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Comparing early ‘60s hockey with today’s game

I won’t try to claim that “things were better in the old days”.  There is no question that hockey players today—and this has been the case with every new generation—are generally bigger, stronger and display more skill than was the case fifty years ago.  Who doesn’t love watching Crosby, Ovechkin, Kovalchuk and the dozens of highly-skilled players in this generation, who come to the NHL from all over the hockey-playing world?

The game is faster, much faster, than it was when I fell in love with it in the late 1950s and into the ‘60s.

Today, just about everyone shoots the puck hard.  Can you imagine goalies not wearing masks today?   Yet that was the norm until Jacques Plante’s innovation and his introduction of “the goalie mask” in 1959. (Above is a great old picture of Bobby Hull scoring in a late 1950s game in Chicago against Eddie Chadwick and the Leafs.  Note that Chadwick has no mask.  And can you imagine how hard Hull would shoot with today's modern sticks?)

But as I’ve written in previous posts, I really liked the pace of the game back in the early ‘60s.  There was a different (yes, slower) pace.  I mean, there were some fast guys (Hull, Henri Richard, Ralph Backstrom and later Yvan Cournoyer, Paul Henderson and of course Bobby Orr and Gilbert Perreault) but generally speaking guys just didn’t move the way they can now.

Despite the slower pace, there were still big hits and it was certainly a tough game back then, for sure.  But as I watch the old games now (whenever they are available for viewing) with different eyes than I watched on my old black and white TV as a kid, I can’t help but notice how the game back then was different in so many ways.

Nowadays, beyond the obvious hourly TV and online hockey coverage, seemingly every post-game press conference with the coaches breaks down each defensive error that led to a goal.  There is constant talk about special teams.  The game is just so over-coached.  Few teams even looked at video seriously in those days. Now there are statistics for everything.  In the old days, one guy stood behind the bench, along with the trainer.    Today, three or four coaches are back there.  One guy changes the forwards.  Another the defensemen.  One coach may have a laptop to print off information on the fly.

In the early ‘60s, shifts on the ice would last seemingly forever.  Phil Esposito had incredibly long shifts in the ‘70s, but even well before that lines stayed out for a long time.  Players had tons of energy when you were going forward with the puck and thought they had a chance to score; when the other team took possession it was harder to get the will to back-check hard.  It was like the outdoor pond and river hockey I was raised playing. 

These days, you skate your tail off for 30 seconds and it’s time to get off the ice.  Penalty-killers may change four times in one two-minute sequence.  In the olden days, two sets of forwards would do the job and that was it. Sometimes defensemen would stay on the ice for the full two minutes.

Today, everything is on film and every tiny mistake is micro-analyzed.  (Last week, within one minute of the Leafs’ first exhibition game getting underway, the ever-loud TSN analyst was criticizing Mike Komisarek, harking back to last season.  C’mon, it was Komisarek's first play in a meaningless game for veteran players.  Let me, as a fan, ease into the season without being yelled at…)

Back then, coaches wanted their players to check, of course, but the focus was also on offense. Coaches let the players play more often than not. There was no Jacques Lemaire or Ken Hitchcock to bring any regular-season game to a standstill with their tight-checking strategies.

If you haven’t yet watched one of those “classic” games on ESPN Classics, or Leafs TV or the NHL Network, you may enjoy it. You’ll see a lot of action, most guys using wrist shots (at least until the mid and later-1960s).  There were very few guys with effective slapshots like so many modern-day players now have.  Of course, the stick technology (not to mention the skates) is vastly superior now, too.

Very few players wore helmets, so it was easy to identify players by their appearance.  Perhaps they should all have been wearing helmets back then, but I can remember the few guys who did—Charlie Burns, Warren Godfrey, “Red” Kelly (at times), “Red” Berenson and not many more in the early to mid-1960s.

Goalies were usually using a stand-up/angle style (Glenn Hall and later, Roger Crozier and to a certain extent Eddie Giacomin and Tony Esposito being the exceptions). 

Hitting from behind happened, but nowhere near as often as today.  And what I don’t like today is that, with the speed of the game and the size of the players (not to mention the huge, dangerous equipment) little “shoves” into the boards at high speed can lead to serious injuries.

The game was just wider-open back then.  Some teams were more defensive-oriented than others but no one had invented the “trap”.  A star player like Bobby Hull would definitely get lots of extra checking attention, but he could often free-wheel and make rink-long dashes.  The game was simply geared differently back then.

I loved watching Chicago’s Stan Mikita control the play with his smart and deliberate stick-handling style.   Jean Beliveau, Jean Ratelle and Alex Delvecchio, too.  Not everything—or everyone— was going a hundred miles an hour.

Is it a better game today?  Well, we have the very best players in the world competing in the NHL.  Equipment is better.  Training and nutrition is so much better.  Injury-awareness is improved.

So yes, I like today’s game.  But I also loved the way things were in those olden days, too.


  1. Agree totally. The style of play is different today. But there are certain skills that never go out of vogue ... or that I ever tire of watching. I could watch Darryl Sittler anytime, for example. Some guys, like Eddie Shack, stood out, because there simply weren't as many of those types around. But it seems that every NHL team now has a Reggie Fleming.

    Both games are enjoyable, though.

    The one main difference I see is an intangible. In the 1960s, players didn't go all out just abut every night were ostracized. They were targeted and their careers often ended prematurely because of it. I remember my high school coach predicting the Leafs' Jim Harrison would have a short career because he was a lazy, one-handed plater. Harrison went on to have some WHA success but he never did much in the NHL. He was considered to have no heart. Thanks to expansion, there is room (and, indeed, a need) for a few Harrison types now.


  2. Recently I watched a vintage game on ESPN classic from the early 60s - Leafs vs Hawks and those guys were flying.

    Bobby Baun and Dave Keon could skate like the wind.

    The game was pretty much wide open with some good checks but they did not look like they were playing in molasses as they did in the 70s and 80s.

    Like I noted the speed of the game and players to me was amazing.