The size and shape of today’s 32-team NHL, with its emphasis on all teams facing each other throughout the season in what often makes for a mediocre mixer, sucks the good hate out of a game that once marketed itself on donnybrooks, toe-to-toe punch-ups, and even the sweet ugliness of a bench clearing brawl.
Those days are gone and they’re not coming back, and that makes perfect sense here nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century. No league could survive today with a marketing strategy centered on buckets of blood spilled all over the ice — even if that’s how it used to be in your granddaddy’s NHL.
Some of the old world surfaced at the Garden Saturday night and it was splendid, ending in a 4-3 Bruins victory over the Leafs in what was by far the best 60 minutes of hockey entertainment this season on Causeway St.
Arguably the two best teams in the league squared off and emotions ran hotter than a turbocharged Zamboni from the start, highlighted by the prolonged rock ‘em, sock’ em bout between Nick Foligno and Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds only 2:43 into the first period.
And to think, the combatants briefly were teammates in the city known as Toronto The Good.
Game on. The energy was crackling from ice surface and into the stands. Causeway St. patrons of a certain age almost could get a whiff of the stale air of the old Garden, that peculiar mix of beer, cigar smoke and sweat, and the lingering stench of the circus elephants that came dancing into the building every year.
If only we got more of it, right? Because of balanced scheduling, the league produces too many games that are sheer boilerplate, diminishing a product that can, when the rivalries are allowed to simmer, boil like no other sport in North America. We witness it every year in the playoffs. If only we could see it, say, once or twice a week in the six-month regular season.
“Yeah, you know, you’d like to have six games against each team,” said Bruins coach Jim Montgomery, his club improving to 9-0-0 in games following losses this season. “But 32 teams … we can’t do it anymore. But there are big games like this.”
After a slight pause, Montgomery added, “We haven’t played Montreal yet, right? And we only play them three times.”
The Bruins and Habs once were one of the great rivalries in all sports. Now, in part because Montreal has been lackluster for so long, the matchups border on afterthoughts. Bruins fans, once born into the hate-the-Habs tradition, are hard–pressed to pick out the famed CH logo from the rest of the Original 32′s textiles. But it’s mid-January and the teams have yet to trade bonjours.
On another note — now that your faithful puck chronicler is getting worked up — all these franchises have too many different sweaters. We get it, it’s all about marketing and selling the new snazzy style and accompanying glow-in-the dark key ring ($19.99 battery not included).
But with every style permutation that comes in the spirit of selling more stuff, a franchise’s iconic logo begins to fade. Two words, folks: Pooh Bear. It’s enough to make your Spoked-B cry back there, tucked deep in the closet.
The rattle and hum we witnessed between the Bruins and Leafs, smack in the middle of the 82-game schedule, should be a wakeup call to the NHL HQ’s. More of this, please. More Foligno and Simmonds. More A.J. Greer and Michael Bunting trading shots and invectives. More good trouble.
It’s not that hard. Major League Baseball, which has marketing problems all its own, at least gets the schedule right with its emphasis on divisional play. The Red Sox see far more of Toronto than the Bruins see of Toronto. It’s hard on the vulcanized soul.
Charlie Coyle said he knew coming into the night that emotions would run high, that there would be a hint of playoffs in the air. The heightened sense of importance could be felt every shift.
“We knew that was the type of game it was going to be,” Coyle said. “We couldn’t afford to come in and just dip our foot in. We know we’d have to jump right in, get to it …. it’s not always going to go our way right from the start. But we stuck with it and had some good responses.”
Fliggy, said Coyle, using Foligno’s nickname, “having a good tilt there [with Simmonds], that energizes us.”
Good tilt. They both tossed some big shots. In the end, as they broke up, Simmonds gave Foligno an appreciative pat on the hands, as if to say, “Thanks for the dance old man.” Your grandpa would have winced, but OK.
“I thought every period, the intensity ratcheted up,” added Montgomery. “Especially in the third. It was great. Crowd was into it. Two elite teams in the league really going at it. It was really good hockey.”
Raised emotions sometimes can shift the spotlight away from the skill on display. That was not the case Saturday night. Both sides displayed some brilliant skill, including both goaltenders, Matt Murray and Linus Ullmark. Murray stoned Brad Marchand twice in the first. Ullmark, though he’s submitted tighter performances in his romp to the Vezina, made a handful of superb stops. He snuffed out a Willie Nylander wrister as his final act, his 18th save of the night, to preserve the win.
More, please. Big scoops. Sure, skill sells, but emotion turns casual observers into fan-addicts.
“We know we may have to go through each other to advance in the playoffs at some point,” said Montgomery, focusing on a key reason emotions rans high. “And there’s another team, Tampa Bay, that’s going to have something to say about that. But we all know what’s at stake when we play each other now.”
We do, though we sometimes forget. Until, like Saturday night, some of the sweet craziness returns to the building.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.