Says former Boston Coach Don Cherry, "There's no contact anywhere in the game this year. When was the last time a team drafted a checker?" According to St. Louis Center Mike Zuke, "Probably the hardest commodity to find in hockey is a defensive defenseman. Agents, for young players especially, can't sell their clients on the intangibles of defense; they can't show statistics on that."
Today's young defensemen are products of what one NHL coach calls "the Bobby Orr baby boom." Orr revolutionized the concept of playing defense. He controlled play, handled the puck, shot and scored. "The best defensemen today are offensive defensemen," says Toronto G.M. Punch Imlach. " Orr's responsible for that. Everyone is trying to play the way he did. Naturally, they can't."
What's more, no longer do NHL coaches rely chiefly on one line to light up the scoreboard. Most teams now have two or three that can. What with all the firepower from defensemen as well as forwards, coaches have quit trying to protect leads. A few years ago teams would get one or two goals ahead and play keep-away. Toronto won Stanley Cups in 1962, '63 and '64 by making one goal look as big as 10; old opponents must still bear the marks left by the Leafs' barbed-wire defense. But now, a lead is merely a spark for piling on more goals.
Moreover, coaching—read teaching—is a lost art in North America, except on the college level. In the Soviet Union, teams practice three times as often as they play. In the NHL, however, with an 80-game, six-month schedule, teams typically play three games in a week while practicing only twice.
Still another factor in the scoring surge has been the replacement of oversized, immobile goons with small, quick players who can score. This swing toward speedy skaters is largely the result of the European influence on the NHL. In 1975-76 there were 12 European-born players on NHL rosters. Now there are 54.
"Because of the larger ice surface in Europe, a player has to skate well to be a star over there," says Montreal Managing Director Irving Grundman. "But it's well known that the Europeans aren't as strong defensively, especially in their own zone, as NHL players are." Yet, Europeans have largely taken the place of enforcers who couldn't score. Time was a club had only a few players who got 20 goals in a season. Last year St. Louis had 10 with 20 or more.
As the pucks fly, it's easy to see that there is also more individualism out there than ever before. Edmonton Coach Glen Sather tells Gretzky he doesn't care if he checks. Montreal's Mark Napier says, "It takes more of a team effort to win by a shutout than to win in a shootout."
And such team efforts are becoming increasingly rare. Whether the scoring explosion is good for the sport is another matter. Hockey people disagree. Several executives around the league concur with Red Wings' Coach Wayne Maxner, who says, "People came to see Bobby Hull shoot the puck. They didn't come to see him check."
Perhaps, but people don't go to games to see cheap goals and one-way hockey. As Ed Van Impe, a former defensive defenseman for the Flyers, points out, "For the life of me, I can't understand why the Europeans should dictate the style of play in the NHL. Hockey is very entertaining over in Europe, but it's like the Ice Capades."
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