I doubt John Tortorella was as angry about the state of things after his team torched the St. Louis Blues last night, but here he was at the morning skate yesterday:
Now, if you’ve been here for any length of time, you know I’m a tree-hugging socialist that does only what St. Vincent and Shirley Manson tell me to do and have pissed myself at the outset of every confrontation I’ve ever had (this isn’t entirely untrue, but due to inebriation rather than fear). So you probably expect me to once again lambast one of our favorite targets, no matter how much he loves dogs (or was right about Ryan Johansen and Brandon Saad).
Hockey being hockey, this is a complaint we’re hearing now about five years or more after we’ve heard it in other sports. I remember complaints like this in all the other major sports, and it usually starts out criticizing those not from these shores. Hell, you remember Bruce Boudreau getting salty about Alex Ovechkin laughing it up with fellow Russian players on the other team that had just steamrolled the Capitals that night. In baseball, it was the Latin players who were too chummy. Then basketball and and football followed suit with players being nice to each other on and off the court (fuck, Isiah and Magic were kissing each other in the 80s!).
And the reasons for this in hockey are pretty much the same as they were in the other sports. With the continued growth of player movement, a lot of these guys have already played together before. If they haven’t, they might have the same agent and work out together in the summer instead of retreating to whatever farm or factory older players used to work at to grunt, sweat, and stew for months while staring at a picture of some drunken punter who was the third center on Montreal before getting on the ice again. Specialization at younger ages plays a role, as a lot of these guys were probably at the same hockey camps as kids and developmental systems. They’ve played on youth national and older national teams together. There’s just more familiarity.
At the top level, the shit-disturbers have been moved out for players that can actually play. Your third line is less and less diligent checkers and pests. They’re moved to the fourth or off the roster completely, in favor of guys who can still skate and score. Look at the third lines of teams that are contenders this year. Just a brief snippet: When Nylander signs, Toronto will have Kapanen-Kadri-Lindholm (maybe Kadri is a bad example). Winnipeg has Copp-Lowry-Tanev, and has/could feature Roslovic and Perreault. Joonas Donskoi and Kevin Labanc are on the third line in San Jose. Basically, a lot of the guys whose main job it was to raise the temperature are being phased out. We’ve heard this all before in the NBA, NFL, and MLB. Bill Laimbeer wouldn’t get anywhere near an NBA court today. The “Baseball Police” are heavily mocked.
And yet, on some level, I see what Torts is getting at. And on that level, I’m with him in that I miss it, too. One of the appeals of hockey, as I’ve written here and other places before, when I got into it was the feeling of danger you got when walking into an arena. It’s what you tried to channel when you watched it on TV. You didn’t know what you might see, both on the ice and in the stands. It was fast and furious and what made it special was that utter art could be created out of utter mayhem.
Missing it doesn’t mean longing for it to be back, though. The feeling of danger in the stands washed away long ago, as every arena has a more homogenized and stale feel with game presentations almost exactly the same and everything catered to the glitterati and aristocracy. It’s not as fun, but that doesn’t mean I long to be thrown up on again by Tony from Oswego or have bags of piss tossed around (this was more a soccer thing but you wouldn’t have put it past the creatures of the Old Stadium either). And as we all agree, I certainly don’t miss standing in two inches of what I could only hope was water in the bathroom.
As far as the product on the ice, it’s different but that doesn’t mean it’s worse. It’s way better, actually. Take this from Torts’s own team last night:
Ok, maybe I take more joy in this than most because it was the P.A.T. on the Blues, but look at that pass! And that’s to Seth Jones, a 6-4 d-man who skates like the goddamn wind and effortlessly puts this away. 10 years ago everyone would complain that Jones didn’t “play to his size,” or something equally ridiculous and his game would have mutated. Isn’t this way better?
And this kind of thing is happening every night, especially this season. We can bemoan that hockey isn’t nearly as vitriol-filled as it was, but it doesn’t have time to be. Go on, try and be physical with Nathan MacKinnon or Connor McDavid or a dozen or more other players. You can’t catch them to do so. You can send your knuckle-draggers out there if you want, and you’ll get slaughtered every night.
It’s a different product, but it’s a better one. We’ve heard all these complaints in the NFL too, and some of the roughing the passer rules now are laughable. But no one’s complaining when their QB is racking up 400 yards again (please do this soon, Mitch). And finally there are more than like, four decent quarterbacks. It’s just a more watchable product.
Yes, Torts, sometimes I sit back and reminisce about the actual fear I felt when walking into 1800 W. Madison for a Wings-Hawks game, because I didn’t know if the chaos would happen on the ice or in the row in front of me. Or even Hawks-Canucks games between 2009-2012. I miss actual emotion, too. Which is a reason I watch the Premier League, and if that doesn’t square up for you I can’t help you. But that’s also hard to generate in October. I’m fairly sure there’s a decent amount in April, still.
But that doesn’t mean I want to back there. Maybe some things are best left in the past.