Take all the most exciting parts of football, baseball, fighting,
And then mix them up to make a
Serve it up with lots of ice, you
you don't have to ask me twice,
Give me hockey,
I'll take hockey every time!
It has been several decades since Kieran sounded this creed of the hockey enthusiast. At the time, hockey was the fastest and most exciting of team sports, a compelling spectable of sharp passing, hard hitting and dazzling speed.
Where their sports have progressed through new techniques, advanced training methods and nutritional factors contributing to bigger and stronger athletics, hockey has become the ravaged victim of slap shots and cheap shots.
Other sports have proposered through the medium of television, but hockey's finer points cannot be the screen. The puck is toe small, the developing play too swift.
The self-serving owners of the National Hockey League continue to fight a ruinous monetary war with the World Hockey Association, to resist efforts to balance competition and to forestall a sensible realignment and scheduling situation.
They aslo continue to live by the tie, the only sport where a fan pays his money and, almost one-fifth of the time, sees nothing decided.
Hockey is rotting away, right from the roots. Players emerging from the junior ranks are bigger and stronger than their predecssors, but they are less skilled. Survival of the fittest prevails in the junior wars, not necessarily sirvival of the best.
Young players aping the scatter-gun pros use curved sticks to send dipping slap shots at goal-tenders. The sticks make puck control difficult and backhand passes and shots virtually impossible. Slap shots make a pleasing sound as they thunder off the boards or glass, but they ard generally ineffective.
Body checking in open ice has declined, while cheap-shot board checking has flourished. Defenders often permit their checks to speed past, while trying to line them up for an awesome thump into the boards.
Coaches disdain trying to set up plays. Instead, like many of their professional counterparts, they instruct their players to mvoe the puck across the red line as quickly as possible and dump it into a corner. The opposition usually retrieves the puck and attempts to repeat the process. For lengthy period, the puck may be in motion, but nothing is happening.
Those few special youngsters who develop playmaking skills find themselves the targets of roughnecks with more courage than ability. That is the new terminology: if a bully plays for you, he is courageous; if he performs for the opposition, he is a goon.
Hockey has many problem, including greedy owners, greedy players, greedy agents and the absence of network TV money to sustain all that voraciousness. But its most serious problem is this decline in the quality of the product.
Expansion from six major-league teams in 1967 to the current total of 24 has played its part in the lowering of standards. Instead of 120 players, 430 now claim big-league status in the NHL or WHA. Despite greater opportunity and vastly higher salaries, however, fewer good players are graduating from junior hockey. Even more disquieting, fewer youngsters are playing hockey.
In 1976-77, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association registered 550,000 players. That marked a drop of 30,000 in one-year and continued the trend of the '70s. Hockey officials cite a declining birth rate for the dropoff, but, as hockey participation as fallen off, soccer is becoming the sport of the future for young Canadians.
A British Columbia study showed that hockey registration in the province declined on 50,179 in 74-75 to 45,513 in 1976-77. Soccer registration rose from 24,000 in 1970-1 to 32-798 in 1976-77. At the youngest age levels, the soccer increase is 20 percent, while hockey teams cannot fill their quotas.
A primary factor, obviously is cost. Outfitting a hockey player has become a major family expenditure in the luxury class; all a soccer player needs is a pair of all-purpose shoes. Additionally, the cost of ice time is increasing and communities are reluctant to further subsidize hockey in the face of rising expenses.
In The United States, the spiraling cost of electricity is forcing rinks of boost their rates to hockey teams. Pushed on to parents, the increases are in many cases becoming unbearable.
"The cost of ice in minor programs is becoming prohibitive," said Washington Capitals General Manager Max McNab, one of the few NHL executives perceptive enough to realize the sport faces problem in that area. "In Little League ball, all you need are voluntary grass cutters."
Fewer youngsters playing an inferior brand of hockey does not promise future improvement.
"A lot of players lack puck-handling skills to do anything except keep the puck in front of them," said Ron Smith, technical director of the Ontario Hockey association. "Neutral ice plays is low in practice priorities."
What he means is that kids just want to shoot pucks and knock guys down.
In most sport, the greater size of athletes is a plus. In hockey, it restricts puck-handling and play-making. Rinks are still 200 feet long and 85 feet wide. What North American hockey really needs to open up play is the spaciousness of European rinks, which are 30 meters wide and allow considerably more room for maneuvering.
The thought of the lost seats necessitated by conversion is enough to give an NHL owner apoplexy. So, the NHL instead has played finger-in-the-dike with modest rules changes, like last year's legalization of the red-line pass and this year's restriction on freezing of the puck by goaltenders.
By far, the greatest impetus to boredom has been provided by the proliferation of illegal tactics around the league. Holding and hooking have replaced checking, and a stiff punch with resulting may-hem is a frequent response to a rare solid check.
The NHL has sanctioned selective enforcement of the rule book, asking its officials to judge the "flow of the game" in lieu of strict enforcement. this often translates to: "If the two teams are refraining from attempted homicide, let them play."
"There are two philosophies," Scotty Morrison, the NHL's referee-in-chief. "Either throw the whistle away or call everything. In a game between clubs with differing philosophies, the referee hasn't got a chance."
Players are conditioned to believe that the referee won or lost the game. The inevitable result is the "fix" accusation of Boston's Brad Park during the Stanley Cup final. It was hardly the proper injection for an alling sport.
Helmets are commonplace and, with current styles of play and rules standards, they are a wise source of protection. But if board checking and high sticking were reduced and flagrant fouls treated severely, they would be unnecessary. Then fans once again could identify with the players, one of the charms of preexpansion hockey.
Ties are an absurdity that should not be permitted. A year ago, 132 of the 720 regular-season NHL games ended in ties, with the Colorado Rockies deadlocking 21, more than a quarter of their schedule.
The WHA, by using a 10-minute sudden-death overtime, played a 320 game schedule with only 14 ties.
The NHL schedule is preposterous, a joy only to travel agencies and airlines. Washington, for example, is making two trips to the West Coast this month for single games with division "rival" Los angeles.
Peter O'Malley, the Capitals' former president-personally believes that "Washington ought to leave the division we're in and join the Rangers, Islanders, Flyers and Atlanta. Travel could be reduced and would be better financially and competitively."
The 80-game schedule, followed by interminable playoff rounds, forces the climactic Stanley Cup final into the baseball weather of late May. Except for rabid fans of the teams involved, nobody really cares about the outcome. That's a sorry situation for the sport's big moment and it is an inhibiting factor to playoff television coverage.
Competitive imbalance has altered little in recent years, with Montreal dominant and Boston, Philadelphia, Buffalo and the Islanders its chief challengers. The waiver draft eventually figures to help, but for a long time to come mismatches and empty seats are certain to plague the NHL- unless the owners work together for the common good. On past performance, the ice will melt first.