Nov. 1 marks the 50th anniversary of Jacques Plante becoming the first goaltender to don a mask upon returning to a game after an injury. Plante didn’t invent the goalie mask, but he certainly improved it and the two have since become synonymous with one another.
But Plante’s innovativeness extended far beyond facial protection. He was the first goalie to emphasize positional play; playing the angles and forcing shooters to be near perfect. He was the first to regularly leave his crease to challenge shooters, the first to routinely play the puck and the first to raise his arm to signal his defensemen of an icing call. He even wrote the seminal instruction book on his craft, The Art of Goaltending.
In honor of the upcoming anniversary of Plante’s most famous innovation, this week the THN.com Top 10 focuses on things that changed hockey forever.
10. The elimination of the rover and the introduction of forward pass
The six-player game was born when the rover was eliminated in 1911, formalizing the five skater positions and the goaltender. Gameplay as we know it began with the institution of the forward pass in all three zones in 1929. Forward passing was just that, players were allowed to pass the puck ahead. It led to the offside rule and greatly enhanced offense – goal totals more than doubled in the first year of the rule. Without these two innovations, hockey would be an entirely different sport.
9. The Summit Series
The eight-game marathon between Canada and the Soviet Union in 1972 became a microcosm for the Cold War and East vs. West geopolitics. For hockey it showcased European strategy and talent, and united Canada hockey-wise for the first time. Anglo-French bi-partisanship remains to this day, but the idea that maybe Canadians weren’t far-and-away the best on ice brought the two groups closer than they had ever been.
8. The Miracle on Ice
The U.S. victory at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid was to Americans what the Summit Series was to Canadians. Besting the powerhouse Soviets and then Finland for the gold medal remains the biggest moment in USA Hockey history and awoke a nation to the game.
7. The World Hockey Association
The WHA changed the world of hockey forever during its seven-year run. Challenging the NHL’s monopoly with bigger paychecks and ground-breaking contracts to the likes of Bobby Hull; bringing Europeans and their style of play to North America; signing 17-year-olds, which basically forced the 18-year-old draft into existence; and playing big-time hockey in the Sun Belt. The WHA made hockey fun again and changed the way the NHL conducted business.
6. Wayne Gretzky
Whether it was making his professional debut at 17, amassing goal, assist and point totals never before conceived of, his trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles – which broke the hearts of Oilers fans and Canadians in general – or even his role in the Phoenix Coyotes debacle, Gretzky has been at the center of important events in the evolution of hockey on and off the ice for more than 30 years now.
5. The 2004-05 Lockout
The lockout single-handedly altered the face of the NHL. The economics of the game were drastically altered, in both the way franchises worked together and how they worked with the players; the salary cap was instituted; the on-ice game was changed with the elimination of the red line and a new standard for enforcing rules; and the NHLPA is still reeling from the effects of the power vacuum created by the ouster of former executive director Bob Goodenow.
4. The NHLPA
The NHL Players’ Association may be in a weakened state right now, but its formation and growth changed the face of the NHL. Players didn’t always share agents and information, collectively bargain or even socialize with one another unless they were teammates. Before the NHLPA was created in 1957, players were chattel, subject to the whims of owners and without any means to stand up and have their grievances heard or affect change in any way.
The first round of expansion in 1967 suddenly created twice as many NHL jobs for players who had previously languished in the minors and exposed the western part of the continent to the NHL product. Expansion has been hit-and-miss, with success stories, but also a watered-down product, a southern footprint scarred by failed and failing franchises and an alienated Canadian fan base. Still, for all its faults, expansion’s importance can’t be argued.
Beginning with the Summit Series, continuing with the WHA and NHL pioneers such as Inge Hammarstrom and Borje Salming in the 1970s, the Stastny brothers’ defections and the brilliance of Jari Kurri in the ’80s, and finally the en masse arrival of Eastern Bloc players in the ’90s, hockey is better thanks to the mingling of the European and North American styles. And Europeans saved the NHL; without them there simply wouldn’t have been, and still wouldn’t be, enough top-end talent to sustain the league’s aggressive expansion.
1. The Entry Draft
It may be a crapshoot, but at least everyone has the same chance at turning up crap – or gold. Prior to 1963, that wasn’t the case. The Original Six teams scoured Canada and the hockey hotbeds in the U.S. for teenaged talent and ‘sponsored’ amateur teams and the individual players they liked best. They had exclusive rights to players from those teams, basically making them property for life. What’s more, teams had territorial rights – the Canadiens had first dibs on all Quebec-born players, for instance. It all began to end in 1963 with the institution of the Amateur Draft of un-sponsored players. What is now the annual NHL Entry Draft has gone through a number of evolutions the past 46 years. Nothing else has changed the face of the NHL quite like the way players are distributed. Teams still must draft well to ensure success, but at least everyone has a fighting chance.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
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