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The Nineties: The Decade That Changed Hockey

Owen Nolan and Eric Lindros, both selected first overall by the Nordique, ushered in the nineties.

In 1990 the Edmonton Oilers dynasty won their last Stanley Cup, it was the first season for players from the Glasnost inspired "Soviet Invasion" that brought such greats as Fetisov and Mogilny to the NHL and the Quebec Nordique selected the OHL's Owen Nolan first overall. The next year, in 1991, the Nordique, struggling in what would be their last few years as an NHL franchise, got to pick first overall again. They selected another OHL player, Eric Lindros.

In fact, 1991 was a big year all around. Two back to back watershed incidents occurred that were like ominous, gathering clouds before the storm that would take place over the course of the decade. 

Eric Lindros, one of the most anticipated players to ever enter a NHL draft, famously refused, refused, to accept a jersey from the team that had the right to draft him and announced he would not, now or ever, play for the Quebec Nordique who he said did not have the requisite commitment to winning. It was the NHL version of "the natives are restless" and, in hindsight, should have been seen as a harbinger of what was to come. The players were not willing to be treated like commodities and wanted some form of control over their own futures.  

Ironcially, that same year NHLPA Executive Director Alan Eagleson was fired by the players, amidst widespread discomfort with the close relationship he had with the owners. The players felt he was not adequately protecting their interests. A few years later he would face several charges related to both his management of the players' resources and the relationships that the players had been so rightly concerned over, including embezzlement and collusion, and would be given a $1,000,000 fine and imprisoned for eighteen months. 

1992's April Fool's day saw the very unfunny first work stoppage in the NHL, a strike initiated by the players that lasted ten days, dramatically changed the relationship between the owners and players and forever changed the landscape of the NHL. It led, indirectly through the firing of president John Ziegler and short tenure of replacement Gil Stein, to the hiring of former NBA vice-president Gary Bettman as the first NHL Commissioner.

Perhaps the most far reaching and important changes the nineties brought were three in the rule-change category: video replays were instituted (although by 1999 the rule was amended to give the on-ice judgement of the referee(s) precedence over video replay), the diving penalty was born and an effort to make the game safer for the players and flow more freely brought changes to the instigating penalty and its application that became a divisive sticky wicket which is still an issue today in 2013.  

The decade that began with the death of one icon in its opening year, 89 year old Howard Ballard, the irascible and often cantankerous owner of all that was the Toronto Maple Leaf empire, the reins of the Leafs still clutched firmly in his hands, ended with the retirement of another when Wayne Gretzky played his last game in its closing year. Each event marked the end of a particular sort of dominance that has never been, and will likely never be, repeated.  

Ballard was the last of the old school owners who believed vehemently in North American players for a North American league, that a team owner should have complete control of the team and its players and who once said "if you can call a Chevrolet a Chev, why can't you call a Japanese a Jap?". Ballard was what my grandfather called a "character" and he remained unapologetic for any of his actions, including charges that resulted in several years of incarceration stemming from misuse of team funds.  Ballard's exploits were both bizarre and legendary in and out of hockey and his death,  in a strange way, was a catharsis that the NHL sorely needed. If his death is one bookend that delineates hockey eras, Gretzky's retirement was another of a different kind.

By the time Gretzky retired in 1999, he had recorded six (6) sub-100 point seasons and was no longer the dominant player in terms of points but he was still "The Great One", the Gretzky, and his on ice exploits were already the stuff of legend. Every quality player that comes after Gretzky will have to bear the inevitable comparisons. Every time he stepped on the ice, until his very last game, he was a threat but even so, the nineties belonged to another "double number" and where 99 left off, 66 took over.  

The nineties might well be called the Mario Lemieux decade. While Wayne Gretzky was the dominant force of the eighties, Lemieux owned the nineties.  He led the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first and second ever Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, fought a winning battle against cancer and retired (for the first time) in 1997. When the Penguins declared bankruptcy (for the second time) in 1998, the year after he retired, Lemieux, using years of deferred salary, bought a majority interest and set another NHL record by being the first player to gain a majority ownership of his former team.

Aside from the fact that a rare generational talent juxtaposition took place, as Gretzky waned and Lemieux waxed, why were the nineties so important? Because the single most important event in NHL history not only took place in it, but defined it. When 1990 dawned the NHL was still best described as a minor major sports league with despotic owners who were not particularly accountable, players who were paid much less than their other major league counterparts and which had no controls in place to ensure the sort of parity that keeps leagues in business. By the end of the decade a salary cap was still not in place but some strides had been taken to protect smaller market teams and even the playing field.

