Picture by “Nichole”, via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author
New York, Los Angeles. The perpetual, uniquely American struggle between East and West is playing itself out in a worldly Stanley Cup microcosm. Just as Mad Men’s Don Draper plays out the fundamental differences of the two places on TV screens all over the United States, we’re watching the emergence of a new league that has only recently thawed the winter of the Gretzky Era.
And what do I mean of that – the “Gretzky Era?” It’s the belief that that goal-scoring is something we can re-capture, and that part of the reason it worked in the first place was because Dave Semenko was there to secure it. We have been living those two lies ever since; born from the Broad Street Bullies, carried tightly in our fists like a shoe in Milbury’s hand, there is not telling how much great hockey we cheated ourselves from by sneering at the European possession-style, or ignoring the fact that the pugnacious Flyers and Bruins teams were great possession teams themselves.
We almost knew a different way, when Jagr, Fedorov, Sundin, and Bure entered the league, and Mogilny and Selanne scored 76 goals, and Sergei Zubov led a Stanley Cup-winning team – from New York – in scoring. Soviets were no longer Soviets, Europeans were no longer Europeans, and maybe these kids could change the way we play the game.
Instead, the old mantra crept back in, and in seasons where the defense could be no more stifling, somehow possession and offensive styles drew ire from the old guard that felt it was abandoning defense, or physicality, or some ghostly, team-first principles that they believed had always been there. When fresh data began to tell us new and exciting things about the game, past and present, it was criticized as infantile and ignorant, the new chastised by the old in the same way it always has been.
As with any valuable set of principles, the evidence has since forced people to take notice. In the last 7 Stanley Cup Finals, 11 of the 14 teams carried a noticeable perception of the importance of possession, and demonstrated an understanding of analytics. Nearly half the league now takes it seriously, and by the end of the decade it’s likely that all teams will have analytics departments.
For now, though, the Gretzky Era still haunts these halls. Dean Lombardi and his fascinating construction of the Kings was still overruled in selecting the American Olympic team. Glenn Sather, now GM of the New York Rangers, still has more weight in the room than sharp-minded Alain Vigneault, Rangers head coach and zone-start virtuoso. But they are both there, in this league, at this time, like Corsi and Extra Skater on the same channels as Don Cherry.
There is some sweet victory in this, no less rewarding than the victories that brought us Bure, Mogilny, Zubov. Surely we saw the value of good possession hockey in some of the most exciting games in recent memory, between the Kings and Blackhawks in this year’s Western Conference Finals. Each team disrupting one another’s control, weaving extraordinary passing sequences and picking each other apart in a masterful chess match. Was Brandon Saad’s cut-back and feed to Michal Handzus, who had just been shielded by an overlap with Patrick Kane, not one of the most beautiful game-winning plays you had ever seen? Surely anything that could break a 37-year old, defensive-minded center into a 1-on-1 with the goaltender is amazing.
And just as the Grezky Era lingers, we should feel some vindication in that older victory that brought us European hockey. In what other world would we be blessed to watch Kopitar, Gaborik, Voynov battle Hagelin, Zuccarello, Lundqvist? Alongside Carter, Williams, Martinez, Mike Richards…versus McDonagh, St. Louis, Brad Richards, Nash? As much as you try, you cannot hold back the world – and here we are, looking over the edge, into something new, something better, something more like “hockey” than we’ve ever had before.