While I wasn’t thrilled initially with the idea of NHL expansion in 1967, I came to accept that it was inevitable and necessary for the league to grow to be considered “major league”, particularly in the United States.
Fans knew the quality of play would suffer, initially, but on the positive side it certainly provided opportunities for many more aspiring players.
Seeing how the game has evolved, in some ways for the better, over the past 40 years, there were still certainly things I much preferred about NHL hockey in the 50s and early 60s.
Here then, are 12 things I liked back then:
1) The game was less commercial. An obvious example is that there was no advertising on the boards. There was no loud music in the arenas every few seconds. The game was the thing. Yes, for those games that were on television, the game was occasionally ‘stopped’ for in-game commercials. That said, not every game was on TV and there were simply fewer commercials, therefore fewer stoppages, than there are now.
2) As a fan, you knew pretty much every guy on every team. There were maybe 120 players in the whole league—including the ones that were back and forth to the minors, so it was easy to get to know players.
3) In the old days, the best forward lines often had nicknames – the “Punch Line” (Richard, Blake, Lach), the “Production Line” (Howe, Lindsay, Abel), the “Uke Line” (Stasiuk, Horvath, Bucyk), the original Kid Line (Primeau, Conacher and Jackson, before my time but famous) and of course the Kraut Line (Schmidt, Bauer and Dumart, also before my time). Even though I never saw most of those lines because I was not born, or simply too young to fully appreciate their skills, if you knew hockey, you understood and learned about those great units as part of the history of the game. I well recall the “Scooter Line” in Chicago with Mikita, Wharram and Doug Mohns (pictured with this story). The larger issue here is that lines were often (not always, of course) kept together, sometimes for several seasons, which was great for fans.
4) No regular season overtime. There is no question overtime is entertaining, but I don’t think God intended regular-season games to allow for up to 3 points to be earned. To me, a tie game is a tie game. You take your point and go home. Overtime made the playoffs all the more distinctive and dramatic.
5) Penalty shots. Heck, we have them every night now with the shoot out. You just have to wait until overtime. In those days, penalty shots were rare, truly rare. It was a big deal when one was called.
6) Television broadcasts didn’t over-analyze every play, every shift. Announcers let the game come to the viewer and reveal itself. All the new camera angles are nice, and it’s great to have instant replay, for sure. But sometimes less talk is better. We don’t need certain analysts talking during the play, like we have no clue.
7) The Montreal—Toronto rivalry was special. They played 14 times a season, which seems like an awful lot today, but familiarity somehow didn’t diminish the passion of those games, nor did it make any possible playoff match up any less intense.
8) Individual buildings and the rinks themselves had more of an identity. New York’s Madison Square Garden, for example, was a much smaller ice surface than most other rinks. Boston was also tinier, and I believe the old Chicago Stadium was a little shorter, too. Today, every rink is the exact same size, and for that matter, the buildings pretty much seem to look the same, very cookie-cutter. The old buildings may have been dingy and dirty, but they had hockey character.
9) There was no entry draft. The Leafs owned the Marlies, and before that the St. Mike’s junior franchises and they always had the pick of the litter to keep building their teams. The draft is fairer, of course. (Though I have to say my Dad was quite prophetic. He used to claim; back in the 60s when they instituted the “draft” that if a kid ever challenged the legality of the draft, he believed they could win the case. He felt a young player should not be restricted and should be allowed to decide what team he wanted to play for, just like anyone in any business can—and does. Dad was an early advocate for freedom of choice, in the sporting sense. That said, I’ve often thought he was just ticked off as a Montreal fan that the Canadiens lost their monopoly on all the great French-Canadian kids they had hidden throughout Quebec in the pre-draft days.)
10) There seemed to be fewer injuries in those days. Today, with the speed of the game, the size of the players, the way the boards and glass are constructed and the big equipment that everyone wears, we see too many concussions and knee injuries. Yes, guys were sometimes seriously injured in the old days—Tim Horton in the 50s and Serge Savard in the 60s suffered serious broken legs on open-ice “hits”. Gordie Howe went into the boards and suffered a serious head injury in an early 50s playoff game. Lou Fontinato’s career ended on similar play when he was with Montreal in the early 60s. But those were, relatively speaking, rare and isolated incidents. Some guys did play through concussions, for sure, and thankfully we know much more nowadays about dealing with that serious issue. (And yes, Bobby Orr had bad knees, and we didn’t have the medical technology back then to help him out much.) But I just don’t recall as many players having so many serious and season-ending injuries when I was young.
11) I realize now I actually preferred the pace of the game in the 50s and early 60s. It was a slower, more strategic game. Players like Stan Mikita, who weren’t speed burners, were elite players because they saw the ice well and could manipulate circumstances to their favor. Don’t get me wrong, some guys could fly, but today, virtually everyone skates fast and the game is simply played at a different pace.
12) Most players didn’t wear helmets. I can name the guys who did off the top of my head. Charlie Burns, because he had a metal plate in his head and needed extra protection; Red Berenson, who came out of college hockey; Red Kelly off and on. Warren Godfrey, a defenseman with the Red Wings in the early 60s. There were likely others, but my point is not that guys should not wear helmets now. Of course they should. But back then, it was a different—and generally safer—game. And easier to identify the players.
A ‘bonus’ point: in the old days, a player would score a goal, and unless it was some major milestone, teammates would offer a quick ‘way to go’ and skate back to center ice. We didn’t have lights flashing and the parade of guys going to their bench to be congratulated by every single teammate after every single goal.
All this said, maybe I preferred the old days in some ways because there were so many players I loved to watch- Hull, Mikita, Keon, Henri Richard, J.C. Tremblay, Dickie Duff, were all in their prime. Guys like Howe and Beliveau were still impact players. Bobby Orr came on the scene in 1966. It was just a great time for hockey.
Oh, I’ll throw in one more on the list: The Leafs were better, much better, than they have been lately.