While the pivotal strike happened in 1992, it was precipitated by the Eagleson events of 1991 which were, in turn, precipitated by the events of 1990 when Russ Conway, then the sports editor of The Eagle-Tribune, began an investigation of Eagleson's performance in office, having become suspicious regarding player pensions fund reports that didn't add up.

In a shades of Watergate way, it was a journalist who changed hockey. Beginning in 1990, spurred on by a report about the NHLPA published by player agents Rich Winter and Ron Salcer in 1989, he began investigating Eagleson and in 1991 he published the first of several installments in a series called Cracking the Ice: Intrigue and Conflict in the World of Big-Time Hockey, which ran, off and on, for most of the nineties. This series earned Conway a Pulitzer Prize nomination and shook the hockey world. Evidence presented in the articles proved  that Eagleson had engaged in a truly astounding number of unethical and criminal actions that spanned many years.

This not only led to Eagleson's departure as NHLPA chief, but it tore away at whatever trust existed between the owners and the players. The seeds of that mistrust, once sowed, took root at an alarmingly quick rate and with a frightening solidarity. 

The First Strike is the Deepest

Thus, the most critical of all the events of the nineties, in terms of ongoing effects which still bless and plague the league to this day, is the one where the players stood up and demanded to be counted. More precisely, they stood up and demanded to do some of the counting. To be accounted to. They were done with the one way accountability street that such stalwart owners as Ballard had patrolled like rabid dogs and which their own representative had accepted like a lap dog.

Like the General Strike in Winnipeg of 1919 which had been nicknamed "The Great Fist" and which had ended the days of the so-called Industrial Barons, the first labour dispute in the NHL was a strike and effectively ended the dictatorial manner in which a hockey team could be managed.  As one player put it, it was more of a "strike first".  Unlike the lockouts that followed, the players had the advantage and coming as it did, just thirty games before playoffs were to begin, the owners had tremendous financial incentive to settle. The key sticking point, sharing of trading card revenue, was settled to everyone's satisfaction ten days later and the season, now increased from 80 to 84 games per, resumed.

The players got some of what they wanted in terms of free agency, playing bonuses and revenue split. But like all labour disputes, especially the first work stoppage, bridges were burned and fences knocked over and the tenor of the league had changed. There was animosity and acrimony between the players and owners now, a condition which still exists as evidenced by the three work stoppages, all lockouts, that have happened since. The bell, as they say, cannot be unrung and the owners have still not forgotten that first sting while the players have not forgotten what brought it about in the first place. They felt betrayed and it left a streak of mistrust in their midst.

The lockout that happened two seasons later struggled to deal with issues such as small market protection and revenue sharing but it was not until the 2000s that a salary cap (except for rookies which had been solved in 94/95) and other parity issues were addressed and solved. While the three month lockout of 94/95 was certainly important, it was notable more for it's side effects than for what it gained or lost the owners or the players. As a direct result of the first NHL lockout two Canadian teams, the Jets and the Nordique, were not able to remain viable and moved to American cities and the Whalers became the Hurricanes and also moved to a different city. The Canadian hate-affair with Bettman, born from these losses, never abated.

The Russian Invasion

The cold war ended in the eighties and by the end of that decade "glasnost" was official and the Russians were no longer Soviets or "the enemy". Aside from the odd European here and there, a few Swedes and Fins and others of the Nordic countries, the NHL was still primarily a North American league with an overwhelming preponderance of Canadian born and trained players. 

But a great deal of interest by both fans and owners in those talented, enigmatic Russian players, fed and teased by a series of summits and tournaments and exhibition games between the Soviets and the NHL, soon led to a shift that started subtly enough with the drafting of nine Soviet players in 1989. By the mid nineties the Russians were everywhere. The three stars from, perhaps, the most famous line in hockey outside of the NHL, Federov, Mogilny and Bure of CSKA Moscow, all ended up in the NHL as did such greats as Fetisov, Makarov and Larionov. Federov, as the story goes, slipped quietly from his bed and stole out from under guarding eyes and made his way to Detroit where he lit up the board for much of the nineties. He was in Seattle, at the time, for the Goodwill Games, ironically enough.

