Warning: apc_store(): Potential cache slam averted for key 'w3tc_blogs.thescore.com_4_object_69be6f0f58698dc437fd681ecbdd920c' in /opt/blogs/wp-content/plugins/w3-total-cache/lib/W3/Cache/Apc.php on line 41 Drift Out Here Forever (May 31, 1987) | Backhand Shelf | Blogs | theScore.com


The title of this post is a quotation from Randall Maggs’ “Different Ways of Telling Time”, which can be found in Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems.

When I ask people what games I should watch out of the past, people mostly recommend the great works of their own favorite team.  Bruins and Flyers fans give me dates out of the middle 70s, Devils and Red Wings fans sing the praises of the 90s.  But everyone tells me to watch the 80s.  And within the 80s, everyone tells me to watch 1987.  Even people who couldn’t care less about the Oilers, even people who hate the Flyers, even people who, like me, were too young that year to really understand hockey- everyone, apparently, knows that this was a great series.  It is one of those rare moments in NHL history for which there is a swell of nonpartisan nostalgia.

No matter how widely beloved the game, though, I’m always afraid I’ll miss the hook.  What older fans remember is not always apparent to me, and often the thing that catches popular memory seems small and inconsequential to my eyes.  Do I really care if this goal was waved off?  Or that call was bad? Why should it matter to me, ten-twenty-thirty years later, if it’s not my team, if it’s not my long-nursed grudge?

At some point, all old hockey just looks… old.  Watching an historical game is always a process of cataloging the quirks of the era, and often it’s hard to get beyond that. Ah yes, 1987, when moustaches were unironic and mom jeans were still for moms. No ads on the boards! No jerseys in the crowds! No suit on Craig MacTavish! The announcers have heavy, unrepentant East Coast American accents, not the smooth Midwestern tones of standard broadcast English, and when they say “Coffey” it comes out Caw-fee. The Northlands Coliseum has its own weird symbol at center ice, not the Oilers teardrop. The only festive gestures in the whole building seem to be a few clusters of blue and orange balloons, average size, like you might get for a child’s birthday party. I can just see the event planners now: “This is the Stanley Cup Final, boys, game seven. It doesn’t get any bigger than this. I think, just this once, we can spring for a helium tank.”

But even through all the tiny differences, it doesn’t take me long to see the big difference, the major difference, the thing that makes this hockey profoundly alien from any hockey I’ve ever seen live in my own time: there is no neutral zone. You know that big rectangular space in between the offensive zone and the defensive? The one with the big circle right in the middle? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about, because you’re a modern hockey fan. You see the neutral zone all the time. But I don’t think anyone in 1987 could. In 1987, as far as I can tell, the neutral zone was like El Dorado, it was the Mountains of Madness, a strange and mysterious land that few had ever played in and lived to tell the tale. I imagine Messier on the bench whispering horror stories to the rookies: if you stay too long in the neutral zone, spiders come out of the ice and chew off your junk.

Technically, the space is there, but it’s empty and useless. It has no impact on the game at all. If a man crosses his own blue line with the puck, he or his winger will reach the other with it firmly in control. When possession comes to one team, the other tumbles easily back into their own territory, collapsing two, three guys to the circles. Messier gets the puck in the slot and there’s not one other player in the frame except for Fuhr. He passes to Anderson and the two of them pick up Nilsson and skate all the way to scoring chance position, vaguely covered but never challenged. Smith gets the puck and drops it just in front of the Oilers’ blue line for Gretzky, and it just sits there a long second before the Great One picks it up, the Flyers already in blithe retreat, waiting for the onslaught to come to them.

Every play is like this. The whole wide space between the blue lines is routinely covered in a few quick strides or one mile-long diagonal pass. The camera sweeps back and forth from end to end in one smooth pan, its operator confident that once the puck starts moving in one direction it will make its way all the way to the back boards unimpeded. At one point I try counting turnovers in the neutral zone, but I stop at two because three is so long coming. Somewhere in the second period, it occurs to me that if I had had a stopwatch clicking on every time the puck went out of someone’s zone and off when it entered again, it would probably be showing less than three minutes out of thirty ostensibly played. An entire third of the ice surface adds up to barely a hiccup in the rhythm of the game.

At Thanksgiving I tried to speak of the importance of coaching and my uncle-in-law scoffed, saying “I could coach a team to play the trap; it’s not rocket science,” but if it is so simple, where was it then? Could nobody conceive of a 1-3-1? Was the left-wing lock beyond their powers of imagination? It seems so basic, so simple, to tangle up the middle of a hockey game. There is nothing more familiar to me than the cramped battles between the blue lines. But here are a swath of the greatest players in living memory and not one of them seems the slightest bit interested in tangling or battling over neutral ice.

