In the early days of the NHL, when the league had only just begun, it was all about the standings.
So, when things were in the balance, teams would look to score goals.
And if a team was leading, it would have to defend and keep up with the other teams.
“You’d see these big shots being blocked,” says Joe Johnston, who played in the NHL from 1989 to 1993 and is now the executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
“It was all in the game.
You’re not thinking about it.”
The NHL was just beginning to figure out how to win games, Johnston says.
And as teams began to win, they would also lose a lot of games.
The best example is the 1996-97 season, when Ottawa lost eight straight games, including a five-game sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.
The Ottawa Senators, then the best team in the league, fell to 8-14-5, their worst record since the 1924-25 season.
“That’s the story of how we lost, how we won,” Johnston says, adding that a lot has changed in that era.
“The game changed so dramatically.
We had so many new players, so many teams that weren’t even a year old,” Johnston recalls.
For the first time, the game became about more than just scoring. “
Then, suddenly, you look at some of the teams, and they’re really good, they’re not going to win many games, but they’re going to be close.”
For the first time, the game became about more than just scoring.
And while Johnston and others still have fond memories of the old days, he says the modern-day game is much more about positioning and defending.
“We’ve gone from the old ways to the new ways,” he says.
“Because we have a lot more teams that are playing to win.
And the best way to win is to play good hockey, because you have to do that.”
The old days When the NHL started in 1946, the goalies were basically retired.
So the NHL decided to start from scratch, hiring an experienced goaltender to be its new head coach.
It was one of the first times the NHL tried to hire a coach who had worked in the minor leagues.
And it was a big mistake.
The NHL went from a league with a few dozen players to one with more than 400, and by the end of the 1960s, there were about 100,000 NHL players.
The league’s popularity grew, and teams had to expand their rosters to fill them.
“A lot of teams that were on the ice had a problem,” Johnston said.
“If they could have, they could get better.”
As players started to adapt to the game, so did teams.
Some teams tried to build around superstars.
The Boston Bruins made an effort to win with young players like Mike Bossy and Bobby Hull.
But other teams saw that the old teams were not strong enough to beat the younger ones.
So they added stars to their rosters.
The New York Islanders signed a star defenseman named Eddie Shore.
The Philadelphia Flyers traded for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Hall of Famer, Mario Lemieux.
And some teams even tried to use their best players on their bottom line.
The Detroit Red Wings brought in legendary coach Jim Rutherford, who had spent 20 years in the National League, to try and win the Stanley Cup.
The San Jose Sharks drafted goalie Joe Thornton and defenseman Mike Keenan, who later played for the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild.
“At the time, I thought it was genius,” says Johnston.
“I thought, Oh, it’s going to make the league better.”
And in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the NHL was a huge success.
Teams won more than 50 games in a season, and a team won the Stanley Trophy in each of the next two seasons.
And then, in the 1970s and ’80s, things changed.
“They went from being a team with a lot less talent than the previous year to a team that’s better than the next year,” Johnston notes.
“Every year, they had a different set of coaches, new coaches and new players.
And by the time we got to the ’90s, it just became really, really tough.”
The modern-days game In the ’80-81 season, the Minnesota Wild and Washington Capitals finished tied for the best record in the Western Conference.
“But then they did something that’s really hard to do, and that’s they traded for one of their biggest stars, Bobby Hull,” Johnston explains.
“So they took a young goalie and they gave him $100 million.
That was a really big deal.
And Bobby Hull became one of our great players.”
And that’s when things started to get interesting.
“Bobby Hull became a star, and now he’s not even an NHL player,” Johnston adds.