Wayne Gretzky - where are you? Mario Lemieux - we need you!
If I have to watch another forward with an open shot at the net choose instead to dump the puck back into the corner, I think I'm going to shoot myself.
Circumstances have left me in the unfortunate position of encountering the NHL playoffs too often this week and I can't help but lament the current state of Canada's national game. At a time when we should be glorying in the artistry of a nimble skater, the beauty of a perfect cross-ice pass, the magnificence of a nifty give-and-go, we get instead the neutral zone trap, burly lunkheads who battle their own skates and that endless "cycling, cycling, cycling" of the puck around the offensive boards.
Oh what the Great One must think of the game today! Magnificant Mario must be squirming in his lazy-boy when he tunes in the latest match.
I saw these guys play together in the 1987 Canada Cup, a short-lived tradition wherein the NHL took a break in its season to allow the top hockey nations to field teams of their best professionals to play for nothing more than national pride and the glory of the game. Gretzky was the established star and Lemieux the up-and-comer, the next Great One, who was in danger of developing a reputation as an under-achiever and a bit of a cry baby.
Canada's coach Mike Keenan decided to put them on a line together and the world was never the same. Gretzky played at his typical other-worldly level and Lemieux took up the friendly challenge, elevating his play and adopting an approach to the game that would make him truly worthy of being considered the Next One.
The hockey was beautiful. Fast, clean and with a focus on skill and artistry. Canada faced the USSR in the three-game final, all three games being decided by 6-5 scores, the first two in overtime and the third won by Canada on a brilliant rush by the dynamic duo late in the third. Gretzky made a beautiful back pass to Lemieux who beat the startled Russian keeper with a high blast from the slot.
I happened to have tickets to game two of that series in Hamilton, Ontario, a double-OT thriller that saw Lemieux post a hat-trick, including the game winner on yet another pass from Gretzky with the capacity crowd (myself included) going nuts in the stands.
Yes, I'm getting old. And, yes, I'm in real danger of concluding that nothing today is as good as it was in my glory days. But when it comes to NHL hockey, I don't think I'm wrong. The game today has bogged itself down in what we used to call the "clutch and grab" style, a style that stifles talent and rewards thuggery.
I had the honour of seeing two of the greatest players in the history of the game team up to play some of the most beautiful hockey ever played right there live on the ice in front of me. I can't help but feel that today's dump-and-chase style of game suffers severely by comparison.