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Fifteen ways the game was so different in the old days

I’ve gone on record on this site as saying that, as much as I love modern hockey and all the skill that’s out there, I miss the old days in many ways.  Like life in general, it seems (at least where I was raised, in a small rural community), the pace was slower and things weren’t as complicated and over-analyzed as they are nowadays.

There weren’t as many injuries (though, in fairness, many injuries were simply not taken seriously, I’m sure), the game was just much-slower paced and for me, less frantic—and a bit more enjoyable.

How was the game different?  Well, in a lot of ways, actually.  Here are some things that strike me as very different from “they way they were” back in the late ’50 and into the 1960s:

·     In the really old days (late 1950s in some rinks) the game was so different there was no glass around the corner end boards.  Fans would be sitting there with their hands hanging over the boards.  Can you imagine that today, with the speed of the puck, the size of the players and the way guys carry their sticks?  We’ve included a great old photo (above) from the early 1960s with Stan Mikita and Terry Sawchuk in the picture.  Look at the fans sitting along the boards.  No glass there to protect them.
·     Unlike today when shifts are considered too long if they go for 50 seconds (for forwards), the shifts lasted forever back then.  And I’m not just talking about Phil Esposito who stayed on the ice for two minutes and more at a time (actual game time) in the ‘70s with Boston.  Everyone in the 1950s and ‘60s stayed out there for minutes at a time.  The game was just so different.  Guys were gassed, but they would stay out for another rush up the ice, then be dead coming back.
·     Defensemen would often take the draws in their own defensive zone.  And it wasn't just Punch Imlach in Toronto who utilized this "strategy".  Sometimes other teams would employ this tactic, too.  I guess the theory was a bigger defenseman would tie up the opposing center, but it seems so archaic now.  Also, on this note, face-offs in general are way more important now.  Every one is contested like it was the last one the player will ever take.  Back in the “olden days”, there was not as much intensity on every draw.  Possession didn’t seem quite as important sometimes.
·     One obvious one is that not every goalie wore a mask.  And besides their pads, the rest of their equipment was next to nothing.  I mean, nowadays it’s not even imaginable that a goalie would not be well protected from head to toe. 
·     On this note, virtually everyone shoots the puck hard now.  Back then, goalies only faced a few guys who could blast it, like “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, Bobby Hull, Rod Gilbert and later Bobby Orr and Dennis Hull.  (By the early ‘70s, the widespread use of the curved stick gave a lot of guys more powerful shots.) Today, the equipment is so much better.  The players practice their shots all the time and they are stronger than ever.
·     Most players, I mean the vast majority, didn’t wear helmets until well into the 1980s, when it was mandated.  In the ‘60s, I can remember to this day the guys I remember who (sometimes or always) wore a helmet.  Red Berenson did.  Before him Charlie Burns.  Warren Godfrey with the Red Wings.  Red  Kelly off and on in the later years of his career with the Leafs.  Billy Harris started wearing one with Toronto in the mid-‘60s.  I don’t think Stan Mikita started wearing one until the 1970s.  But again, the game was different.  I’m not sure I agree with the argument that players had more respect in those days.  I saw a lot of scary stuff and stick-swinging back then.  But it was a slower game, for sure, and guys weren’t routinely thrown into the boards from behind or the side as much.
·     Most NHL arenas are new, modern and filled with private boxes and various luxury-style amenities.  But the arenas are pretty much cookie-cutter, in the sense that they are a bit sterile (though much cleaner!) and every rink’s ice surface has standard dimensions. In the old six-team NHL, half the rinks were not “regulation”.  Boston was smaller, the original Madison Square Garden was even tinier and even Chicago was smaller than the other rinks.  Also, those old American rinks weren’t built “up and out” like Maple Leaf Gardens and the Montreal Forum.  In Detroit, I remember sitting in the balcony seats.  You were virtually hanging right over the ice surface.  They players knew exactly what you were calling out to them.  In Chicago, they announced 16,000+ fans but they would cram in more than 20,000 illegally and the sound was deafening.  I guess you could say there was simply more character in those old buildings.
·     Look behind any bench now.  There are at least three coaches there and various trainers.  In the early ‘60s, there was one coach and a trainer or two and that was it.
·     Until the mid and later-1960s, teams didn’t even carry an extra goaltender on the bench.  If a goalie was hut during a game, you’d stitch them back up, jam their shoulder back in the socket and they’d head back in.  If they were unable to continue, some poor local amateur goalie would be called down from the stands, or in some cases a team trainer would don the equipment.
·     I’m going way back now, but in the ‘50s, a team could score more than once on a power play.  The penalized player would have to spend all of his two minutes in the box.  The Canadiens were so good on the power play (Harvey, the Rocket, Geoffrion, Beliveau etc.) the NHL changed the rule.
·     Virtually all the players were Canadian-born.  Who wasn’t?  Well, I remember Swede Ulf Sterner played a few games in the mid-‘60s.  Olympic hero Jack McCartan was with the Rangers briefly in the early ‘60s.  Center Tommy Williams played with Boston in the mid- 1960s and later with the Minnesota North Stars.  But beyond that, until into the 1970s when more Americans made their way in, and Thommie Bergman, then Salming and Hammarstrom in Toronto came over from Sweden and stayed, it was a Canadian league.
·     There were maybe half a dozen “speedsters” in the game back in the day—Henri Richard, Ralph Backstrom, Dave Keon, Bobby Orr and later Gilbert Perreault.  Now, every team has guys, lots of them, that can fly.
·     The pace of the game is not even remotely the same.  It’s not just the shorter shifts.  Everything about the game is so much faster.  That’s partly why we have so many more injuries.  Bigger players, more punishing equipment with the game played so much faster than ever before.  They used to call hockey the “fastest game in the world”.  Now, it really is.
·     Radio and television broadcasts were much more staid.  Now, we hear much more in “the booth” in terms of jocularity than in the old days, even when you listened, as I often did, to “home town” announcers in Detroit, Chicago, New York and Boston.  There was always good-old fashioned “homer-ism”, but the tenor of (especially local) broadcasts now is less formal. 
·     You could never have, today, one of those classic situations where a player could be flat out “sold” to another team for one million dollars, as Frank Mahovlich very nearly was back in the early 1960s.  A million dollars doesn’t mean what it did back then, but beyond that, the game is so legalistic and sophisticated now you could never even attempt that sort of deal.  But it made for great headlines and controversy at the time, and put hockey in the spotlight, even in the U.S.

There are other ways, obviously, that the game has changed since the 1950s and ‘60s.  The old game was more mistake-filled, with plenty of turnovers.  Today's game is over-coached, with specific "systems".  Guys are paid unbelievably well.  They train year-round.  There are  coaches' “time-outs” in hockey now.  And we have that awful regular-season overtime, and worse, the shootouts.  And there are even more TV commercial stoppages than fifty years ago.

Not all that is new is good, and not all that was old was perfect.  I would dearly love to see the game slow down a bit, get rid of regular-season overtime, downsize the equipment and minimize, as a result, the number of injuries.

It’s still a great game.  And always has been—even at the much slower pace of yesteryear.

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