1995 lockout rewind: King recalls how the effort remained high in shortened season
Former Flames head coach notes the importance of a fast start in a 48-game campaign
Every game seems absolutely crucial, which means you’re going to play your top dogs more. ... Because you can’t worry about tomorrow’s game, you’ve gotta get tonight’s.
Dave KingBob Hartley isn’t shy about admitting that he, along with most of his NHL coaching brethren, find themselves entering uncharted territory as Sunday’s mad, 48-game dash looms.
“This,” he said with a certain delving-into-the-unknown fascination, “is new to all of us.”
Buck up, fellas. An old hand at this abbreviated-season business, though, Dave King, boss of the Calgary Flames back in the lockout-abbreviated 1994-95 campaign, can offer at least some words of encouragement.
“Actually,” reckons King, now development coach with the Phoenix Coyotes, “I felt coaching in a shortened season might’ve actually been easier because there was no lull, none of those January blahs you usually have to push through, where the level of play dropped for a little while.
“I remember there was no motivation issues that year, no worry about guys losing their focus or concentration, or the effort level eroding, as can happen during a long regular season.
“You get caught up in the way the games, the season, just keeps pushing on.
“It’s just go, go, go.”
That year, King and the Flames went, went, went, climbing their way to first in the Pacific Division standings and the automatic second playoff seed in the Western Conference (24-17-7).
During the off-season, change had been in the air, with Conn Smythe-winning defenceman Al MacInnis and goaltender Mike Vernon both off-loaded.
After the 103-day lockout ended Jan. 11, Calgary right winger Theoren Fleury, a second team all-star, finished tied for sixth in NHL scoring alongside Detroit defenceman Paul Coffey with 58 points, with Joe Nieuwendyk adding 50. Trevor Kidd, the primary reason for Vernon’s departure to the Wings, toiled in 43 of the 48 games, tying Patrick Roy, still in Montreal, for the league lead in that department.
“You do have to manage your people a little differently,” acknowledges King, “if only because the number of games is intensified while your recovery time is reduced.
“I can remember that on some days not everybody practised. As a coach, in an 82-game season I want guys to practise. I believe in practice. But in a 48-game season, the players whose minutes are up, they take the morning off. Or they take the day off. Everything is designed to keep your players fresh.
“Every game seems absolutely crucial, which means you’re going to play your top dogs more. In the last 10 minutes of a close game — and there will be a lot of those — you’re going to use those guys. A lot. Because you can’t worry about tomorrow’s game, you’ve gotta get tonight’s.”
The most critical position, naturally, is the one between the pipes.
“It’s really going to be interesting to see how teams manage their No. 1 goalies. How smart they are with them. There’s going to be so many back-to-back games, yet every point is crucial and you’re playing against teams you’re fighting with to make the playoffs night in and night out.
“But these guys need recovery time, too. It’s not going to be easy for some of the goaltenders who are going to be expected to play 40, 41 or 42 games out of 48.
“Most of us are in the same pickle. You’ve got a No. 1 guy and you’ve got to ride him as hard as you can but you never want to put him in a situation he could get hurt. Because then it could be curtains.”
By acclamation, a fast start would seem to be essential. Looking back to 1994-95, the Flames didn’t exactly Usain Bolt off the line but never slipped below .500, carving out a 5-4-1 record after 10 starts and 10-6-4 after 20 to set themselves up.
“In an 82-game season, you can get off to a bad start and recover,” warns King. “In a shortened season, your start better be good, because if it isn’t ... There can be none of this ‘Oh, everything will even itself out’ thinking. Being a front-runner early, you have a chance to make the playoffs. If you find yourself chasing the pack, from behind, it’s a real struggle. Games are tight, points are difficult to come by.
“I remember in Calgary that year, our slogan was ‘The first team that gets down to business.’ That’s what we wanted to be. There’s no cushion, no way to ease yourself in.
“The level of play is going to be very high very early. I’m not saying it’s going to be error free. Far from it. But the tempo, the work rate, the concentration, will all be high. Therefore, with a shortened camp and so much on the line right away, there’s a greater chance of guys getting nicked, being hurt, early. So much has changed since ’95. The medical coverage has gone up and up and up, in the amount of attention, the number of specialists, teams since then. Everything has improved.
“But still, I think we’re going to have to use our farm-clubs, for sure.”
Those who were around for the last lockout-shortened season recall how close the jockeying for playoff positions wound up being. Dave King sees the races being even tighter now than in ’94-95, the margin for error less.
“Of course, back then we didn’t have overtime. Those games loom so large now. All your games are conference games. So there’s no game that’s ... extraneous, if that’s the right word. There’s no games against Eastern Conference opponents where the loss of that extra point might not seem so damaging. Games in overtime in this shortened season are going to be very, very close to the vest because of the importance. Sometimes in overtime 4-on-4 against an Eastern team, you’d open up, because if they get the extra point, well ... you still got one.
“I think with exclusive conference play, a lot of the overtime games will be decided in shootouts because no one is going to want to give everything away by taking a chance in those five minutes. You’ll play solid defensively in the OT and then take your chances in a shootout.
“It’s going to be an unbalanced schedule, where you’re playing some teams three times, twice in your rink and once in theirs. So it’s going to be pretty wild.
“With the urgency I remember us all feeling in ’94-95, you just feel you can’t let any opportunities slip away. It’s tough on the players and can be murder on the coaches, but the fans, I think, are going to get to see some pretty good hockey.”
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