Or any ice, for that matter, except maybe the crease and a few feet in front of it, except maybe for a few rough spots along the boards.  The whole white surface looks so wide open that it’s hard to believe it’s the same dimensions as a modern rink- where did these yards of empty territory come from, and where have they gone  now?  Every player has miles of space and eons of time, to skate the puck in, to make a play, to compose three sonnets or a minor philosophical treatise, if the spirit moved them.  Guys back off each other as if they were plague-carriers rather than puck carriers.  Gretzky gains the zone, fakes a pass and makes his famous curl back, but although he does it best he’s not the only one to make this little play. Until the puck pushes into the heart of the scoring chance zone, there is no pressure and precious little pain either. Passes are let through unimpeded. Checks are left unfinished.

It’s so loose it would give Jacques Martin a seizure, so sloppy there are plays that could pass for OHL.  All the offense is pure hubris and all the defense is unrecognizable as such.

It’s a fucking terrible hockey strategy. It’s a fucking great hockey game.

This is the hockey we who watch want to watch. Although it’s not tightly played, there’s enough gamesmanship and dirtiness to keep things emotional- MacTavish wrestles Hextall to the ground at one point, later Messier gives a Flyer at the boards a thoroughly modern and thoroughly nasty cross-check to the numbers. It’s not all pretty passing and long, looping strides, but… it mostly is. It is perhaps 75% gorgeous and 25% grinding.

Today you’re lucky to get 20% gorgeousness out of an NHL game, even from a great team in the playoffs. It’s just not where the game evolved. Time passed and coaches worked their video and they learned how to take up all that space and how to take away all that time, and now every NHLer from the top lines down to the bottom knows down to the inch where he needs to be to break up a rush and stifle a chance.  There is no offensive inspiration in hockey so great that it cannot be stifled by a defensive system.  In the fullness of time, through the natural competition of coaches for advantages and weak teams for parity, space vanishes, time contracts.  The game, when it evolves, evolves to be slower, simpler, and duller.

And how fucked up is that? This is an entertainment industry. The entire reason it exists, ostensibly, is to keep an audience amused. The whole power of the NHL rests, in theory, on it’s ability to thrill spectators, and yet it doesn’t. Leaving aside the whole issue of the lockout, even when the NHL does put on a show that show is often not really the kind of production its paying customers would most like to see. From an audience perspective, the evolution of hockey is as if movie studios had given up the whole idea of the action blockbuster after Die Hard and decided to make nothing but educational biopics and historical dramas for the next two decades. Here is an entertainment business that, for a brief moment, had a sleek, sexy product that was almost universally enjoyed, and left it behind in favor of something most people can only get into when their city is in contention.

As a student of the game, I understand that the evolution of tactics is a clock that cannot be turned back, that everything has happened for a reason, and that the game we have now is less glamorous but far more sophisticated. As a person in front of a TV, though, it’s a gut punch, to know that hockey was this fast, this open, and this beautiful, and that it never will be again.

By the third period, I don’t even care who wins. Well, I mean, I know who wins, and it’s not like it’s hard to tell from the rhythm of the game- I’d estimate the Flyers have the puck 30% of the time, and that’s rounding up out of courtesy to Philly fans. But a quarter of a century late and loyal to another team anyway, this game means little to me in the great chronicle of wins and losses. What it means, to me, is nostalgia, for something I never knew but wish I had, a way of hockey that is lost but still lamented. All these years later and we are all still longing for the 80s. I think perhaps we always will be.

Everyone on this screen comes to me from the realm of myth and legend, players not just done but deified before my time, except for one. In this game, Scott Mellanby is 20 years old, a green sophomore in the NHL. Twenty years later, I would watch him grind out his last season as a creaking veteran, playing for a warm breath of a team team that didn’t exist when he began and doesn’t exist now. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him, to skate all the long way down from that era to this one, to leave all those open spaces behind for the dense modern game. I wonder if he ever, in his later years, as he methodically closed down an elite opponent between the red and the blue, he felt a brief nostalgic impulse of his own, to let them free and see what wonders they might work, if allowed to drift out there forever.

Comments (11)

  1. Gorgeous.

    My only comment is simply that there were “systems,” back before the trap, and that Edmonton and the 80′s game had evolved out of something quote a bit less pretty (see: 70′s Flyers.) Which had come out of Orr and the rushing defenceman, etc. etc. And the 80′s were only really made possible by the fact that Edmonton had this once in an eon team, and the thought that you could shut down all their ice would’ve seemed – and perhaps was – dreamlike. It’d be like shutting down Crosby, and Malkin, and Ovechkin, and Stamkos and Lidstrom, all on the same night.

    Anyway. A gorgeous piece.

    • Actually, if anything this game made me wonder a lot about how the Oilers roster of that generation would stack up against modern strategies. If the Flyers were the next-best team in the League that year and their approach to Edmonton was to give them that much space, I can’t imagine what the weaker franchises must have let them get away with.

      And thanks, glad you enjoyed it.

      • Well, they did average five goals a game in each of the five prior seasons, before “settling” for 372 in ’86-’87 – which was only first in the league by 54 goals. So those weaker franchises were basically letting them get away with smoking their keeper like Memphis BBQ.

