How has game changed? This shadow knows
The game was different then, and Steve Kasper isn’t suggesting that today’s NHL is better or worse, but a wide-ranging conversation last week about the state of the game with the Bruins’ former center and coach provided an interesting journey back to a game played with more strategy and offense.
“A lot of it then was like a chess game, I guess you’d say,’’ said Kasper, now a Maple Leafs scout, reflecting on a playing career that bridged the 1980s and ’90s. “I know when I was assigned to check Wayne [Gretzky], like I’ve always said, that wasn’t just me out there doing the job. That took all five of us, and it meant we had to play with patience and discipline.’’
Kasper, 49, was considerably more than a checking center (821 games/468 points), but he crafted an impressive niche by grinding the toes of some of the game’s premier offensive performers, including Gretzky, Marcel Dionne, and Kent Nilsson when he was at the top of his game with the Flames.
One night in the early ’80s had Kasper buttoned to Gretzky at Northlands Coliseum to such an extreme that one shift had the ever-stubborn pivot standing resolute at the Oilers bench after the Great One left the ice. One second. Two seconds. Three seconds. Each tick an eternity in game time. The play kept rolling and Kasper stood there, staring, waiting to see what No. 99 would do next.
“Yeah, well, they pulled a lot of funny stuff with Wayne,’’ recalled Kasper. “He’d go in one door like he was leaving, you’d turn, and he’d slip out the other door. You had to be very disciplined when he was your guy, and like I say, that meant everyone on your team had to be thinking the same way.’’
Gretzky, recalled Kasper, was similar to NBA greats Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
“If you double-teamed either of them, they’d burn you,’’ he said. “Wayne made a mockery of being double-teamed, and it accounted for a lot of his points. How many times did you see him behind the goal line, and he’d pull the center and a defenseman with him? Well, forget it, the show’s over.
“If two guys go to Wayne, someone’s open, right? And bang, he’d dish the puck to the open man and it would be in the net.’’
Gerry Cheevers, Boston’s coach for those classic Kasper-Gretzky matchups, made it clear to the entire roster that guarding Gretzky was a one-man-and-one-man-only operation.
“Cheesie would say, ‘OK, no matter what, Stevie’s going to him, everyone else stay away,’ ’’ recalled Kasper. “And if I wasn’t there, if I was late to get to him, everyone understood not to panic. It didn’t matter who I had on my line — [Keith] Crowder, Cash [Wayne Cashman], Taz [Terry O’Reilly] — or who was back on defense.
“Yeah, we had some success stopping him, but it was a real team thing.’’
The game has not, and will not, produce another Gretzky. Ditto for Mario Lemieux. The NHL through the ’80s and into the ’90s was dotted with guys who piled 100 points or more per season. Witness 1992-93, when Mark Recchi — now a Bruin — popped in 53 goals and totaled 123 points. That ranked Rex as the No. 10 scorer in the league, behind stars such as Lemieux (No. 1 at 160 points), Boston’s Adam Oates (142), Winnipeg’s Teemu Selanne (132), and Toronto’s Doug Gilmour (127).
The last two seasons, only three players (Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Sidney Crosby) have finished with 100 points or better. Are we talking progress here? For all the speed and open play (read: no red line) in the new NHL, grinding, punishing defensive systems have made pumice of the high-end offensive performers. Not that Kasper’s era was without its knocks.
“Let me tell you, if you were on Gretzky and he turned into the wing, you had to have your head up,’’ recalled Kasper. “Because more often than not, you knew what was coming: a rolling pick that had Dave Semenko curling in at the end of it. That was part of the chess match, too, one that could hurt a little.’’
Kasper isn’t about to tell the game he loves that it should change the way it does business. He admits being curious about the trapezoid behind the net, the only area where goalies in recent years have been allowed to handle the puck.
“I think of a couple of guys, Pete Peeters and Ron Hextall, two tremendous puck-handlers when I was playing,’’ he mused. “Today, guys are penalized for doing what they did. I don’t know why you’d penalize a guy for being skilled. I mean, does that make sense?’’
Today’s game is faster and stocked with far superior athletes, who are bigger, stronger, and as a group far more disciplined about their conditioning and overall professional attitude. Maybe 2 percent of all players report to training camp out of shape each year.
It’s not your father’s beer league anymore. But it’s also a game that has too many players suffering serious injuries (often concussions) while the playmaking, scoring, and artful checking have regressed, lost in all the speed and emphasis on contact. The conveyor belt is moving ever faster, but the product off the line is suffering.
NHL officials last week began to change some of it, imposing improved protocols for diagnosing players suspected to have suffered a concussion during a game. Thankfully, a blue ribbon committee soon will drill down on a number of other safety and playing concerns, which should help the players, the game, and the overall entertainment product.
A lot of current and former players can help with that blue ribbon committee. Kasper might be the last guy ever to suggest he should be included in the process, but it’s often those who only speak when asked who have the best things to say.
Richard Martin, 59, the left wing on that dazzling line (with Gil Perreault and Rene Robert), died of a sudden heart attack last Sunday while driving around suburban Buffalo. Lake Erie’s Flying Frenchmen had ridden together again only days earlier when new Sabres owner Terry Pegula insisted they be part of the press conference when he took over the club.
