Lest this sound farfetched, it should be explained that the National League in 31 years has expanded its schedule from 24 to 70 games per club, adding about three months to the season. The expansion has been by fairly easy stages in inverse ratio to the contraction of the league from a 10-to a six-club circuit. The jump from 24 to 44 games was made in 1926. Five years later a 48-game schedule was drawn up. In 1942 two more games were added. With the second world war out of the way, the owners voted for 60 games in 1946 and, finding this profitable, jumped to 70 games in 1949.
Club owners defend the playoff system by arguing that it gives teams that didn't fare well during the season a chance to redeem themselves. Of course, what it does to the team that proves itself best over 70 games and then flunks out in the final exams is a word that's never spoken at meetings of the NHL Board of Governors.
Another disability that is hard for the owners to justify is the high incidence of tie games. These are an end product of the heavily padded schedule. Three games a week, which each club averages, tax the endurance of even the most durable players. The curtailment of railroad travel during the war gave the National League a valid excuse for doing away with tie-breaking overtime periods, but with the excuse gone there has been no move to restore them. As long as teams can pick up a point in the standing for every deadlock, with nobody getting hurt except the fans, there'll be more and more of them.
Oldtime hockey fans charge that the NHL has damaged the sport most by constant meddling with the rules to step up scoring as box-office bait. Originally, in hockey, the player had to be onside to receive a pass. The man with the puck could pass it in a forward direction, but unless the receiver was behind the rubber before it was advanced, the pass wasn't allowed. The next phase in the game's evolution or degeneration (according to one's viewpoint) came when the rink was divided into three zones with forward passing permitted in the center or neutral zone. That wasn't enough, however. A season later the forward pass within each zone was legalized. Just in case that wouldn't boost the goal output to specifications, the owners also adopted a rule requiring goalies to reduce the width of their shin pads to 10 inches. In 1934 the penalty shot was introduced and, under an amendment four years later, it was made more spectacular for the fans by permitting the shotmaker to carry the puck right up to the mouth of the goal if he so desired.
Under a rule adopted in 1943, the playing surface was bisected by a red line drawn across the middle, with forward passing permitted for each team in its own half of the rink. This was the move that took all the remaining skill out of the game, in the opinion of such former stars as the late Lionel Conacher and Aurel Joliat, one of the old Montreal Canadiens' famed Flying Frenchmen. The season this rule went into effect the Detroit Red Wings, while blanking the New York Rangers, set two scoring records that are likely to last as long as hockey itself: 15 consecutive goals by one club and eight in one period.
The effect of three decades of rule changing plus ever-heavier schedules has been to produce players who often catapult the puck aimlessly instead of advancing it by clever stick-handling—and who "bum out" almost before they get started.
Some 50,000 players are registered with the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. Out of this number there should be a steady supply of new material for the NHL. But playing 50 games or more per season, many of them on the road, is such a strain that by the time they should be ready for big league hockey, many of the youngsters are all through.
As a matter of fact, nowadays the professionals are too often amateurish and the amateurs are almost always pros. The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association defines an amateur as "anyone who is not a professional." Actually, the line of demarcation between amateurs and professionals in hockey disappeared into Canada's thin air so long ago nobody can remember when. National League teams for many years sponsored farm clubs in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League in which every player drew a salary paid by the sponsors. Under hockey's version of amateurism, an amateur can play three games per season with a professional club without prejudice to his simon-pure status, which means that he can draw a pro's pay three days per season but must be content with an amateur's salary for the rest of the year. Often it turns out that he is more pleased with it.
The classic example is Jean Beliveau, who was such a gate attraction with the Quebec Aces in the Quebec Senior Hockey League that he was able to make more money as an amateur than most of the big league pros were drawing. Beliveau's is the exceptional case, however. The average amateur is a pawn in the hands of the puissant NHL, thanks to a device known as the negotiation list. This is an arrangement by which the big league owners voted themselves the power to stake claims to any promising amateurs who caught their fancy. Under this cozy little scheme any male over 18 who shows talent at pursuing the puck with a forked elm stick becomes the exclusive property, for contractual negotiation purposes, of the first club that files notice of its intentions with the league headquarters. Thereafter, he is unable to talk terms with any club but the one that confiscated his inherent right to dicker in the open market. True, he won't have to accept the club's propositions, but if he doesn't he won't play professional hockey—or much amateur hockey, either—for the self-appointed masters of all North American hockey players' destinies respect each other's "rights."
Up to now nothing much ever has come of moves directed against the NHL. Occasionally, however, the fans will rebel against inferior teams. In New York, early in the 1952-53 season, they booed Captain Allan Stanley off the Garden ice and stayed away from hockey games in such numbers that the top gallery was closed off briefly for hockey or the poor imitation thereof on display by the Rangers. After being frozen out of the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, the New York club finally got back in the swing in the 1955-56 campaign when fiery Phil Watson took over as coach and whipped the lackadaisical Blue Shirts into a third-place finish that had the top-gallery back in business again. Last season Watson's club, a bit mulish at times under his hard driving, dropped a peg. But each season his Rangers have made the playoffs.