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NHL’s appeal is hardly against the odds
Some of the most memorable and wonderful moments in sport happened prior to 2004/05 in the NHL. Mark Messier promising to bring the Stanley Cup back to New York in 1994 following the Rangers’ 54-year dry spell, and then defying the betting by lifting it; Joe Sakic handing Ray Bourque the sport’s holy grail in 2001 as the great defenseman was nearing the end of his career; and what about Mario Lemieux’s impact in the league and specifically in Pittsburgh?
But the 2004/05 lock-out was a devastating blow to the world of hockey; one that would cast a blanket of fear over any fan in the thought that similar events would take place. However, even though that year seemed to drag on endlessly, it did bring about a number of positive rule changes and policies that would reshape the league.
What has been an important factor in the fallout from the lock-out has been the necessity for a salary cap throughout the league. Yes there were indeed issues in the past with teams looking to gather together the best talent, but the introduction of the cap, among other things in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), helped to protect the interests of the ‘lesser’ teams and ensure that skill was evenly distributed throughout.
Naturally, however, it’s impossible to completely halt the hockey equivalents of a Manchester United or Real Madrid. Quite simply, certain markets are much more favourable to the sport than others. But teams could live in some degree of security knowing that their best players were not being poached, as they are in other sports.
There’s a good emphasis on building through the annual draft, which takes place in the off-season in June. Teams who are looking to rebuild and re-establish themselves as playoff and Stanley Cup contenders need to be smart and aggressive in the draft.
Just after the turn of the century, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks, among others, were regularly on the outside looking in when it came to playoff hockey. But their position in the draft allowed them to re-emerge, against the NHL betting odds, as great forces. Both claimed the Stanley Cup in recent seasons off the back of their young talents picked up in previous drafts. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane of Blackhawks and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins have become cornerstones for their teams, playing significant roles in their successes over the years.
The NHL post-2005 also looked to be a game heavily in favour of the younger, quicker and stronger athlete. Like any sport, technology is greatly updated and made in accordance with the abilities of the modern player. But the new league was also a lot faster, promoting higher scoring in games and stamping out negative or overly defensive tactics.
Out the window went the two-line pass, meaning players could stretch the game much further across the ice. The neutral zone trap (a hugely defensive tactic) was also pushed to the side, as referees were ordered to penalise players who looked to stop the flow of the game. Furthermore, there was a promise for no more draws; all tied games would now be contested in a penalty shootout following a five-minute overtime period. This helped to promote a much more exciting product, alongside the (in)famous fights that regularly break out.
Of course, there is a lot of great history prior to the era of Sidney Crosby and the modern superstar. Wayne Gretzky will forever be the greatest player to lace up the skates, leaving behind him a myriad of seemingly unbreakable records, as well as playing a significant role in the shaping and promoting of the game.
‘The Trade,’ back in 1988, was a big deal to the hockey world . The Edmonton Oilers were parting ways with a Canadian national treasure in Gretzky and trading him to the Los Angeles Kings. A move that would previously have seemed hugely out of left field, as the California market was not what it is today. Yet even now, there’s very little substance in calling California one of the leading hockey markets.
But Gretzky’s arrival on the west coast played a big part in the expansion of the league, helping to ignite the futures of franchises who were previously out of place in that part of North America. The Great One’s famous no.99 is now retired league-wide.
But if there were ever a great advert for the modern NHL, it would be the surprises and great rivalries that shape the game. The once mighty Edmonton Oilers, a dynasty of royals with Gretzky and many others, are now rebuilding with a young core of elite talents. The Tampa Bay Lightning were among the worst teams in 2011 with regularly horrible goal tending, and yet forward Steven Stamkos emerged from that with a breathtaking 60-goal season. The excellent debut season two years ago of Jeff Skinner, a teenager who managed over 60pts in the league, and the relatively inexperienced Cam Ward who helped the Carolina Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup.
Most importantly, however, is the rivalry of two of the leading stars of the game: Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Both tasked with the job of leading and eventually captaining their respective sides, but the significance and hype surrounding their drafts, as well as the great talent in both players, have rounded out to one of the great rivalries in sports. If ever there were another Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo, this is it.
The NHL is undoubtedly one of the most exciting leagues in all of sport, combining skill and power for a wonderful symphony of athleticism and violence. It is little surprise the Stanley Cup betting turnovers rocket yearly. While the idea of hockey sits relatively further back in the minds of a regular sports fan, it’s worth taking a brief look into its world and viewing first-hand why it can offer such a great substitute for what is regularly on offer.