It was not just a victory for the Chicago Blackhawks.
It was a victory for the game itself.
Perhaps it is no accident that most of the greatest games in hockey memory – the final match of the 1972 Summit Series, all three final games of the 1987 Canada Cup, Canada over Russia at the 2009 world junior championship – all ended up with exactly the same scores: 6-5.
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Now add Game 4 of the 2013 Stanley Cup final, Chicago Blackhawks over the Boston Bruins, 6-5 in overtime.
Just don’t ask the coaches – Chicago’s Joel Quenneville and Boston’s Claude Julien – what they thought of it.
They wouldn’t say, of course, but we know anyway. NHL coaches don’t use their timeouts early in the second period because they have to go to the bathroom.
Yet both Quenneville and Julien did exactly that, calling “time” at what appeared to be a most-inopportune time. And if body language, let alone lip-reading, is a fair indication of what the two opposing coaches had to say about the game their players were putting on the ice, a rough translation would be: “What the hell is going on out there?”
What was going on was hockey at its chaotic best. It was hockey at its most unpredictable: exquisite, creative and desperate. There were great goals, bad goals, fluke goals, just as there were fantastic stops by the goaltenders and misplayed pucks by the goaltenders.
Hockey as it was always intended to be played.
By the players, not the coaches.
If only Herb Brooks could have seen it. The brilliant coach of the United States’s Miracle on Ice back in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics had grown so weary through the 1990s with what he believed had become almost hopeless overcoaching of hockey was preaching “Give the game back to the players” right up until his passing in a tragic car accident a decade back.
No one, of course, was listening then, because NHL coaching, like the public service, was ballooning in size: three or four coaches on the bench, a coach or two “upstairs” connected to those down below by radio signals, a video coach back in an office breaking down each period for instant tweaks during the intermissions, a goaltending coach, strength and conditioning coach….
Hard to believe, in retrospect, how Toe Blake and Punch Imlach ever got within reach of the Stanley Cup.
Somewhere along the way, the whole concept of letting the players play got out of whack. And it’s a more recent development than most realize. Eddie Johnston, who sat high in the press box watching his beloved Pittsburgh Penguins crash against the Bruins this spring, once coached Jaromir Jagr, who is still playing the game, though now for Boston.
His job as coach, Eddie once said, was remarkably simple: “I just opened and closed the door.”
A few coaches have had the courage to speak up about the suffocating effect of overanalysis and “systems” and “puck support” and “gaps” and, as fired New York Rangers coach John Tortorella so ridiculously put it, playing “the right way.”
The “right” way? As in believing the road to success lies in endless shot-blocking? As in benching and then scratching Brad Richards, a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs?
Pat Quinn, who no longer has an NHL job but always did a pretty fair go of it, has often said, “It’s a great game, but coaches find a way to stop it.” And Ted Nolan, who no longer has an NHL job but should, believes “The game is way overcoached – just let guys be who they are. Don’t try and get into their heads and psyches. Let the players play.”
Maybe that’s why they’re not behind NHL benches any more. They think the game should be entertaining, not stifling.
As Herbie Brooks used to say, “Let the talent talk.”
And that, of course, is just what happened Wednesday night in Boston. After the morning skate, Julien told reporters that the trick, heading into Game 4, was to keep the players’ attention on the task at hand.
“My job is to keep our team focused on the present,” he said, “not the future.”
As for Quenneville, he talked about the importance of “puck protection” and the need to get through the neutral zone more efficiently, as the centre of the ice surface had become “pretty tight for both teams.”
But all such thinking flew out the coaching window once Boston’s Tyler Seguin fumbled a puck on a Bruins’ power play and Michal Handzus and Brandon Saad roared down the ice to score Chicago’s short-handed opener.
After that, chaos ruled.
Five goals in the second period alone, despite two timeouts called to calm matters down.
That they failed to do so led to a wonderful evening in which the talent talked.
And any fan of the unpredictability and creativity of the winter game had to love what they were hearing.