Old school reasons
A stat nerd watches 70's hockey for the first time
Whenever I watch clips of old hockey games, I always wish that I had more time to expand my tracking work there. The most fun I’ve had writing about hockey recently was when I tracked the classic 1996 Red Wings/Blues game and the recent post I did on Pavel Bure. These weren’t the games I grew up watching, you just kind of knew who these top teams & players were even if hockey wasn’t your top sport. I always heard about how great those Colorado Avalanche teams from the late 90’s were but didn’t watch Joe Sakic & Peter Forsberg play a game together until recently when I tracked the Dallas Stars Cup run.
I’ve always wanted to learn more about the players from previous generations. There’s no data available on them outside of goals & points, the NHL wiped most of their archive so it’s not exactly easy to find footage of full games (at least for whole seasons) and the game has changed so much the past two decades that old games look like a completely different sport sometimes. Seeing what makes the Hall of Famers so good beyond “they scored lots of goals” is always cool because you can how these players stood out in whatever era they played in. Like how Bure stayed an elite goal-scorer in an era dominated by obstruction, err I mean, defense, goaltending & the trap or how you just had to tune into a Buffalo Sabres game to watch Dominik Hasek stretch the limits of the human body. It’s something I wish I could devote more time to.
Friend of the blog, Jack Han, must have read my mind because he asked me to track a lot of games for one of his own projects. When I say a lot of games, I mean a lot. Starting all the way back in the mid-70’s, which is an era of hockey that I don’t think about much. Full game footage isn’t easy to find and it’s usually in terrible quality, especially for tracking stats. That and Wayne Gretzky basically rewrote the record book in the 80’s, so the previous decade isn’t talked about much at all. The most I really knew about the 70’s was Bobby Orr’s goal & the Flyers last Stanley Cup win & even then it’s your basic Wikipedia facts.
I tracked seven games for him, most of which were of the 70’s Montreal Canadiens dynasty, the Soviet Red Army teams & the French Connection-era Buffalo Sabres. Stat tracking from this era is always tough because you’re working with basically no context & on the surface the game looks very different. It’s slower, offense was more methodical than quick, the goaltending style was…well you’ve seen the clips. I think this is before the era that people associate with all-out brawls on the ice, which I didn’t see much of until Lindy Ruff lost his mind on Billy Smith in the 1980 chapter of this project.
If anything some of the best players in the 70’s might grade better by modern stats of efficiency because teams didn’t have to beat so many layers on the forecheck & there was a little more space to do what you wanted with the puck, especially in the neutral zone. The slower pace of the game also made it easier for teams to plan an attack offensively compared to now where everything happens in two seconds. There were a few players like Steve Shutt & Gilbert Perreault who had that element of speed and even then it doesn’t compare to what players like MacKinnon & McDavid are doing now. The games didn’t start to pick up in pace until I got to the Islanders games, as they were the first team I noticed try more long passes & deflect pucks into the zone if nothing was open. Teams were more prone to regrouping & making 5-10 foot passes out of the zone before that, even the Red Army teams that never willingly gave up possession of the puck.
I’m a little reluctant to track or post stats from these games because there is always a group who will be the first to point out that an AHL call-up today would probably dominate in this era or how “bad” the hockey was. Like, I get it. There are a lot of ugly moments in these games & a few stretches where basically nothing happens. I also didn’t know what the goalies were doing half of the time. Still, I enjoyed following these games. Watching the great players like LaFleur and Perreault take over games was nice & seeing both the Sabres & Habs take apart the Red Army team was very impressive.
Sports history is such a niche topic, especially when your day job revolves around what’s happening in the game now. The whole time I was watching this I wondered how much hockey fans my age knew about these teams or if they even cared. The Canadiens honor their history more than any other team, but do 30-year-olds care about a team that predates them by 15 years? The most I can relate is that I grew up an Orioles fan and while you saw Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer & Earl Weaver’s numbers all over Camden Yards, but most of my memories with the team are based on Mike Mussina, Brady Anderson & Brian Roberts. They had their Golden Years & while it was honored, you had to have a vested interest if you didn’t grow up watching those teams.
