Why Were the ’80s So Insane in the NHL?

Two weeks ago we introduced a new feature called Holy Crap, the 1980s Were Freaking Insane, a look back at a decade that saw goals scored at a level never seen before or since. We had some fun with a few of the decade’s stranger success stories, and plenty of longtime fans took the opportunity to reminisce.

But a few newer fans reached out to me with a question: What the hell happened? How did the NHL go from shattering offensive records throughout the ’80s down to the dregs of the dead puck era by the mid-’90s? What changed? That’s actually an interesting question, and the answer ends up being a lot more complicated than you might think.

First, it’s worth remembering that the ideal amount of offense in an NHL game is subjective, and that scoring rates have been going up and down for years. Many would argue that goal scoring was too high in the ’80s, turning the league into a one-sided arcade game lacking anything resembling defense. Lots of fans would prefer something closer to the middle ground we saw in the ’70s or early ’90s. In fact, some would even argue that the current scoring rates are just fine the way they are. (That last group is wrong, but we’ll save that debate for another day.)

So instead of arguing about whether plunging scoring rates were a good thing or a bad thing, let’s focus on why things changed so much in the first place. As it turns out, the list of suspects gets kind of long.

The Goalies

Goaltender equipment got bigger
We’ll lead off with this one, not because it’s the most important but because it’s the explanation that always comes up. It’s certainly true that goaltending equipment evolved considerably during the 1990s. Shoulder pads went from being almost unnoticeable to looking like they’d been borrowed from a linebacker. Leg pads went from lumpy brown sofa cushions to massive pieces that extended well beyond the top of the knee. Trappers started looking like hubcaps, oversize jerseys became the norm, and some goalies even started wearing their hockey pants several sizes too big.

By the end of it, goaltenders had looked like this. The NHL eventually introduced rules to limit some of the more ridiculous offenders, but it was too little too late.

Fans tend to focus on the equipment issue because it’s so easy to see — watch any old footage from the ’70s and ’80s and the difference is striking. But the impact of equipment is probably overstated. It was a factor, but far from the only one.

The goalies themselves got bigger
It wasn’t just the equipment that increased in size throughout the ’90s and beyond; it was the goaltenders themselves. With a handful of exceptions, they’re massive now.

There had been big goalies before  six-time Cup winner Ken Dryden was considered huge at 6-foot-4  but the league was still home to guys like 5-foot-7 Allan Bester or 5-foot-5 Darren Pang in the ’80s. These days, it’s rare to see a goaltender who stands less than six feet tall, and even Dryden would find himself looking up at guys like Ben Bishop and Pekka Rinne. (To really drive the point home, here’s a recent shot of Pang and Bishop trying on each other’s equipment.)

While it’s true that forwards and defensemen are getting bigger, too, the trend has been much more pronounced for goalies. And that’s because the way the position is played has changed.

The butterfly effect
There’s a reason goalies tended to be small in the ’70s and ’80s — they needed to be nimble. A goalie’s job was to track the puck, then react by getting a limb in front of it. That usually meant kicking out a leg or snapping the puck out of the air with a glove. You had to be quick, and smaller guys tend to be quicker.

But that’s not how the position is played anymore, because a new style emerged that proved much more effective. These days a goaltender’s job is to play the angle, drop down to cover the bottom half of the net, and let the puck hit him. If done right, the tactic leaves only a few inches of empty net over each shoulder. If the shooter can hit that, good for him. Most can’t, so the shot thuds into the goalie’s equipment and dies.

That’s oversimplifying it to an extent  the job still calls for quick reflexes and reaction time. But for the most part, these days it’s considered unacceptable for a goalie to be beaten clean from any sort of distance. Offense isn’t about winding up and blasting a shot anymore, but rather about getting the goalie moving side to side to open up a little space, or just throwing the puck at the net and hoping for deflections and rebound scrambles. Failing that, there’s just no net left to shoot at. Compare that to a typical game from the 1980s, when guys score on slap shots from the sideboards and nobody bats an eye.