And while one premier Russian player, Kovalchuk, has not so quietly returned to Mother Russia recently, the lure of the "big league", western culture and the Stanley Cup drew one player after another from the slew of countries that made up the Soviet Union and the nineties were characterized by a sudden influx of not-so-homegrown talent. They brought with them a certain grace and character, a certain undeniable skill and talent that changed the game. And most would agree, for the better. But whatever one's opinion is on the nature of the change, no one would argue that it was a massive change in the game. It had suddenly become international - defecting Russians who skated like ice dancers and handled the puck like magicians being endlessly more glamorous than Canadian and American good old boys with their heavier, more physical style of play.

Predictably, the flood gates opened and what was a league that had been dominated to the 99th percentile by Canadians and Americans, became a virtual united nations. With those players came international fans and new found North American fans and, also predictably, a large rise in female fans. Doctor Zhivago and Anna Karenina had left their mark on the feminine psyche and suddenly hockey players were sexy. Russian hockey players may have started that particular craze but it doesn't take long on Google image search to ferret out many examples of just how sexy the modern hockey player has become to the general public. 

Pause, Rewind, Play

In 1992 the NHL instituted, in addition to several time keeping, goal area and checking penalty changes,  the use of video replay to help determine whether a goal was a goal or not. In 1999 this rule was amended to give precedence to the on-ice call, likely a reflection of the furor over Brett Hull's Stanley Cup winning "no goal" of the same year.

Either way, the technological age had come to the NHL and the players, coaches, commentators and fans found more things to argue over and a new element was added to the always problematic area of officiating. In short, it gave people two sources to dispute, sources which often contradicted one another. 

And The Academy Award Goes To ...

But it was in 1993 when the diving penalty was added that it really became apparent that this was not your father's NHL. Small trickles, as they say, are just the starting point for giant waterfalls. It was part admission that some of the honorability we expect in sports was missing in the NHL and part determination to quell some of the more blatant embellishment that was turning some fans off. The old rule 75 covering Unsportsmanlike Conduct, amended on a regular basis, could have been used but the new diving penalty served a more punitive purpose than a mere 2 minutes in the sin bin. 

While an Unsportsmanlike penalty should certainly be embarrassing, it was so broad and had been amended to include so many things that the bite was gone from the phrase itself. It had become a catch-all and was meaningless to players and fans as a form of character censure. While something like slashing or hooking or tripping is, at least, an active penalty often following a defensive effort, diving is a passive one. No one ever yells "tripper" at a player with disgust and revulsion in their voice. They might yell it with anger and outrage, but it seems more respectable in a manly, athletic sort of way. 

The NHL was intent on embarrassing players into submission, if necessary, by calling them, formally, what the fans had been yelling in derision over the glass for more than half a century. Fine. So be it. But there's a catch, as there always is with trying to grade a person's character: it is entirely subjective. A referee now had to decide if it was "really all that bad" or whether a player was putting it on for effect. The end result? Referees take more heat for diving penalties than players do and it became yet another way that fans can talk themselves into notions of favourtism and disparity, particularly with the superstars, who rarely seem to get called for diving. That's the inevitable nature of creating a penalty that requires casting aspersions on a player's very character and which is very much a product of the individual official's perceptions, core beliefs and prejudices.

Although video replay made it possible to change an on-ice call and negatively affected the relationship of the players and fans to the officials by creating a second opinion not formerly available, it was the introduction of the diving penalty that really changed the message the NHL executive was sending to the players and their coaches. For lack of a more eloquent way of saying it, the NHL was telling the players to stop rolling around on the ice pretending to be hurt and embarrassing themselves and the league and to get the hell up and play hockey like men.  

While the diving penalty made it possible, however ill advised, to separate out a particularly objectionable sort of unsportsmanlike conduct, it was the change to the instigator rule that came the same year with further changes in 1996, that shook the league to its very foundations. It was like a shift from steam to gasoline; things had to be rebuilt and rethought around it. Team composition had to change, lines had to be retooled, strategies adjusted, play books rewritten. It changed the game in ripple effect ways - changes that are still ongoing today.

In fact, there are many, including the venerable Don Cherry, who will tell you that the changes to the instigator penalty changed the face of hockey in a way that no single thing has ever done before. Some will tell you it was for the better and others, like Cherry, will tell you it was for the worse.

There are Fighters and then there are Instigators

There has been an instigator penalty since 1937 when the rule read: "A Major penalty shall be imposed on any player who starts fisticuffs". In 1992 it was changed to: "A player deemed to be the instigator of fisticuffs shall be assessed a Game Misconduct". But it wasn't until 1996 when the penalty became a two-minute minor, a five-minute major and a 10-minute misconduct for being the instigator that things got dicey. If a player is deemed to be the aggressor (fighting an unwilling opponent or continuing to throw punches after he has "won", essentially) and the instigator he is assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting, a ten-minute misconduct (instigator) and a game misconduct penalty (aggressor).

