Jim Austin's Vermonter at Large
Jim Austin
Jim Austin
is a freelance writer from Putney, Vermont.

His previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 06.03.04


Old Time Hockey

Maybe the reason nobody watches hockey anymore is because of helmets and mouthpieces. I mean who would watch boxing if Tyson had to wear a helmet? He'd have a heck of a time getting at his opponent's ear if it was covered in three inches of foam padding.

In the good ole days (those under 45 may now turn to Dilbert) there were only six teams and nobody wore a helmet.

When I started watching hockey the announcer was Foster Hewitt and he would intro the Saturday night broadcast by saying "Good evening hockey fans from across Canada and Newfoundland. I was brought up in Ontario before Newfoundland became the tenth province, incidentally.

I watched the great controversy unfold when Jacques Plante, the great Montreal netminder, donned a facemask for the first time.

"He won't be able to see the puck" shrieked the guys who had never perched between the pipes. "He's a bloody coward eh?" mumbled Toronto fans whose experience with 100 mph slap shots was limited.

Other goalies like Toronto's Johnny Bower and the Ranger's Gump Worsely just looked on in puzzlement, staring out from faces scarred like barbeque grills.

Next was that sissy Swede Borje Salming, who played for the Maple Leafs. Just because he almost lost an eye to the stick of Lorne Henning he started wearing a helmet AND visor. Before you knew it the game deteriorated to game of slap and tickle with players actually wearing mouthpieces! No more Bill Gadsby's toothless smiles or Philadelphia's resident vampire Bobby Clarke flashing his canines and little else.

The bully boys of the NHL are gone as well.

Big John Ferguson of the Montreal Canadiens was reviled as no other non-holocaust-related human had ever been. He was an Anglo who played for Montreal. To make matters worse he could beat the bejabers out of anyone in the league and did so with regularity. This was a combination that made every Toronto VS Montreal game a must in every Canadian household. Someone had to knock the arrogance out of that quisling Ferguson. Nobody ever did.

There are no more true "goons" in the NHL. Some of the Philadelphia Flyers goons had to skate their whole shift just to catch up with the slick forward they were sent on the ice to assassinate.

Don "Big Bird" Saleski, Andre "Moose" Dupont, Bob "Hound Dog" Kelly, Dave "The Hammer" Shultz couldn't play hockey for beans but could beat opposing forwards until they couldn't remember what sport they were playing.

That's a thing of the past. There are still a few tough guys in hockey but now they have to have skills too

The current Stanley Cup Finals between the Calgary Flames and the Tampa Bay Lightning is the lowest rated series ever. At this writing the game score is 2 - 2 in their best of seven series. Is nobody watching because the game is played by panty-waist vegetarians?

The answer is no.

Today's hockey player is faster, stronger, and coached better than the teams of yesteryear. The problem is that there are no personalities anymore. These guys are in it for the cash.

They train all year round. They have become hockey machines. Modern players don't make an effort until the playoffs. And since twelve teams are eligible for the first round, what's the point of trying too hard and chancing an injury?

There are hardly any nicknames either. Try these on for size Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, Lionel "The Big Train" Connacher, Bobby "The Golden Jet" Hull, Ken "the rat" Linseman, and my favorite Georges Vezina "The Chicoutimi Cucumber."

Latter day goalies still maintain the odd good nickname like Curtis "Cujo" Joseph and Nicolai "The Bulin Wall" Khabibulin but c'mon Khabibulin? Sounds like the Secretary of Goat Production in Khazakstan.

And the coaches… Please, they are accountants these days. "Toe" Blake and "Punch" Imlach now those were coaches. If a player didn't put out "full goose bozo" effort on every shift they wouldn't hesitate to send him back to the minors.

The finals are worth watching though. The players are fast and skilled and there is no doubt that their effort is Herculean. Unfortunately their robotic play during the regular season and their propensity to follow the buck no matter where it leads has reduced fan loyalty and thus the ratings.

As my cantankerous and revered old coach of Saturday morning hockey, Leighton Rumble, used to say, "Put that cigarette out Austin and play hockey." Words to live by, my friends.