'Good ol' hockey game' on steroids

Detroit Red Wings' Gordie Howe struggles to get between Toronto Maple Leafs' defenceman Allan...

Detroit Red Wings' Gordie Howe struggles to get between Toronto Maple Leafs' defenceman Allan Stanley and goalie Johnny Bower during the fifth game of the Stanley Cup final, April 18, 1963. The Leafs won both the game and the series. (Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Steve Simmons, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:31 PM ET

TORONTO - In the midst of the unending debate about the mayhem in the National Hockey League, I happened to turn on my television to Leafs TV and came across a 1963 Stanley Cup Final game between the Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings.

Those were, we have always been told, the good old days, when hockey was hockey and men were men and daily discussion didn’t centre around who would be suspended for how many games.

But what struck me — watching the heroes of my youth, watching a Leafs team which could actually win a Stanley Cup, seeing the game I grew up on — was how completely different the sport was back then from the game we try and mould daily to fit our own needs and theories.

Normally, I would contend there is something Canadian about the constant harping about the NHL. It’s what we do tend to do as a people. We want to fix things. We want to make them right.

We can’t accept the CFL or the NHL or anything close to us for what it is, so we tinker and we demand change and we create rules that are supposed to make things better.

But what’s going on in the NHL right now, this back and forth, isn’t Canadian. Hockey is getting the front page of USA Today, not because Americans care about Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux. It’s getting big play on Pardon The Interruption on ESPN and in The New York Times and in places where noise is made when people die or are carried off the ice in stretchers, because of the sense the sport is out of control.

The first round of the playoffs, a contradictory cross-section of brilliant, intense hockey and singular acts of foolishness, has not gone unnoticed — and there’s never been a first round that got this kind of attention, both sides of the border, almost all of it for the wrong reasons. But for every bit of Raffi Torres or Shea Weber or Arron Asham, there has been another overtime game for Phoenix and Chicago, another save by Jonathan Quick, another hero emerging in Braden Holtby or more appreciation of just how far Alex Pietrangelo has come. Some terrible and some wonderful all mixed together — which only adds to the confusion.

But no matter what you might think of today’s hockey, when I sat in front of my television, when I stop the play, back it up, start it again, freeze it, the only similarity between the 1963 Stanley Cup Final and today’s first round of the playoffs is that the game is played on the ice. The technology has changed, making it easier to watch almost 50 years later. But the game we so enjoy today, with speed, with physical play, with finesse, with crazy intensity, wasn’t the game a lot of us grew up on.

For all you want to hear about Gordie Howe’s elbows, the calmness of the Cup game on my television was apparent. Some of the physical play in the game was almost accidental. There was little, if any, dumping the puck in, not a lot of forechecking, no smashing into boards, no neutral zone defensive play, limited stick work — there was some physical play along the wall, but nothing appearing close to violent.

Hockey looked more like a dance back then, a little fast, a little slow, with longer shifts and on the ice were men without helmets, seemingly more respectful. If anyone was trying to take anyone’s head off, it certainly wasn’t evident or apparent on my television screen.

On the ice was Dave Keon, all of 163 pounds; Dick Duff, who weighed the same; and Billy Harris, who was six pounds less than that. The big bruiser on the Leafs’ defence was Tim Horton: He was 5-foot-10, 180, in his playing days — 11 inches shorter than Zdeno Chara and 80 pounds lighter. The big Leaf, Frank (The Big M) Mahovlich, was 6-foot-1, 205 pounds. There weren’t a lot of Jaromir Jagrs in those days — 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, with Keon-like hands and Mahovlich’s touch.

The game has grown, the equipment has grown, the speed has elevated, with players bigger, faster, meaner, better-conditioned, more coached, playing in the same-sized cage. There are 28 inches more in height and about 480 more pounds of weight playing in every NHL shift. Over time, something had to give.

Spend a minute turning the clock back and what you’ll see is a stoppage in time. In its day, the game mattered and it wasn’t drawn and quartered on a regular basis the way hockey is now dissected daily.

The game of hockey is fabulous today.

The National Hockey League is not.

There is so much to appreciate and applaud in this Stanley Cup season and yet there has never been more concern. The league can’t go back to 1963, yet it can’t seem to go forward. And with all the noise around, it’s hard to focus and concentrate on what needs to be done first.


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