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Is increasingly efficient coaching sucking the life out of the game?

Mike Brophy
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Is coaching sucking the life out of the game?

Mike Babcock.

Author: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

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Is increasingly efficient coaching sucking the life out of the game?

Mike Brophy
By:

Canada's robotic dominance shows how hockey has become more systematic and coaches have more influence on how the players perform. 

I believe in the power of the coach and subscribe to the theory that good coaching is often the difference between winning and losing.

I also believe Mike Babcock is the best coach in the NHL. He is the main reason why I believe the Toronto Maple Leafs will compete for a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs this season -- might not make it, but they will be in the running.

But as I watched Canada roll to a 3-0 record in the World Cup of Hockey, I couldn't help but wonder if coaching isn't killing the creativity that has been the lifeblood and driving force behind my lifelong love for the sport.

The Canadian players poured over the boards and onto the ice systematically taking 20-30 second shifts like robots. It was almost impossible to tell the wonderfully gifted Sidney Crosby apart from the pesky Brad Marchand. They weren't on the ice long enough. They would take their quick shift and then head back to the bench to be replaced by two more of Babcock's robots who did likewise: skated their tails off for 30 seconds and left the ice.

This, it turns out, is a very effective way to play the game. It requires discipline and often brings positive results. The Pittsburgh Penguins used a similar style to capture the Stanley Cup last season and it's hard to argue against winning, isn't it?

As I watched this game, though, I tried to imagine Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr playing in this system. Hockey's two greatest superstars were magicians who needed a little more than a 30-second shift to demonstrate their magnificant skill. Their creaitivity was unmatched; Orr controlling the pace of the game as he slithered up the ice with the puck until he saw an opening and then kicked it into overdrive and Gretzky getting the puck to open areas on the ice and always being two steps ahead of the play.

Their individual skill spearated them from the pack and made them an absolute pleasure to watch. Nobody tuned in to watch Gretzky skate his butt off for 30 seconds and then leave the ice. Orr would never have gone down as the greatest defenceman ever if he was not allowed to play the game at his own pace.

All of which brings me to my biggest concern about hockey moving forward: Is coaching sucking the life out of the game?

I often joke that when players leave the rink following practice, four or five coaches remain behind breaking down video trying to figure out ways to get scoring out of the game. Coaches, it seems, hate goals. The only thing is, it's not funny anymore. Scoring in the NHL is down and the game simply is not as much fun to watch.

The game has been creeping in this direction for a long time.

I recall in 1978-79 when I first covered the Peterborough Petes that following a victory, the players would all say the same thing -- "We played our system." Nobody ever said exactly what 'the system' was, but it was clear that it was designed to reduce and eliminate the opposition's scoring chances. The Petes, who were coached by Gary Green, a deciple of defensive hockey guru Roger Neilson, won the Memorial Cup that season.

With each passing season hockey has become more systematic and coaches have more influence on how the players perform. Individuality is discouraged and players are required to conform to playing a dumbed down, team-first game.

Maybe in the big scheme of things this is the way the game was meant to be played all along. There is no denying today's players on the whole are more skilled than ever. Yesterday's fourth liners, mostly muckers and grinders, couldn't carry the jockstaps of today's fourthliners who generally possess speed and skill.

But how often do we get to see the best players strut their stuff? The gifted Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks led the NHL in scoring last season with 106 points in 82 games. A good season for Kane, to be sure, but he was 109 points off the 215 points Gretzky scored for the Edmonton Oilers in 80 games in 1984-85. Not exactly sure about the average time of Gretzky's shifts that season, but I am guessing they were longer than 30 seconds. Oilers coach Glen Sather allowed The Great One to do his thing.

Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals led the NHL with 50 goals last season, the seventh time he has scored 50 or more goals in a season. Again, good numbers, but a far cry from the 92 goals Gretzky scored in 1981-82.

It is unlikley we'll ever see players put up Gretzkyesque numbers ever again and that's too bad. Coaches will see to that.

It's hard to argue against good coaching and if Mike Babcock's particular style leads to success for Team Canada and the Toronto Maple Leafs, then he's on to something big.

But there is a price to be paid and that price is entertainment value. And when the best players in the world suddenly look like just any other player because of the role they are asked to play, well, that is not a good thing.

It would seem former NHLer Jeff Jackson agrees. During Canada's 4-1 win over Team Europe Wednesday he Tweeted:

 

 

Well put, Jeff.

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Is increasingly efficient coaching sucking the life out of the game?