Welcome to the NEW NHL!
By Mark “The General” McArthur
Eleven years ago I was cheering the Lightning on with thousands of fans outside Amalie Arena as the team captured their first Stanley Cup in club history after thrilling game 7. The team rose to the occasion to beat a talented and resolved Calgary team. A few days later the Stanley Cup got its first Tampa tan as parade around the city was met with elated fans. I remember being so proud of Torts and Feaster for putting this team together. Dave Adreychuk for his unbelievable leadership and youngsters like Vinny lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Brad Richards, and Dan Boyle getting the recognition they deserved. Nicolai Khabibulin (a.k.a. the Bulin Wall) car stopped infront of me and he signed my jersey that bore his name and number 35 after having one of the more dominant goalie outings in Stanley Cup Playoff History. There was a buzz for the potential of this young hockey team to turn into a dynasty, but then the unthinkable happened, LOCKOUT!
During the season eliminating lockout of 2005 many rule changes happened in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) including a salary cap done to redefine the direction of the league. This cap ended up being the dividing line that forced the Lightning to make difficult decisions sending Brad Richards, Dan Boyle, and Khabibulin away. Dave Andreychuk missed what could have been a climatic season after a cup, but instead faded into retirement halfway through the following season. The changes were meant to create more diversity around the league by making sure only a few superstars could be on each team. The rule changes targeted the clutch and grab game that defined the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Tampa played a skilled game and was able to make it through the bruising Flyers using it. The league wanted to implement this skill focus, but in a lot of Tampa fans minds at the expense of one of the best demonstrators of the new brand.
The league limited the goalie movement with the trapezoid thanks to the legendary New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur, strict enforcement of holding and clutching calls, brought in the blue lines to make neutral zone larger for easier puck movement, and a few more pretty much designed to avoid the unbelievably boring New Jersey Devil brand of hockey. Things moved slow enough in those days for enforcers to rule the ice causing big hits with barely any room for skilled players. The league made a decision to forego the “traditional” view of hockey and bring it to another level of wide spread acceptance. Their plan is working with outstanding results.
The number of fights are way down, enforcers are all but extinct, and old guys who have a hard time keeping up with the speed are retiring earlier. The beer league mentality of the NHL is over. Reading Phil Eposito’s accounts of his time in the NHL they sounded more like a journal of a hardcore fraternity member, not an elite athlete. Today’s game is so fast that a guy taking a night to get blasted at the bar might be the difference in playing in the league or getting sent to AHL. The NHL can’t afford to have the DUI laden or drugged out player (insert you favorite degenerate player here) in the league. TV contracts and Billions of dollars in merchandising are ruling the image of this league. Skill is an absolute must in order to keep up with the NFL, NBA, and MLB.
Fast forward to present day and here we are again with the Lightning facing the Chicago Blackhawks in Stanley Cup Finals. Once again the Bolts are loaded with skilled young talent headlined by their captain Steven Stamkos, the triplets, and the up and coming Victor Hedman facing a team who is deemed as the darling of the league for skill. Towes and Kane have ruled the airways of their legendary demonstrations with Duncan Keith representing the result of tireless workouts in tallying more than 30 minutes a game. These guys are elite athletes with workout regiments far beyond anything pre-2005 players would have done. The expectation is incredibly high and we now have teams who are not only living up to the expectation but these two finalists are exceeding them.
As I was in Amalie Arena for game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final cheering on the Tampa Bay Lightning I was witness to one of the fastest games in history. Even players like Ryan Callahan and Steven Stamkos admitted it was the fastest game they had ever played. The NBC ratings were the highest for any game 2 ever, and the media trucks alone outside the arena was triple the amount from 2004. The league has a huge spotlight on it now and it is all due to the speed and skill of the game.
I asked Patrick Gackle of the Gackle Report on episode 9 of the Teal Tinted Glasses Podcast if the league would make any more rule changes to infuse more scoring and I absolutely loved his response. He quoted Russell Crow from the movie Gladiator, “Are you not entertained?!”. My reply is a resounding yes as I am definitely entertained! It also got me thinking about my experiences of talking with my dad, Douglas McArthur, through the last 11 years of changes to the league. This year is the culmination of the changes made back in 2005. Speed and skill are the new definition of the pinnacle of NHL talent, instead of size and toughness. I am entertained and I hope you are as well.
While being in the stands during game 2 the energy in the room was electric. Both Chicago and Tampa fans screaming as loud as they could for their team as we were all on the edge of our seat waiting for what could be the next breakout goal. Hard passes through the slot, turnovers, spin-o-rama, forechecking, unbelievable saves, and brilliant passing plays resulted in some of the more dynamic goals of the playoffs. No one in the stands was screaming for fights to break out. There were big hits, but the players knew they better get back in the play or else they could be the reason for that one opening needed to solidify the win. Better not clutch, grab, hook or trip because both these teams can bury you on the power play. There is no room for error and if there is one the goalies are exceptional at making that save.
The league thought the rule changes in 2005 would bring about more scoring saying that is what fans wanted. This years scoring is down across the league, but ratings are way up. I believe there has been an unintentional response to the desire for more freedom to score. An electrifying speed game that has its fans on the edge of their seats from puck drop to last whistle. Every play could be the most important play. By looking at the #myplayoffmoments posts there are clearly fans around the league watching with as much excitement as I remember beating my buddy James at EA Sports 1994. Real life has now matched the video game and the skill is so fast even the FoxTrax wouldn’t help you keep an eye on the puck. HD TV’s have made the experience of watching like you were in the arena if not better. There are so many great things happening in the sport and folks this is just the tip of the iceberg. Hold on to your seats as we have the next batch of skilled players entering the league soon and its only going to get faster.
The NHL has arrived as a force in today’s sports and is now ready for worldwide display of some of the best athletes in the world. Do not lament the days of beer league hockey and enforcers because you will be too busy screaming at your TV for the skill on your team.
Welcome to the New NHL. Enjoy!