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.