Skip to main content

A call from one of our heroes in the writing dodge cast a new light on the debate about the red line that occupied so much time after the Olympics.

Trent Frayne, who cast his own light on fun and games every time he wrote about them in his column in The Globe and Mail and several other publications, advised us that the debate is hardly a fresh one. But what is interesting is another look at why the red line was introduced in the first place.

This was laid out in the book When The Rangers Were Young,written by Frank Boucher and Frayne, and published by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1973. Boucher served as a player, head coach and general manager for the New York Rangers for 30 years and the red line was his idea.

In the summer of 1943, the National Hockey League was suffering from more than the depletion of its player ranks because of the Second World War. The nature of the game was changing from its early days when defencemen rarely crossed their own blueline.

Boucher retired as a slick, playmaking centre for the Rangers after the 1937-38 season and was appointed head coach by Lester Patrick. Five years later, after bringing up the matter with NHL president Red Dutton, Boucher volunteered to rewrite the NHL rulebook during the summer of 1943.

As he and Frayne recounted in their book, the NHL rulebook "was close to incomprehensible. The book had no index, there were repetitions and contradictions and there were even different penalties for the same rule infraction."

Boucher worked toward consistency, including consistency between the professional and amateur versions of the game. He was pleased when the NHL adopted his new version of the rulebook, word for word, in the fall of 1943.

But it was a new rule Boucher put into the book that long outlasted his version of hockey's laws. The rule was his solution to a problem that would be familiar to the fans of today's NHL -- the game had grown painfully boring.

Then, as now, the culprit was a new system of defensive hockey that smothered offensive creativity and put the fans to sleep. This was not the birth of the neutral-zone trap, the scourge of today's game.

In the two seasons before the fall of 1943, defencemen began moving beyond their own blueline to break up passing plays by opposing forwards. Previously, defencemen never went farther than about halfway between their goal and the blueline.

This resulted in the birth of dump-and-chase hockey, as forwards shot the puck past the defencemen and then skated by them to get it. It wasn't long before the defencemen on the attacking team joined in, and soon all five players were inside the defending team's blueline.

This resulted in, as Boucher and Frayne put it, "endless jamming sessions in front of the next." The reason was that a forward pass was not allowed from one zone to the net, so a defenceman could not pass the puck up to a forward beyond his own blueline to get it out of his own end. It had to be carried over the blueline.

Thus one team would be hemmed in its own end for long periods, and when the puck was finally cleared, the same thing would happen at the other end of the ice.

Boucher discussed this problem with his peers, Art Ross and Hap Day, and one solution they considered was to allow a forward pass as far as the opposite blueline. But this was considered too radical and Boucher came up with the red line at centre as a compromise.

"If one blueline's too near and the other's too far, what about halfway in between?" Boucher suggested. "We can put a line at centre ice and we'll paint it red to avoid confusion."

The immediate result was not much different than what is feared today if the red line is removed. Breakaway passes became an offensive specialty and goal-scoring soared.

Boucher wrote that "this was a development that intrigued the fans but horrified a lot of traditionalists who claimed the red line was making a mockery of defence, if not destroying the whole structure of the game."

Defences adjusted, as they always do in the face of major rule changes, and the breakaways faded. But the game regained its up-and-down flow, which was Boucher's intent.

Now, thanks to a defensive system that operates between the bluelines, the same problem has reappeared. It is difficult to play creative, up-and-down hockey. But perhaps the NHL is to be commended for not leaping into a decision on removing the red line, and opting for further study instead.