The 70’s Habs were pretty fun to watch, though. There were so many Hall of Famers on that roster and they seemingly had one of the best 5-10 players at their position on the ice at all times. It was interesting to watch while they were an “old school” team, the way they played was favorable to the stats I track where controlled zone entries, controlled exits and passing plays rule. Not to the extreme level of the Soviet teams, but they entered the zone with possession on roughly 54-percent of their entries & over half of their zone exits were with possession, a rate that would be the highest in the league by a few percentage points today & higher than the league average has been since I started tracking this data in 2016.
Some of that relates to the players they had, Robinson, Lapointe & Savard are highly regarded for a reason, but the pace of the game also favored a more puck-possession style. Players had more time to find an open teammate or setup something while going up the ice instead of having to immediately move the puck after taking a couple of strides. Likewise, the speed of the game made defending a little easier, at least from a shot prevention standpoint. The league was also smaller, so dominating the competition was probably easier for a team like Montreal with the level of talent that they had. Still, they played the Red Army to a tie in 1975 & beat them decisively in 1980, so there was definitely something special about this group.
That being said, the Buffalo Sabres were the team I enjoyed watching the most. Gilbert Perreault was the best player on the ice in every Sabres game I watched and arguably the best player I tracked for the entire project, although LaFleur & Larry Robinson might have something to say about that. Most of the stars were aligned for them in these games. They had three stars on their top line, defensive stalwarts like Craig Ramsay & good players like Danny Gare throughout their lineup. They even got by Montreal in the semi-finals. The Flyers just wore them down and they’re a footnote in history. I have a soft spot for the great teams that almost win, but I do wonder how they’re remembered within the fanbase. Those who were around to see it probably loved the French Connection Sabres & still talk about them. Do Sabres fans my age feel the same way? Should they? It’s a lot like diving into Incubus’ discography where they have the big albums that everyone knows and the rest doesn’t appeal to anyone except hardcore fans or those who have vested interest. Maybe it would be different if they won. Them being the team that the Flyers won their last Cup against is a lost trivia question now.
Speaking of which, I feel like this Flyers team is the only one I had any familiarity with. They were the Broad Street Bullies! Everyone who is remotely into hockey knows who they are. I was half expecting their games to look like a scene from slapshot. Fights, big hits, line brawls, dirty play, all of that stuff. None of that happened. It was the Stanley Cup Final, so the teams might have been playing with a little more control than they would have in the regular season. The intimidation factor might have been there against Buffalo, but there weren’t a lot of hits due to the speed of the game and physical play was limited with the referees calling the play dead whenever a board battle was about to happen.
I wish I took more time to learn about this team because while they played maybe the least interesting style out of anyone I tracked (dump-and-chase + forecheck for hours), watching some of the unknowns like Orest Kindrachuk come through for them was pretty cool. Clarke also had some shifts on the power play where the puck just kept coming back to him & he would just keep the puck under control forever until the coverage broke down. Only so many players could shoot the puck well in this era & there were even fewer who could pass the puck through defenders, so Clarke & Kindrachuk were the obvious standouts here. The Flyers actually reminded me of watching the 1999 Dallas Stars than any other team from this project because of how defensively-sound they were while their more skilled players were allowed to thrive in the environment.
Sometimes I get annoyed with how nostalgia-driven hockey commentary is, especially on television or podcasts. Older players get put on a pedestal that this generation of players will never be able to reach in the eyes of some because “the game was different back in the day.” I feel like there’s always a lot of talk without much substance when it comes to this era of hockey because it’s always the same tropes about how the game & the culture was “tougher” than it is now.
After going back to watch these games, there’s more than just romanticizing about the past. You had teams experimenting with different ideas (Sabres 1-2-2, Isles playing with more pace), using exhibition games against the Red Army to test those ideas & special players like Larry Robinson influencing how the game is played now. Comparing players across different eras is where we start to run into problems & pointless arguments.
The only game I would put on my “best of all time” list would be the Too Many Men Habs/Bruins game from 1979, but each matchup had something cool to watch for or a player to focus on. Granted, that’s me speaking as a hockey nerd. As much as I don’t like putting the previous generation on a pedestal, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging those who came before & seeing what made them special for their time.
Thanks for reading!