Saving hockey

Opinion: How extreme of a makeover does hockey need?

The gritty, powerful Brendan Shanahans of 1990s NHL that once ran the league are a dying breed.

Finesse players like Sidney Crosby, who are famous for “diving” or falling on purpose to try and make it look like they were tripped, have cramped physicality and changed how hockey is played today.

“The price you pay to win a Stanley Cup, you can’t put it into words,” two-time Stanley Cup champion and former Detroit Redwing Doug Brown said. “It was a war out there.”

Two teams epitomized the war in the 1990s. The Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Redwings often traded punches in their rivalry that spanned into the early 2000s.

A battle late in the 1997 campaign was dubbed “Fight Night at the Joe.” Wings fans voted it as the greatest game in Redwings’ history, which featured a 6-5 comeback win showcasing retaliation by the Redwings after a 5-3 third period deficit to the Avs.

11 goals, 39 penalties, and 148 penalty minutes later, the war was over. It featured fisticuffs between goaltenders Patrick Roy and Detroit’s Mike Vernon, the revenge that Darren McCarty got on Colorado’s Claude Lemieux, and an off-the deep-end fight between finesse players Igor Larionov and Peter Forsberg.

“It was wild,” Brown said while laughing. “I’m laughing because I lived through the war. There were some crazy things happening.”

Brown was a forward for the Wings in the mid to late 1990s, and played with the likes of Yzerman, Shanahan, Fedorov, Lidstrom and many more.

Before fans wish for 1990s hockey to return, it must be defined. It was an era when officials sometimes looked the other way, where retribution for a cheap hit was lurking in every corner.

“The most violent thing I ever saw in hockey was that Bertuzzi hit from behind,” Brown said. “I think a lot changed in the 2004-05 lockout because of that.”

The hit refers to former Vancouver Canuck star Todd Bertuzzi hitting Colorado’s Steve Moore from behind during the 2004 NHL Playoffs with a shot to the neck, followed by a drive into the ice at full power.

Moore suffered three broken vertebrae and a major concussion, which ended the Harvard grad’s career. He still feels the effects of the hit eight years after, as his brain may be permanently affected.

Rules today have slowed the game and taken out some of the clean physicality that made hockey what it is. Player safety has taken a front seat, but there can be more done to perfect the game.

“Now you get a penalty for reaching in to knock a puck loose, or tying a man’s hands up to prevent him from shooting,” Brown said. “You could do that back then, and it made you battle harder to score.”

While slashing a man with the intent to break an arm should be taken seriously, tapping a man’s glove with your stick shouldn’t warrant a hooking or slashing call.

The trapezoid behind the net should be banished, allowing goaltenders to again play the puck and cause players to carry it in and fight for every scrap of ice. No-touch icing is the future of NHL player safety.

“The sport is better now, but you don’t want to cramp the physicality,” Brown said. “But you want to punish those who are out of bounds.”

Teams need to build to protect their stars with a guy or two who is willing to drop the gloves and protect like they were in the 1990s.

“You didn’t cheapshot Yzerman,” Brown said. “Because if you did, you would be dealing with Bob Probert and Joe Kocur next shift, and you might not be playing tomorrow after that.”

So NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman must capture the hybrid of 1990s hockey with well-officiated hockey to win the fans back. The enforcers must be allowed to enforce and protect, just to a certain extent so they are prevented from intending only injury.

Luckily for Bettman, the players do keep things in check a little better these days.

“As crazy as hockey is, it has its own way of policing itself,” Brown said. n