Wayne Gretsky just had his fiftieth birthday and sports talk shows have been noting the occasion with praise for the "Great One", reminiscences of his
career and phone calls from fans talking about what Gretsky meant to them.
He is the all time NHL points leader and would be even if one only counted assists and left out his more than 800 goals. It is hard to quibble about a
player who dominated at every stage of his career and who, even as a child was playing in leagues against players three and four years older than
He wasn't a great skater. He had a lumbering, labored looking skating style . . . but he usually beat the other guy to the puck. He had an almost
telepathic level of anticipation that more than made up for any deficiency in pure physical skill. His shot looked blistering at times but that effect
was undoubtedly derived partly from his sense of anticipation, knowing when
to take a shot. Many of his goals were scored in odd ways and from
He racked up points like a pinball wizard.
Bobby Clark, one of the hardest working stars in the NHL at the time, when asked about the newly arrived kid and what he was doing to the league
scoring so many points, said, "It's obscene."
It was definitely different.
Gordie Howe said, "He's the only player I know who plays the game 90% from the neck up."
That is the secret of Wayne Gretsky. He put more brain power into the game than any player before or since.
A fan who phoned in to one of the radio programs talking about Gretsky, said that he revolutionized the game and changed every part of it.
I disagree with this.
The only real innovation that I saw Gretsky bring to the game was his habit of setting up behind the opposition goal (They used to call that spot his
"office".) to quarterback the attack from there. And that innovation was really very idiosyncratic. He wasn't the first to do it. It was just that he
did it time and again and to great effect. Not everyone can do it well and it hasn't really become a standard play in the NHL.
Being in my early sixties, I had the great privilege of watching hockey during what for me will always be the "golden age" of the game, the 1950's and
60's. This was the time of the "six team league" with its great stars, some of whom played in the later expanded
NHL into their fifties. Few
players at the elite level in any sport can do this. We are talking about players on the level, in hockey, of someone like Pele in soccer.
The game that was played at that time no longer exists
. It no longer exists for a variety of reasons, the biggest one being economic.
It is difficult to communicate to people today, who did not see that game, how different it was in so many ways. It was a game in which there were no
"enforcers". The ethics of the time demanded that one be one's own enforcer. The game's greatest stars were also its toughest players.
The game depended on puck control and puck control depended on high levels of skill in stick-handling and passing.
The "shoot in" did not exist as a play.
A team shooting the puck into the opposition zone and chasing it would be booed off the ice. The only
time the puck was played like that was to clear it while playing shorthanded during a penalty.
The players, including goaltenders, did not wear masks or helmets. The padding that players wore was much less bulky and much less protective. There
were only wooden sticks, no composite materials were used and few players warped the blades of their sticks until people like Bobby Hull realized that
doing so could give him more control over his 105 mile
per hour slapshot.
Skates were very unpadded by today's standards. Receiving a puck in the ankle would fell a player instantly and leave him unable to skate for a few
minutes. Overall the game was more dangerous but in compensation, players played with more attention to avoiding accidental injury caused by careless
manouvers and careless use of the stick.
The was no collegiality among players from different teams, who often hated one another and who would not speak to one another if they met outside the
rink. Red Wing, Gordie Howe's friendship with Johnny Bower, of the Maple Leafs, was an exception to the rule.
There was no player's association and players generally lived and played in dread of being sent down to the minor leagues. Sports psychology and head
games were not played by coaches. One glare was all that was needed to send a message to a player to improve his performance, or else.
With all due respect to Wayne Gretsky, here are the major factors, in no particular order, that brought changes to the game of hockey in my time as a
1. League Expansion.
The expansion of the league beyond the original six teams effectively killed the game that I grew up watching. The dilution of skill in the game
introduced a period of darkness from which we are only now recovering.
The thug tactics, the enforcers, the "shoot in" were all developments resulting from league expansion and were all tactics designed to allow unskilled
players to compete with highly skilled ones. The game that resulted was an insult to fans of the six team league.
League expansion is also a big reason for the phenomenal career of Wayne Gretsky. Gretsky's point totals are not unlike the phenomenal scores of
German Luftwaffe aces on the eastern front during the second world war, who shot down over 300 enemy aircraft. Doing the same thing against the RAF
would not be so easy.
John Ferguson, of the Montreal Canadiens, was one of the toughest players ever to play in the NHL. He tells a story of Gordie Howe in which he
"I left him alone. The one time I really tried to cause him trouble he hooked my tongue for nine stitches."
To succeed on Howe's level
in the old six team league, Gretsky would have to be that kind of player. He wasn't.
2. Russian Strategic Innovation.
During the first "summit series" between Canada and the Soviet Union, the Russians rocked the hockey world with a highly mobile five man attacking
unit that depended on great skating, great passing and total puck control. These tactics are typically seen in soccer where ball control is
practically a fetish with some teams.
This innovative "team play" was poison to a Canadian system that depended on the individual skills of virtuoso players. If it had not been for dirty
play on the part of the Canadians in breaking the ankle of Soviet star, Valeri Kharlamov, the Canadians would surely have lost that series.
In any event, that outstanding Russian team and its coaches changed strategic thinking in hockey forever.
3. Bobby Orr's Attacking Defenceman.
Orr's attacking style of play, as a defenseman
created a whole new role model of how that position can be played and had a nice synchronicity
with the Russian strategic innovations mentioned above. Hockey was profoundly changed by his new idea. In effect, he created a new position
that one can play on a hockey team.
4. The Players' Association.
The players' association brought about a great change in the sociology of the game. It's hard to sum up the effect it had in just a few words. It is
closely connected to the effect that league expansion had on the game.
Both of these phenomena were related to turning an atavistic North American cultural artifact into a big business. Players were no longer sworn
enemies. They were now colleagues. The law of the jungle no longer applied in hockey and we entered the era of the sports psychologist.
5. The Coddled Superstar.
"Terrible" Ted Lindsay got into a lot of trouble with his old linemate, Gordie Howe, when he said that Howe was no longer good enough to play in the
NHL. This was long before Howe retired!
Howe was the first of the coddled superstars. In the old league he would have been brutalized out of the game, as eventually every player in
league was. In the six team league, the law of the jungle prevailed.
One of the most exciting things about that game was the brief period of four or five years when the old lions struggled with and were eventually
vanquished by the young lions of the game.
Businessmen and business considerations and a violation of the spirit of that old game by an old warrior who could not let go, led to the phenomenon
of the coddled, protected superstar. That was really the stake through the heart of the old, savage, beautiful game.
So, Happy Birthday, Great One! I'm sure you know better than many of your fans, that there are still people around, who can take an accurate measure
of your very great career.
edit on 26-1-2011 by ipsedixit because: (no reason given)