The Evolution of Hockey: How the NHL Has Grown Over the Years

Chris BouthillierSenior Analyst IAugust 10, 2008


There were—and are—many great NHL players who stand out above all. The heroes of my childhood have come and past and left us with many memorable moments.

Some argue that the '80s and '90s produced a crop of all-time greats like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Patrick Roy—to name just a few.

But Thursday night ,as I was scrolling through my television channels, I came across the NHL Network. The vintage game of the evening was Detroit at Los Angeles—Gretzky's first game as a King.

As I watched, I began to notice that these games were nowhere close to NHL games of today—or even before the lockout for that matter. The goaltenders let virtually every shot behind them and most defensemen were only in the lineup for physical presence alone.

Then I started to think—people actually think this was hockey's greatest era?

There is no way that I would be able to watch blowout games every other night where the goalies couldn't stop a beach-ball. The players didn't forecheck, and gave their opposition enough time to set a picnic before they made their way down the ice.

I finally summed it up in one word—"boring."

Compared to the '80s and '90s, the game today looks stronger than ever. Our players are bigger, faster, and possess more skill than over 95 percent of the players from previous decades. Coaching strategies have evolved, and year-round conditioning is a must for every player.

Of course, with the evolution of the game, there is an evolution of the equipment our boys wear. Not only are goalie pads bigger, but they weigh feathers compared to the leather they sported decades ago.

Players are using composite sticks as opposed to using a heavy piece of lumber. This allows players to hammer the puck with increased power in hopes of surprising the goaltender.

Let's take a look at the art of the slap shot. It is designed for defensemen to drive the puck to the net to generate offense. Al MacInnis was once known as having the best shot in hockey. Not to take anything away from his illustrious career, but many players these days can shoot the puck 100 mph. It is now a feat that doesn't really interest fans anymore.

The goalies have been thrown under the bus for decreasing offense in the new NHL. But wait a minute—isn't that their job? With the power of shots on the rise, goaltenders now have to wear bigger equipment to ensure that they don't suffer injuries resulting from contact with the puck. And just because some fans don't like a 2-1 game doesn't mean the goalies should be to blame.

Defensemen nowadays have many more responsibilities than before. While in the past, most D-men were stay-at-home players (excluding Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy), it seems as if almost every team in the league today has at least one defenseman who is responsible for putting up points from the blue line.

While lack of offense has been said to be the problem with today's game, there is no denying the creativity that players bring to the rink. I can't even keep count of how many incredible goals we've seen from Rick Nash, while Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin keep fans on the edge of their seats every time they step on the ice.

Once again, not to knock any of the young talent in hockey, but I personally don't believe the league will ever have another player who will be able to single-handedly dominate the way Maurice Richard, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky did. As good as players are today, they are more equal today than at any other time.

I know you won't agree with me, but think about it. Players who are playing today grew up watching guys like Lemieux and Gretzky and have always dreamed of being like their idols someday. They've had a standard set for them to follow.

Let's also keep in mind that players now have the luxury to train more frequently, and have access to the ice at any time of the year.

The way the game has progressed over the years makes me wonder whether or not the stars of the last era would be able to keep pace in today's game. Who's to say that as good as Gretzky was, he would be the same player in the "Bettman" era?

There also explains why teams can't repeat as champions. With so many competitive teams with high-calibre players, their chances to win just the first Cup are slim—not to mention back-to-back titles.

Does this mean teams who win the Stanley Cup just lucked out? Of course not, but it goes to show that the bounces are what change the course of a game these days. The Carolina Hurricanes beat the Edmonton Oilers four games to three in the 2006 Finals. The 'Canes weren't the best team in the league that season—but capitalized on the bounces, such as Brian Campbell's delay-of-game penalty in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Let's go back a little further than that. The Buffalo Sabres knocked off the No. 1-seeded Ottawa Senators in round two of the same playoffs. Ottawa was clearly a better team in the regular season, but lost goaltender (and former Sabre) Dominik Hasek to a groin injury.

The Senators—whose best chance to win was in 2006, not 2007—lost to the Sabres in five games. Buffalo took full advantage of facing rookie goalie Ray Emery instead of Hasek.

Either way you look at it, teams and players are stronger than they were 20 years ago. Most players in the league are equals, and even though there are a few All-Stars, it takes more of a team effort to win now than ever before.

Sidney Crosby won't win Pittsburgh a Cup by himself, but has a solid supporting cast around him, and they will need to work with him in order to win one.

Individual superstars are what fans come to see, but team success is what leads to a championship. Hockey is the ultimate team sport and every team in the league is boasting depth on a very skilled 20-man roster. Players know their roles and play hard every night not just for themselves, but for the guy next to him in the dressing room.

It's the beauty of our game, and fans should begin to appreciate it.


Original picture of the article can be seen here