“I didn’t see a lot of Rico in my playing days,’’ said Cheevers last week, as he made his way to a golf course in “kinda chilly’’ 79 degree temps. “But I remember facing his shot for the first time [upon rejoining the Bruins later in the ’70s].
“He could fire it, from tight in, close to his body. One of the very few guys, in fact, if I had a bead on his shot, I couldn’t necessarily stop it. That first time, boy, I went to glove it and it was by me before I could move. Parted my hair right down the middle — when I had hair.’’
Cheevers, who turned 70 in December, has endured increasing pain in both knees, the price to pay for his Hall of Fame career. He’ll have his first two knee replacement surgeries this summer.
“Probably July or August,’’ he said. “That’s the best time for it down here — when the weather’s too hot for golf.’’
Cheevers’s 1972 Stanley Cup ring, which he sold years ago, is up for auction again, this time with classicauctions.net (item No. 261). The 14K gold memento, festooned with 17 diamonds, had attracted eight bids, pushing it to $8,860, as the weekend approached. Bidding ends March 29. Lot No. 278, one of the Northland sticks Cheevers used during his 1976-77 Bruins season, had brought 11 bids to $477.
“Wasn’t aware of that,’’ said Cheevers, when asked about the ring. “Don’t pay much attention to any of it.’’
Still along for the ride Impressive to see Michael Ryder respond with seven shots on net Thursday in Nashville, only 48 hours after he was scratched for the first time in his Bruins tenure. A real option for the Bruins at the trade deadline was to deal Ryder, or demote him to Providence, thus keeping Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart in Spoked-B employment. Stuart, dished with Wheeler to Atlanta, has been missed these last few weeks, especially Thursday when a couple of errors by Steven Kampfer added up to a loss. Had Ryder been demoted, he could have been recalled for the playoffs, when the salary cap is no longer of consequence. The only issue, perhaps, would have been that another club could have claimed him, at zero cost, to prevent him from making his way back to the Boston lineup.
Watch the retaliation Yet another ugly scene Thursday in Montreal, where favorite son Vincent Lecavalier, fed up with Habs blue liner P.K. Subban, chopped the big guy to the floor with a slash to the hips. Subban came crashing down, earning Big Vin 15 minutes in penalties and an early shower. Subban is too often a punk, which leads his teammates to withstand some tough knocks when he’s off the ice. And while this is not a prime example, retaliation across the league needs to be addressed, especially when it comes after legal hits. It remains a contact game — something that won’t change — and getting flattened is part of the job. Dignity and adulthood dictate getting up, acting as if it never happened, and getting back into the action. Prime example: Brian Skrudland’s clean but punishing check, straight down Broadway, on right wing at the old Forum, delivered to the front of an advancing Don Sweeney. “Gave me the best he had,’’ was all Sweeney ever said, after being turned into road kill. Sweeney finished the shift, completed the night, and treated the play for what it was: part of the game.
His record was clean Longtime agent Matt Keator, per standard practice, was allowed to speak on behalf of client Zdeno Chara when Big Z was called on the carpet by the NHL 10 days ago for the hit on Pacioretty. “What helped Z not get suspended,’’ said Keator, “is the fact that he has played more than 900 NHL games, has recorded over 2,600 hits and over 1,300 PIMs, but he has never been suspended or even had a hearing.’’ At 6 feet 9 inches, noted Keator, the towering Chara is often 6 or more inches taller than anyone else out there, but overzealous play or inadvertent contact with his stick has not been an issue. “All of that,’’ said Keator, “combined with Z’s universal respect around the league for his hard work and character definitely helped him avoid being suspended.’’
Loose pucks The Bell Centre is one of six rinks that still have the tougher-than-kryptonite tempered glass ringing the walls. Among its promises last week, the NHL said the panes of pain will be gone by the start of next season. Mike Knuble, in Montreal for a visit with the Capitals last week, noted that it’s “a hard building to play in — your head is going off [the glass] and it doesn’t give.’’ Best boards in the business were in Buffalo, where the forgiving glass at the old Aud would sway like palm trees upon collision. “I liked that old stuff,’’ said senior statesman Mark Recchi. “Somebody would hit you and, heck, you could reach into the stands and grab a box of popcorn.’’ . . . A closeup inspection by your faithful puck chronicler of the benches at Nationwide Arena in Columbus found the poles at the end of the benches to be covered with barely enough padding to handle a remote-controlled toy car. It’s by far one of the top arenas in the league for viewing experience, but getting rammed into those turnbuckles could be tantamount to placing one’s head in a guillotine . . . Easy way to stop cheap penalties and trashy hits: Don’t allow shorthanded teams to ice the puck. Some 80 percent of power plays fail leaguewide. If the shorthanded club weren’t allowed to fire the puck down the ice under pressure, power plays probably would begin to connect 33 percent of the time, maybe more. If crimes are met with true consequences, behavior changes. At least make the penalty-killing team play-make out of its zone before allowing it to make the dump . . . Highway sign just outside Cleveland, spotted on a drive from Columbus, Ohio, to Toronto: “Grounds by Coffey.’’ Nope, not failed Bruin short-timer Paul Coffey. Just a local landscape company.