So, yes, today’s goalies are bigger, they’re wearing suits of armor, and they’re better than ever before. But they’re also getting plenty of help from the guys behind the bench.

The strategy

The neutral-zone trap
Along with goaltending equipment, this is probably the most common complaint among fans who’d prefer a league with more offense. The generally accepted story goes like this: The neutral-zone trap (explained here) was introduced to the world by Jacques Lemaire and the New Jersey Devils in 1994-95, helping them to a surprise Stanley Cup and dooming the league to watching teams clog the neutral zone and trying to win 1-0 for the rest of time.

That’s not quite how it really happened — for one, the trap had been around international hockey for decades, and the 1994-95 Devils were a better team than most fans seem to remember. But it’s true that the mid-’90s saw teams start to emphasize neutral-zone play far more than ever before. Watch an old game from the ’80s and you’ll see guys carry the puck from blue line to blue line untouched all game long. That almost never happens now.

Like now, the NHL was a copycat league. Once teams saw how effectively a well-executed neutral-zone strategy could shut down even the most high-powered offenses, they were intrigued. And when the Devils’ Cup win was followed by a no-name Panthers team beating the star-studded Penguins on their way to a stunning run to the final in 1996, the trend was set. Everyone was trapping.

All in on defense
As much attention as the trap gets, it was only part of the NHL’s defensive revolution. It wasn’t just the neutral zone; all aspects of defensive systems became significantly more complicated.

In the ’70s or ’80s, a winger’s defensive assignment might be “cover the sideboards and watch your guy on point.” By the late ’90s, players were expected to know exactly where on the ice they had to be, and when, and exactly what to do with the puck once they got it. The use of detailed video breakdowns became common, often handled by assistant coaches who specialized in defensive play. After years of having systems drilled into their heads, most NHL players got pretty good at playing them.

(Compare today’s NHL product with a typical junior league game. Relatively speaking, the goalies are just as big and just as good and the coaches still preach defense, but the rest of the players don’t have as much experience with playing systems. They make occasional mistakes, and that leads to a lot more offense.)

Meanwhile, the game plans themselves became more conservative, with an emphasis on defense and defensive-minded players. These days, your typical NHL coach can accept a 1-0 loss, but if you win 5-4 you’re getting bag skated the next day.

While all of this was going on, fans of a more high-scoring game waited patiently for an offensive-minded coach to come along with an effective system that would restore the balance, but it never happened. It became clear that in the modern-day NHL, defense really does win.

And let’s not forget the art of shot-blocking, which has become much more common over recent years. That’s partly due to coaches incorporating it into strategy and partly due to better equipment that makes it less risky for skaters. But it’s also a ripple effect from all of the above. As the area where you could realistically expect to score from shrinks, so does the area of the ice that defenders need to worry about. They can collapse into ever smaller areas in front of the net, and eventually shooters are staring down scenes like this.

This one’s often overlooked, but find footage of an old game and take note of how much time players spend gliding around. They’re not being lazy — they’re conserving energy, because they’re expected to take a long shift and be ready to kick it into top gear once an opportunity presents itself.

Not anymore. Today’s players go all out for 40 seconds or so and then get off the ice. As Dryden has pointed out, you almost never see a charging penalty called in an NHL game anymore; now the whole game is played at charging speed. You used to be able to count on scoring a goal or two just by catching an opponent napping. These days, nobody naps. (OK, almost nobody, but consider that the exception that proves the rule.)

The other stuff

If offensive-minded hockey is more entertaining (and it is), then you’d expect NHL owners to push for their teams to play a high-scoring style. But during an era when spiraling contracts and a weak Canadian dollar threatened the financial viability of some teams, many owners realized there was a strong incentive to go conservative. After all, why pay for elite offensive talent when you could cobble together a roster of competent guys, give them a defense-first coach, and watch them choke the life out of more expensive opponents? And who wanted to deal with a roster full of 30- and 40-goal scorers who’d just want a raise once the season ended? With few exceptions, NHL teams scrambled to hire defense-first coaches who could offer them a winning record without needing a roster full of expensive talent to do it.

