“Give the game back to the players.”
Herb Brooks used to say this often before his death in a car accident in 2003.
The quotable coach of the Miracle on Ice U.S. men’s hockey team that won the gold medal at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980 came to despair the way in which overcoaching and interference were destroying the entertainment value of the game.
It was so bad in the years leading up to the 2004-05 NHL owners’ lockout – neutral-zone trapping, left-wing locks, wide-open hooking and holding – that the league, to its credit, used the break to rethink the game, start calling obstruction penalties and open up the ice to speed and skill.
Brooks would have approved.
It is hard to know, however, just what he would think of the NHL team he once coached, the New York Rangers, and what has become of the once-new NHL in the spring of 2012. The players have again lost the game.
As former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn – a firm believer in attack hockey – used to say: “It’s a great game, but coaches find a way to stop it.”
The New York Rangers, the East’s top team in the regular season, made it to Game 6 of the playoffs’ third round by playing a game never before seen, where everyone on the ice plays defence, blocks shots, collapses to the net and, if necessary, plays goal along with Henrik Lundqvist. No name has yet stuck – blockey, muskox defence, six goaltenders? – but none of them are said with any affection. There were few tears shed in the hockey world when the Rangers fell Friday night to more skilled and adventurous New Jersey Devils.
Even so, Rangers head coach John Tortorella’s redefinition of defensive hockey had already proved successful enough that there is sure to be copycat teams. Whatever works one year in the NHL trends the next.
The thing is, defence lends itself to coaching; offence, not so much. You can teach a player how to block a shot; you cannot teach a player how to find the magic that puts a shot past a goaltender.
“Coaching offensively is too hard,” long-ago Toronto Maple Leafs coach Hap Day once confessed. “You can give them a plan of attack, and the situation for the plan may never come up in the game. But defence, now: Think of all six men on the ice doing the job on defence …
“Of course, you have to have the proper type of player to handle that approach – or make them into the proper type.”
And that pretty much sums up the situation in New York.
“We’re not a fancy team,” Tortorella said on Friday. “We really aren’t. We’re a straight-ahead hockey club.”
Tortorella claims that critics of the Rangers’ style of play “box me in the wrong way.” As coaches, he maintains, “we try to get out of their way” when gifted players go on the offensive.
He was speaking that day about Chris Kreider, the Boston College star who joined the Rangers for the playoffs and instantly showed an offensive flash. His five goals are a new NHL record for a player who has yet to see a regular-season game.
Tortorella did allow that Kreider needs work on his defensive game, which will have to come later. If they gave him too much right away, the coach admitted, “We might screw him up.”
Kreider’s progress next season will be interesting to watch.
Some have suggested that the surprising success of the L.A. Kings, an eighth-place team now in the final, can be traced to a midseason coaching change to Darryl Sutter, who loosened the strings. It may also be that Sutter simply hasn’t had the time to micromanage his team.
Several former head coaches have spoken out in the past about the modern control-freak era of NHL coaching. “The game is way overcoached,” Ted Nolan said. “Just let guys be who they are. Don’t try and get into their heads and psyches. Let the players play.” Guy Carbonneau said “systems” played as low as novice hockey were producing “robotic players.” John Paddock suggested an end to coaches being able to communicate with other coaches positioned high above the ice.
Players will say privately that there are now so many coaches on a team – the head coach, a handful of associate and assistant coaches behind the bench, coaches high above sending messages down and video coaches ready for them between periods – that they can barely take a shift in a game without someone criticizing it.
A poll this week by the Environics Institute for The Globe and Mail showed that a vast majority of Canadians, nearly nine out of 10 in the general audience, are open to changes in the game they love so long as the changes make the game safer.
Perhaps they would also approve of changes that would make the game more interesting to watch.
Toe Blake and Punch Imlach won a great many Stanley Cups standing all alone behind the players’ bench. Eddie Johnston, when he was coaching Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh, said his coaching strategy was simple: “I just opened and closed the door.”
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it underlines rather nicely what Herb Brooks was saying.
“Let the talent talk,” Brooks would argue.
“Give the game back to the players.”