Defensive giants Scott Niedermayer (right), Larry Robinson (left) and Scott Stevens pose during Niedermayer's jersey retirement ceremony by the New Jersey Devils prior to the Dec. 16, 2011, NHL game against the Dallas Stars at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
Photograph by: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images
The last time the National Hockey League played a foreshortened, 48-game season, all hell broke loose.
The Stanley Cup champs of the previous season, the New York Rangers, went from the East’s No. 1 seed to barely scraping into the playoffs in the eighth slot. The Quebec Nordiques and Philadelphia Flyers, 11th and 10th respectively over 84 games in 1993-94, leapfrogged all their conference betters to finish first and second in the lockout season.
Was it because the season was short? Maybe, maybe not.
The Nordiques, soon to become the Colorado Avalanche, were KO’d in the first round, the Rangers in the second, the Flyers in the third, and the unfancied New Jersey Devils, seeded No. 5, made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, but were widely viewed to be no match for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings.
The Wings had come out of the West as the No. 1 seed, repeating their 1993-94 success — indeed, the West was remarkably unchanged from long season to short, with the same eight teams making the playoffs and the same four missing (it was a 26-team league, then).
Scotty Bowman, the grandmaster, seemed certain to take his powerhouse Wings, with the best lineup of centremen in the league — Sergei Fedorov, Steve Yzerman, Keith Primeau and Kris Draper – and a defence that included Norris Trophy winner Paul Coffey, Slava Fetisov, Vlad Konstantinov and some kid named Lidstrom, and school his former student, Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire, in the final.
Naturally, Fedorov hurt his shoulder, Yzerman nursed a bad knee, Primeau injured his back, and the Devils won in a sweep.
Claude Lemieux’s startling 13 goals and bulldog personality won him the “Connie Smythe Trophy,” as he called it, and the Red Wings never did figure out how to put a dent in Lemaire’s confounding defensive system, which gave up two or fewer goals in 17 of the Devils’ 20 playoff games.
“We’ve been jabbed by so many people, talking about the trap and everything else,” said Lemieux. “But you can put all that in the garbage now.
“I’m sorry, but we held it in for so long – if people don’t like our style, too bad. We have the Cup. They can go watch a show somewhere else.”
The series was played amid rumours that the Devils, stuck in the toxic waste of the Meadowlands, might relocate in the off-season to Nashville – Nashville! Who’d ever put a team there?
A brief scan of the stuff written in and around that Cup final provided more than a few moments of hilarity.
The general managers broke from their meeting before Game 4 vowing to crack down on interference.
“I’m not saying New Jersey,” said NHL vice-president Brian Burke. “In fact, I like the way New Jersey plays. They are agile, mobile and hostile.”
Truculent and obstreperous, too. “There’s no question obstruction has reached a level that nobody wants,” Burke said, “and we’re going to deal with it quickly, starting with the first pre-season game. Is it going to be chaos the first five or six pre-season games? Maybe. Is it a price we’re willing to pay? Yes.”
It only took another decade, and several aborted attempts, after losing a whole season to the 2004-05 lockout, for words to translate into action.
From the same GMs meeting came this suggestion: a rule to cover players who fake injuries to draw penalties or stop dangerous scoring chances.
“It’s a problem, and the solution seems to be that if a trainer has to come on to the ice to treat a player, the player may not return for the rest of the period, or for five minutes, or for the duration of the resulting power play,” said Burke.
Eighteen years later ... tick, tick, tick ....
Gary Bettman’s state-of-the-league breakfast with the media produced discussion about the NHL’s pending participation in the Olympics for the first time, at Nagano. To queries about NHL labour peace, with the new CBA not yet signed: “Teams can do whatever they want, but a lot of the plaintive cries we’ve heard are that teams are losing money, and we now have a system in place where teams don’t have to lose money unless they choose to.”
Ah, the good old days.
The L.A. Kings were still digging themselves out from under the Bruce McNall ownership disaster, and one governor said Wayne Gretzky was owed $14 million. Fifteen years later, he’d be owed millions more, by a different failed ownership group in Phoenix. The commissioner pooh-poohed questions about the increasing Americanization of the NHL: “This notion I read about a lot, that we want to move the league out of Canada, is simply not true. If we have markets in the U.S. that deserve teams, we can do it through expansion, we don’t have to relocate. Obviously we are vitally interested in NHL players continuing to be role models for kids in Canada, because over 60 per cent of our players come from there.”
Ahem. Within weeks, the Nordiques were gone to Denver, and a year later, the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix. That one worked out well. Oh, and that New Jersey team that won the Cup? It had 12 Americans on the roster. Just an anomaly, we thought. As if the day would ever come that the U.S. threatened Canada as a producer of high-level talent.
Devils star Neal Broten said that when he broke into the NHL with Minnesota, 82 per cent of all NHL players were Canadian. By 1995, it was 62 per cent. It’s around 50 per cent now, while the U.S. share has risen from 11.6 per cent to about 25 per cent.
That early summer of 1995, the hot prospects the NHL flew in to meet Don Cherry during the Cup final included Bryan Berard and Wade Redden, and two kids who would find themselves Phoenix teammates 17 years later, Daymond Langkow and Shane Doan.
Doan was too shy to go into the Red Wings’ room and bother his childhood hero, Paul Coffey, on a game day.
“I remember crying when the Oilers lost to the Islanders in ’83. I didn’t think it was fair,” said Doan, from tiny Halkirk, Alta.
Anyway, Coffey had his own problems. In Game 2, after exhorting his Detroit teammates to suck it up and play hurt and show more effort, he was minus-3, and another kid who had idolized him growing up, 21-year-old Scott Niedermayer, had skated through the entire Red Wing team, including Coffey, to score the game’s second goal.
As another shortened campaign dawns, the Wings are only now facing life without Nicklas Lidstrom, Scott Niedermayer has joined the Anaheim Ducks’ coaching staff, and Shane Doan, ancient Desert Dog, has just helped end the great lockout of 2012-13.
Five members of the 1995 Red Wings — Yzerman, Fetisov, Coffey, Dino Ciccarelli and Mark Howe — and Bowman are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The ’95 Devils have only one player, Scott Stevens, and two coaches, Lemaire and assistant Larry Robinson, in the Hall, but that’s only because Niedermayer and Martin Brodeur aren’t eligible yet.
And even if almost all the names have changed, here’s something that won’t: a team that plays damned good defence is going to win the Stanley Cup at the end of June.
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