Clutch and grab
Coaches who wanted to emphasize defense ended up getting a big assist from the league’s referees, who spent most of the ’90s ignoring the rulebook. Obstruction fouls became so common, and were so rarely called, that the phrase “clutch and grab” was essentially transformed into a synonym for “playing defense.”

The strategy was fairly simple. As a player, you knew where to be and who was your man. You made sure you were in the best possible position to take away the puck carrier’s time and space, eventually knocking the puck away. And after you did all of that, if he still somehow got by you, you just reached out and tackled him.

To its credit, the NHL has largely addressed the clutch-and-grab problem since the 2005 lockout by reemphasizing the rules that were already in the book. That was a nice step. It was also rare.

A total failure of leadership

As the ’90s wore on and scoring rates plummeted, it became increasingly clear the situation wasn’t some sort of temporary fad that would reverse itself on its own. Gary Bettman and friends had a choice to make: Accept that low-scoring games would be the sport’s new reality or step in and do something about it. They chose the latter option. Then they screwed it up, over and over again.

Even recognizing the situation took the league far too long. Memorably, the biggest scoring-related rule change of the ’90s was the in-the-crease rule, which made it significantly harder to score goals. The league kept the widely hated rule in place until 1999, when it blew up in its face on the most important play of the year. The rule was gone by the following season.

From that point on, the league continually tinkered with the rules in an effort to increase scoring. It limited the size of goalie equipment, moved the nets out, changed the blue line, changed how offside worked, moved the nets back to where they used to be … none of which had any appreciable impact. The biggest set of changes came with the end of the 2005 lockout, including the elimination of the two-line pass rule and the introduction of the trapezoid. That’s when the league finally did see a small increase in offense, which was encouraging until it became clear it was almost entirely due to the increased power plays caused by finally calling the rulebook. As players readjusted to the obstruction rules and fewer penalties were called, scoring dropped again.

The changes continue to this day (remember last year’s introduction of slightly slimmer nets?), rarely to any effect. The league seems content to confuse fans by tinkering with the rulebook every year, but when it comes to doing anything that would actually move the needle on scoring rates, it’s paralyzed.

Meanwhile, Peyton Manning had one bad playoff game and the NFL revamped the way it called illegal contact and pass interference to make sure that fan-friendly offensive totals wouldn’t drop. That’s the sort of thing a league does when its leadership actually understands how to address a problem.

Now that we’re done blaming Bettman for everything, we should probably add one more minor detail …

The ’80s were just a weird time

After all of this, you could make the case the real question isn’t “What went wrong in the ’90s and ’00s?” but rather “What was wrong with the ’80s?” The decade was basically the perfect storm of offense.

The league had still barely recovered from the 1967 expansion that doubled the size of the league when it absorbed four more teams after the WHA folded. It was the decade where arguably the two greatest offensive forwards of all time were both in their prime. The goaltending was good but not great — of all the goalies you’d identify with the decade, only Billy Smith and Grant Fuhr eventually made the Hall of Fame. The world’s best European players were just starting to make their way over to the league.

It’s also worth remembering that the unprecedented offensive explosion of the 1980s followed on the heels of the unprecedented offensive explosion of the 1970s, so some sort of correction was probably overdue. Today’s low scoring rates aren’t that much lower than what we saw in the ’60s and even the ’40s (not counting the spike during World War II), and they’re actually pretty close to what we had in the 50s.

So it’s certainly possible scoring will eventually rise again. Maybe the league finally does the common-sense thing and moves to slightly bigger nets. Maybe it’s some other rule change that finally works. Or maybe an all-out offense-first coach comes along, wins the Stanley Cup, and everyone rushes to copy him.

Just don’t count on it ever getting close to ’80s levels again. Because holy crap, that decade was insane.

Filed Under: NHL

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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