The Demise of Canadian Hockey

By Dave Donnelly

What ever happened to ice hockey being a full-contact sport? Whether in the NHL or elsewhere, physical play is down from its hey-day in the 1970s. Fundamental ‘Canadian hockey’ skills like playing the man and finishing the checks have been replaced with the stick sweep, angling the man to the boards (but not ‘into’ them), and finesse play – which is often accompanied with a general apprehension to be the first player into the corner to retrieve the puck.

Since I have been covering the Vancouver Giants — and these comments are not exclusive to the Giants but address hockey in the WHL — clearly there is void of skill and basic knowledge within our junior ranks about playing physical hockey, aka ‘Canadian hockey’.

It seems to have started with the historic Summit Series in September 1972. On one side, a gang of out-of-shape NHL All Stars was thrown together late in the summer to defend Canada’s honour and supremacy in the game of ice hockey. On the other side, a tight-knit group of superbly conditioned Russian athletes with exemplary skating and puck handling skills was assembled behind a hard-nosed coaching regime. Aside from the hockey tournament itself, the Summit Series was enveloped in political controversy from the get-go. It stood for the struggle between two distinctly different ways-of-life, with the winner bringing home the bragging rights.

But the Summit Series provided more than political bragging rights — it rocked international hockey to its core. It gave both sides a rude awakening about how the game could be played so differently yet still so successfully.

Leonid Konarekin, 24, a defenceman with the Soviet Wings, provides the Russian perspective: “The clash of Soviet and Canadian hockey styles created a new game for both sides. The hockey we’re playing in Russia now is a mixture of the highly technical Soviet method and very physical, individual Canadian style. The changes started with that series, and I think we are better off because of it” [Russians remember Summit Series, Fred Weir, Canadian Press].

After seeing just how near-lethal to ‘Canadian hockey’ the highly skilled Russian team’s play was, there was a move in Canada to develop the skill side of things. Howie Meeker, of Hockey Night in Canada fame, lead the charge.

I clearly remember Howie ranting, ‘Gee willickers, these Canadian kids cannot pass the puck’ and, in many ways, he was correct. The Canadian minor hockey system was just not producing players with the same pure skills as the Russians. Before too long almost every coach in Canadian minor hockey carried a copy of Meeker’s Hockey School book(s), drilling home the skills.

Across the country, youngsters were taught to hone their shooting, skating, passing and puck handling skills and to work on their conditioning. Eventually, to emphasize the importance of the skills, Hockey Canada established that there be no physical checking in the formative years of minor hockey (roughly until the age of 12). But despite the push to develop highly skilled youngsters over the last three decades, many people, including Howie Meeker himself, will say, ‘the Canadian kids are slipping further and further behind the rest of the world’.

So, what is left? In Canada, it may actually be the poorest mixture of the highly technical Soviet method and the very physical, individual Canadian style. The skill level is down and the gritty physical style that was indicative of ‘Canadian hockey’ is virtually non-existent. All one needs to do is attend a WHL game for proof of the later.

Our junior leagues are filled with players who were born in the early 1980s. These players seemingly have no tangible sense of hockey history, nor appreciation for the physical element that can change the outcome of a game — even against a more highly skilled opponent. They grew up watching the high-flying Edmonton Oilers and the prolific scoring machine of the Pittsburgh Penguins, both being teams where offense was king. So that is exactly what they seek to exemplify. On top of this, the Canadian youth were never taught in their developmental years how to play a physical game. They do not even know ‘how’ to check using their bodies. But, really, it is not their fault.

In the Canadian pursuit of upping the skill level through the minor hockey ranks — while, by most accounts, falling short of this goal — the problem with hockey development in this nation has been compounded. By turning its back on its roots — the very physical, individual style which left the Russians ‘stunned by all the body checking’ — Canadian hockey is sadly left with a shell of its former self.

Yes, the changes started with the Summit Series, but I think the Canadians are currently worse off because of it. The skill level is down, and the clean yet physical play that can successfully counter the pure skills has almost vanished. Lest we forget who actually won the Summit Series. Or, more importantly, why.