NHL All-Stars shouldn't sell game as non-contact sport

Phil Jackman

January 20, 1992|By Phil Jackman

Wednesday night at the Cap Centre, the Washington Capitals take on Team USA, the lads who will represent us in the Winter Olympics in France in a few weeks.

Almost daily when they're not traveling or playing, the Caps get it on at practice, with some pretty lively scrimmages interrupting the calm at the Piney Orchard Ice Rink.

Prior to the start of the NHL campaign, clubs play 10-game exhibition schedules while their big stars take off from time to time for the Canada Cup competition pitting the world's best national teams.

In every case as well as in the minors, the Olympics, World Championships, college, Canadian Junior and high school play, the game's the same: Fast, exciting, rugged and intense, sometimes too much so, when hard hitting and emotions get out of hand.

In the midst of all this activity, which captivates an entire nation (Canada), the upper right-hand quadrant of this country as well as much of Europe, comes the NHL All-Star Game, a showcase.

Yeeech, what a joke! And in front of a fairly sizable network television audience, too.

Even while Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille were playing a wondrous shell game with the puck before Hull flicked it past Don Beaupre in the Campbell Conference's 10-6 victory over the Wales Conference in Philadelphia Saturday, it was so obvious a big part of the game was missing: All three men remained standing on their spots before, during and after the play.

So, OK, the league doesn't want to see any of its high-priced VTC stars hurt. But the unwritten law that there will be no contact, incidental and otherwise, checking and marking is roughly akin to ordering that only light left jabs be used in a boxing match.

Hey, NHL, get rid of the gloves and sticks, they can cause blisters . . . and put a speed limit of no more than 40 mph on slap shots.

No doubt the players aren't in favor of this excuse-me game they play, because it took them an uncomfortable amount of time to get used to the right-of-way rules to avoid collisions. "We were so slow in the first period," said Campbell winger Brian Bellows, "the coach [Bob Gainey] said we'd better pick up the pace." Otherwise, there wouldn't have been any need for line changes.

Watch Sweden, Finland, Canada, Czechoslovakia, the former Soviet Union and the U.S. go at it on the larger international rink, and you see a quicker game with improved individual skills and most of the unnecessary and gratuitous head-hunting and fighting eliminated.

When the occasional European goon tries to go after a star looking to coax him into a brawl, half the time he's not able to land a decent hit. Then, while he's dropping the stick and gloves and assuming his best John L. Sullivan pose, the target is already yards away and part of an odd-man rush.

The argument will rage until at least the middle of the 21st century that the North American game is too physical, the international game too polite. Each side continues to give a little bit in hopes of reaching an accommodation which, ideally, will lead to skilled individuals playing a game that is extremely competitive, with hard knocks to be expected.

Conn Smythe, the former Toronto Maple Leafs owner for whom one of the NHL's four divisions is named, once said, "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice." Unfortunately, too many coaches and teams take this sentiment to be gospel truth when it only smacks of veracity.

Granted then, heavy-duty contact will always be part of the game. Which leaves us bewildered when, annually, the best players in the world come out and conduct a poke-check festival.

Actually, it's not only unfair to the All-Star goaltenders -- who, if truth be known, would probably rather play Russian roulette for an hour than take a turn between the pipes -- but to the defensemen, too.

Their game is as noble and important as that practiced by the wingers, yet they show up and play a hands-off style completely foreign to them. Every once in a while someone slips and runs the risk of banishment.

Ex-Capital Scott Stevens was just such a renegade. Three seasons ago, the rugged defender showed up and laid down a couple of checks that could have served as a foundation for a 60-story skyscraper. "It was instinctive," he petitioned. "What was I supposed to do, stand there and salute them as they go by?"

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