That's a LOT of time to play short handed or without an important player. And with just a few syllables, formed into words, joined and separated by commas and periods, the pen proves itself mightier than the sword. 

Every "enforcer" was suddenly out of a job. Every coach began to change his attitude. Every player began to think more carefully about fighting. On the surface, that seemed like a positive change, didn't it?

Rather than rinse and repeat, the bane and boon of writers, I will quote myself from another entry.

Excerpted from: Son of a Gun: A Domi of a Different Caliber

There are those, and I am one of them, that believe one of the reasons no one is going to ever overtake Gretzky's stats is that with the changes in the instigator penalty, the NHL effectively ended the era of the enforcer. I also believe it is why we see so many injuries to marquee players, watch so many stars in the making falter and fall with broken bones, pulled ligaments and wrecked joints. 
If you messed with Gretzky, Dave Semenko came out and tuned you up. Or, later, Marty McSorley. Coaches took that seriously. It was sometimes a deterrent, always a caution. And that was why we got to see some of the amazing hockey that we did. Gretzky was free to be Gretzky. Everyone on that team protected the prime asset and the team, the league and the game were better for it. I miss that old style hockey, to be frank. Oh for the days when the neutral zone was unclogged, when a dirty play begat a retaliation that actually cost something and the best players in the league could entertain, amaze and impress us with the full effect of their skill. 
 And I do not mean to imply that I favour dirty play, because I don't. I don't at all mean to imply that. All dirty play should beget some form of penalty. I merely suggest that two minutes in the box for knocking Crosby off the puck with a cheap shot or a potentially dangerous act is a penalty any coach would take ... and likely call a good one. No player, Gretzky or Crosby, should be protected by the referees - that is the most foolish thought imaginable; they need to call the game the same for everyone. Which was why McSorley rode shotgun ... to right the wrongs best not righted by the officials.

I am not saying the instigator rule is bad, per se. I am saying they might not have considered the fall out, the ripple effect, when they made the rule changes. In an effort to curb fighting, reduce injuries and keep the game flowing by creating control rules for something they clearly don't want instead of banning it altogether, they created another problem. Maybe a bigger one. If not a problem, then a bona fide game changer.

They created a vulnerability for the very players who people come to watch, who are responsible for the growing fan base and the increased revenues. They took away a comfort blanket (if someone hurts our star, one of our guys will hurt him) and added a level of frustration and anxiety that takes away from the game. While they took away the protection, they did not take away the threats inherent in a game that moves at 25 miles an hour and includes a lot of body on body collisions. I do not believe it is possible to make it "safe" - because that would make it boring - but I do believe it is possible to make it safer. The deterrent effect the enforcers had should not be discounted.

Whatever your personal opinion, whether it's get rid of fighting altogether, make the instigator rule stiffer yet, make penalties for dirty hits onerous and costly, it cannot be argued that the changes in this area, instituted in the nineties, changed the game in significant ways. Crosby is not more fragile than Gretzky was, he may not even be of lesser skill than Gretzky was - but he will be hurt more and will score fewer goals, on an exponential scale, if for no other reason, because the game is different.

In the new millennium, two full decades and a bit past the day recently retired, future Hall of Famer Owen Nolan was selected first over all, hockey is a changed sport.  Two full decades and a bit less past the day when over-concussed and early retired, failed Hall of Fame nominee Eric Lindros refused to accept a jersey from the team that had the right to draft him, we are watching league officials and pundits debate the issues of concussion and injury, fighting and penalty. Still. Again. It's been going on since 1937 and shows no sign of abating or being concluded in a way that will keep the game essentially the same: fast, exciting and a little dangerous. Maybe you can't have your cake and eat it, too.

The NHLPA grew up in the nineties. The NHL expanded dramatically in the nineties with eight teams either joining the league or moving home cities. The first strike and the first lockout happened, Howard Ballard, the last of the iron fisted overlords, died and Gretzky retired.  Bettman became the first ever Commissioner, the Russians came across the pond and  Mario Lemieux bought his own team. Yes, the nineties were one of those little pockets of incredible change. A crucible, of sorts. A testing ground.

To quote Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. But whatever it was, the map was redrawn and it marks the defining line between the old-school ways and the new NHL.