        To put your post into a numbers perspective: last season, not a single team scored or allowed more than 282 goals. The year before, not a single team scored or allowed more than 288. Since the prior lockout, four squads have reached 300+ goals for the season:

        2006 Senators – 314 (really!)
        2006 Detroit Red Wings – 305
        2007 Buffalo Sabres – 308
        2010 Washington Capitals – 318

        The current defending champions, the LA Kings, scored and allowed a COMBINED 373 goals for the entire regular season.

        Is goaltending better now? I think it’s deeper, but I think that’s partially a function of having strict systems and strict technique designed to minimize the number of times a goalie has to expose his flaws. It keeps the merely average from being exposed as often.

  2. As much as hockey is supposed to be entertainment, it really isn’t. It’s about watching your team win.

    Fans will cheer for a winner even if they play in a way that makes the game impossible to watch for anyone else. Fans can forgive a heck of a lot of ugly hockey if their team wins.

    Even as an Oilers fan, the peak of hockey for me wasn’t the 80′s. For me it was the early 90′s. A combination of better goaltending, better hockey strategy and still enough high end skill and unpredictability to make the game very exciting.

    I still like hockey (at most levels), but like most sports it’s become a game of capitalizing on missed assignments. There was always a spot for a mistake to impact the game, but now it’s become the primary means of generating offense.

    I remember growing up and the emphasis was about trying to score. Now the emphasis has become trying to elimate quality shots. Even the breakout is designed not to generate offense, but to efficiently get the puck out of your own zone. It’s become a much smarter game, but also a lot harder to actually follow.

  3. Nice read. I have to say this though:

    The fact that only twenty percent of the hockey is those pure creative moments is kinda what makes it special. Look at basketball. You can have the most creative and inspiring play ever, and it’s still only one of potrntially dozens that willhappen that game. I stopped.watching basketball.aftrr not very lojg because the “special” and “creative” plays.happened.tpo often.

    • I hit post by accident and didn’t get a chance to fix typos…oops.

      Anyway, the opppsite is true in soccer, where great amazing plays often result in… Nothing. They lose their “meaning” in that sense.

      I find hockey to be a nice medium. The skilled plays don’t happen all the time, so when they do… It feels special. But they don’t happen so little that you never see them.

      Whatever, i’m just rambling now

  4. If I may Devil’s Advocate for a bit here…

    I feel the same when I watch hockey pre 1993. How no one seems to play defense and how the ice feels empty, like they were playing 4 on 4 but never told anyone. Even 4 on 4 OT now is played with more reliable defense. How the constant creativity leaves us agog.

    But that’s because we’re watching one game. You’re not sitting through a 9-3 Oilers win. Or yelling at the TV that your goalie can’t stop anything (because, well, he probably can’t). With the reliance on deflections, tips, and bounces of the puck in today’s game, there’s a large element of randomness, but you can usually count on the players playing D. Here we don’t even have that.

    I became a serious fan in 1995 and really have no idea what the game might’ve looked like on a day to day level back in 1985. I’d've been terrified of the Oilers, of course. But what about when my team got a 2 goal lead in the 1st period? Or a 1 goal lead heading into the third? It feels like there’s nothing to grab on to in these games. And after a while, it’d all start to feel routine – sure, the superstars would look marvelous, but my capacity to be amazed would likely be the same that it is now.

    • True, I think your capacity to be amazed would adjust somewhat, but I also thing there’s an innate drama in the exchange of scoring chances that gets lost in the more conservative game. Although this was a low-scoring match, there was the sensation that a goal might come from anywhere that I just don’t feel in modern hockey, and very little sense of any time killed or wasted, any sequences of running-out-the-clock as you get now when a team is protecting a lead or running a unpower vs. unpower match-up.

      But you’re right, I should watch more games of the era to get a better idea for what was typical.

      • Well, we know there were fewer shots on goal in that era. I imagine the ‘scoring chance’ as defined by the hockey blogging community would have to encompass a wider space on the ice because of the poorer goaltending (and in fact, to the point where counting scoring chances might be meaningless).

        I imagine, though, there are just as many clunker games now as then – it’s just that now, it can include games that ended 3-1 instead of 7-2, etc. The thing that is upsetting is that it’s clear when watching these games that the primary objective of the men carrying the puck is to score, whereas we do have long stretches of games where that’s not the case.

        This is why I always stump for wider nets. Wider nets *should* make it easier for teams to score from outside the dots, which in turn may adjust how teams play defense – Tortorella-style jam up the center of the ice D may no longer work when the goalie can’t cut off the long side of the net so easily. We’re not going to put Darren Pangs in net ever again, so the only answer is to turn all goalies into something closer to Darren Pangs.

  5. Just listen to you on the Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast. If these games haven’t been suggested yet, I recommend watching Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference Finals when the Gretzky led Kings defeated the Leafs to get into the Stanley Cup. Game four of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals which was a key victory in the Rangers ending their cup drought. Leetch secured the Conn Smythe in that game if the Rangers ultimately won the Cup. Ritcher made a save that would be immortalize on a cover of Sports Illustrated. From 1990-1994 had some incredible hockey before the dead puck era began.

  6. Have more fun with helium cylinder and baloons! http://www.elioparty.com/29-wedding

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