I wonder when I watch these old games on the NHL Network. Say 1970 and earlier.
How good were these players? The hockey seems choppy, less skilled, with less of a focus on playing a system.
The athletes are generally smaller, poorly conditioned guys for the most part. I saw Gordie Howe play in a game and thought that, while he's easily the best player out there, he's not *that* dominant...seems kinda lazy. Like, he's so far above and away the competition that there's no need in trying. Compared to the hustle of a Joe Sakic, the effort and "flash" just isn't there. Seems to me, over an extremely small sample size, that back then, there's a few star players around...some mid-level guys, and a whole bunch of Aki Berg skating around out there. Real journeymen guys, with the offensive prowess of Scott Ferguson types. Was this really the case?
Thinking elsewhere, and to a larger sample size, I wonder about Chris Pronger. Watching this guy over the course of this past season for the Oilers redefined, for me, exactly what a quality d-man was. I've never seen a D with such control of the game. I'm sure many people will refer to guys like Robinson, Potvin, and of course ORR as guys with a similar ability (I'm not qualitatively comparing them here, just mentioning that element that a dominant d-man brings to the game they share, in whatever varying degrees).
The interesting part? You could never see the dominance in Prongs over one game. You need to watch a 7-game stretch to see exactly how much of a difference maker he is. I tend to wonder if it is not the same situation with the great hockey games/players/rivalries of the past.
Really, my question stems from this. People always wonder about viewing players from the past in comparison to their modern counterparts, along with the limitless whatifs that follow. For the most part, recordings of the best players from 1970+ are sketchy at best; it is rare to find that much material to draw a clear picture of how good a player was, or how good the hockey was for that matter.
Can we truly appreciate the dominance of former greats without being able to re-examine, in detail, the immense impact they had on the game as a whole? Is it possible to accurately view these past games, and justified to compare the level of talent present in the league in 1950 with the level present 56 years in the future?
Evaluating Gordie Howe based on one game would be a fool's ploy. You might have caught him on an off night. Evaluating any player on one game is a boneheaded move, whether it be Gretzky, Mario, or, as you stated earlier, Pronger.
Are the players bigger, stronger and faster than they were in the Original 6 era? Of course. Nobody here has ever denied that. But is that what determines a player's ability to succeed in the NHL? No bloody way. I've seen a lot of big, strong players with great speed, or a great shot, flop in the NHL.
To me, the single largest common denominator among all-time greats in the NHL is work ethic. Without it, you don't succeed. Wayne Gretzky said that's what made the difference in his career. People have questioned Jaromir Jagr's work ethic. I'm not a Jagr fan in the least, but you don't do what he did in 1998-99 without dedication and work ethic. And look what a rejuvianted Jagr did this year. He worked harder than he had since 1998-99, and he had his best season since 1998-99. Pavel Bure was a one-dimensional cherry picker for most of his career. But nobody wanted to score goals more than Pavel did. He had that incredible speed with the puck, maybe the fastest ever with the puck. But without that desire to score, he doesn't score like he did.
Hockey is largely a mental game. Yes, skating, shooting, stickhandling are important. If you have size, it's an added bonus. But that only goes so far, and it doesn't go as far as your work ethic, anticipation, determination, dedication, ability to see and think the game, ability to elevate your play during the important games, etc. Wayne Gretzky was not the biggest player, the fastest skater, the hardest shooter, or certainly the strongest player. But he's the smartest player who ever lived. He saw and thought the game in a way that nobody else ever has. And he had a great work ethic - a desire to constantly improve and remain at the top of his sport. That's why he's the greatest offensive player who ever lived. Great goal scorers are born with that proverbial nose for the net that can't be taught. It looks like they're getting lucky. But they have that uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. As for goalies, it's one of the most mentally-demanding positions in sports. Success in goal is, IMO, 75 per cent mental, 25 per cent physical.
You mentioned Pronger earlier. Ironically, he was compared to Larry Robinson when Pronger was playing for Peterborough. As you mentioned earlier, for the way Pronger can controll the game, but also for the way Pronger skates for such a big man. Robinson is still the standard for the large, skilled defenceman with mobility.
As for Bobby Orr, many historians still regard him as the fastest skater ever. Imagine what he could have done with two healthy knees.
To say most of the 60s players were "Scott Ferguson types" is hyperbolous. Are there players from the 60s who wouldn't have cracked today's NHL? Yes. Would a player like Babe Dye, who led the league in scoring three times in the 20s, but was a terrible skater, have trouble in today's NHL? Yes, although I'm confident that Dye would have been a fine power play specialist up front with his proverbial "nose for the net." But there are many, many players in today's NHL who would not have made it in the Original 6. They wouldn't have been able to survive in the game the way it was played back then. Back then, everybody played an all-round game. Yeah, Gordie Howe's the best all-round forward to play the game. We know he was a dominant power forward. But guys like Richard, Beliveau, Mikita and Hull played a great all-round game, too. They didn't cherry pick.
All-time greats dominate any era, from Cyclone Taylor and Newsy Lalonde, to Jaromir Jagr and Joe Sakic.
I too, watch alot of the vintage games, some of which I watched at the time they were played.
On the contrary, I find the games most entertaining and I marvel at some of the individual skills.
There is a big problem with judging players from a few games. I've watched a few of the vintage games where Bobby Orr was not a factor. But this happens to all players in any era.
I have a new appreciation for the brilliance of players like Dave Keon, Tim Horton, Doug Harvey, Johnny Bower, Jacques Plante (the Technical Master), Stan Mikita, Frank Mahovlich among others.
I would match Bobby Hull's conditioning against anyone today but there is no question it was not the same back then for most. The season was much shorter and most players would have spent the summer working out of necessity. Training camp was the time to get in shape.
Because few wore helmets there was a great deal more respect especially in regards to high sticks. But there certainly was hitting. (watch someone like Bob Baun)
Back when there were six teams, everyone knew everyone else very well. The rivalries were intense but you knew you'd be playing these guys again real soon (as opposed to seeing some teams once a year or not at all now).
One big difference I've noticed is the length of shifts. It seemed that players would stay on the ice for a couple of minutes at times which certainly would have made them look sluggish out there.
There certainly was defensive strategy as well. A recent game I watched was the 65 Cup final between the Hawks and Habs where the Habs did a great job of shutting down Bobby Hull.
The greats of the past were on the same playing field, equipment, facilties, training (i.e. there were few teams with asst coaches back then), fitness, pay scale, travel etc. Given all of the same advantages as today's players how do you think they would look back then? It is what it is and was and why I don't compare eras but I certainly enjoy watching the hockey of the past.
One thing to remember about Gordie Howe is that he was a lot faster & worked a lot harder than he appeared. He had a very long stride & effortless skating style which made him look "lazy" compared to players that have to put a lot of effort into their skating. This effortless skating style is one reason he could log a lot of ice time.
In reading books about Howe it is apparent he regularly played 30+ minutes a night as a forward and I've read he often played 35-40 minutes in some games. That means you have to play "lazy" to some degree to conserve your strength. Howe was accused of playing a bit "lazy" during his career at times. But that is all part of lulling the opponent a bit and then take advantage. Different eras make for different "apparent" levels of effort. Sure Crosby or Marian Hossa can go all out for 50-60 second shifts.... But Phil Esposito would regularly play for 2-2:30 minute shifts. You can't go all out for that long.
Sure the players of the past were generally not as Physically fit as today but more than that the style was significantly different.