruin. But then the infamous Hanson Brothers came aboard. They initiated over-the-top mayhem that was extreme even for the rough-and-tumble NAHL, and got the Chiefs back on track. Moreover, their violent approach provided the down-on-their-luck Charlestown natives with the perfect outlet for their pent-up aggression. Suddenly, the seats were filled, the fans even going on road trips to support their beloved Chiefs.
In recent years, the NHL has taken a complete 180° turn away from the style of play that reigned supreme in the early to mid 1970s. The instigator rule has eliminated much of the vigilante justice that once served as a deterrent against chippy play; the league instead relies upon aggressive penalty-calling and harsh suspensions to eliminate violent stick-work. And while it’s generally served the same purpose, the unintended consequence is that the sport has lost much of its physicality. Where the area in front of the goal crease used to be no man’s land for opposing forwards, it is today a safe haven for even the league’s most diminutive players.
Back in the 1980s, and even the early 1990s, attending an Islanders-Rangers game at Madison Square Garden while wearing an Isles jersey was at best a recipe for an evening of verbal abuse and at worst an invitation for a full-on beat-down. Today, fans can attend games in any city, wearing any jersey, without fear of repercussions for the most part. And while that’s without question a good thing, it still leaves a generation of fans weaned on a violence-laden NHL feeling as though the league they once loved is now dead and gone.
Finding a solution to this problem has proven to be incredibly difficult for the NHL. The post-lockout schedule, with a heavy emphasis on divisional play, was intended to foster rivalries. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” or so it was supposed to go. But a look back at the NHL’s most compelling rivalries yields a conclusion that the powers-that-be probably won’t like. Virtually every major rivalry was borne not by geographic proximity, but by violence. In fact, the best rivalry the NHL has seen in recent memory involved two teams that were 1,300 miles apart.
In the 1990s, it could fairly be argued that the rivalry between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche was not only the NHL’s best, but the most compelling rivalry in all of professional sports. While it’s certainly true that the two teams were consistently amongst the Western Conference’s best, the only reason that rivalry reached a boiling point was because Colorado forward Claude Lemieux delivered a brutal hit from behind to the Wings’ Kris Draper. Draper’s face required serious reconstructive surgery, and a series of “grudge matches” that followed provided the fuel needed to light the bonfire.
In the spring of 2004, an ugly incident involving the Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks cast a looming shadow over the NHL. In retaliation for an illegal but unintentional hit to Vancouver captain Markus Naslund’s head by the Avs’ Steve Moore (that correctly yielded no suspension), the Canucks decided to take matters into their own hands. Vancouver forward Brad May announced that there was “a bounty” on Moore’s head after the incident. And in the first rematch between the teams in Vancouver, Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi delivered a sucker punch to Moore’s head that effectively ended his playing career.
But where the incident might once have fueled a high-octane rivalry, it instead fizzled out. Bertuzzi was issued a long suspension, and he was permitted to return to the ice when the lockout ended. And where May might once have been “Public Enemy Number Two” in Denver, he was instead signed by Avs GM Pierre Lacroix to a free agent contract in the summer of 2005. And so, instead of taking the good (a new, great rivalry) with the bad (an ugly, violent incident), the NHL suffered the incident without gaining a single thing from it.
In a sport where players are skating at speeds up to 30 mph and swinging hockey sticks, violent collisions are inevitable. And unless the players are wearing armor capable of absorbing literally every blow, the occasional injury is an unavoidable reality.
When the response to an injury is a substantial suspension, the league is essentially pouring water on the flames. When the response is to ignore it, the flames are instead doused with gasoline, likely igniting a full-blown rivalry that fills seats and generates tremendous excitement throughout the hockey world. It also begets more violence, of course, but in an America where ultimate fighting is experiencing an exponential rise in popularity—while the NHL is losing its market share—there is little question as to whether the league would profit by “letting the boys be boys” a bit more often.
In a 1979 playoff game, the Islanders’ Denis Potvin broke Rangers forward Ulf Nilsson’s leg with a legal bodycheck, and it spawned a chant—Potvin S***s!—that to this day is heard at every Rangers game played at Madison Square Garden. The incident poured gasoline on the flames of the cross-town rivalry, and is a key reason why virtually every Islanders-Rangers game is to this day a guaranteed sellout, no matter each team’s place in the Atlantic Division standings.
Today, hockey resembles soccer more than any sport. And while it’s true that soccer’s popularity throughout the world is unparalleled, it is still struggling to gain traction in the United States. Even the news that the sport’s most recognizable personality—English superstar David Beckham—had signed with the L.A. Galaxy didn’t send shockwaves through the United States’ sports media. An argument can certainly be made that soccer is on a positive trajectory, but that is more due to an influx of soccer-mad immigrants from South and Central America than it is because of a society-wide rejection of violence.
Unless there’s an unexpected influx of Canadian immigrants to cities in the Southern half of the United States, it’s quite unlikely that hockey will experience a dramatic rise in interest unless the league finds a winning formula. Every sign indicates that the NHL’s powers-that-be must take dramatic action, which is why the league has made so many changes in such a short time. But while minor tweaks like eliminating the two-line pass rule and cracking down on obstruction have certainly improved the flow of the games, there’s a serious problem when every game has a similar energy level. Rivalries generate excitement. And though the league tried to acknowledge this by modifying the schedule to increase the number of games between geographically proximate teams, it has ignored the reality that hockey’s best rivalries have been fueled by violence.
Put simply, violence and NHL hockey have been inextricably linked for decades. In its attempt to change that, the NHL is taking a very dangerous risk. If it continues to alienate its existing fan base, there is little reason to believe that a new fan base will emerge to counterbalance the losses. The NHL was once without question one of the United States’ four major sports, but today it is struggling to rediscover its identity. And that is indeed a very treacherous road to traverse.