Saturday, January 19, 2013

Shortened Schedule Makes for Great Games

By Larry Wigge

All these years later, I can remember it was a damp, dark morning at the rink. But tons of hockey things were happening around me in a blink of an eye. 

It was January 20, 1995.

The morning at Madison Square Garden skate, I was reporting for The Sporting News on the New York Rangers Stanley Cup-winning ceremony. What made this interesting is because it was late, due to lockout that was to cut short the season to 48-games.

With every season, we look upon the 82-game schedule as a marathon. But this time, the season would be much different. It would be like a sprint.

Coaches would have to do their homework.

*They would have to check on each player to see what kind of shape they were in (for reference: players didn't go play in Europe as so many of them them recently did. That was not available to them.)

*Their timing was also a question mark. Most teams stayed together at home.

*Injuries from last season and during the lockout were also a question.

I was shagging quotes. I had just finished doing an interview with Colin Campbell, the new Rangers coach.

I'll never forget Campbell blurting out, "How do you follow a guy (Mike Keenan) who won led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940?"

Keenan, of course, left New York to take a job in St. Louis.

In the visiting locker room, Dominik Hasek wasn't feeling in top shape -- one of the many difficulties of the long layoff. So, Buffalo Sabres coach John Muckler was going to start newcomer and former Edmonton Oilers great Grant Fuhr.

The place was abuzz all night with the Stanley Cup banner being raised to the roof.

Amidst all the pomp and circumstance -- Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Kevin Lowe, Adam Graves, et al, the Sabres edged the Rangers 2-1 that night.

Still, I'll never forget Campbell's honest assessment blurting out: How does a team win the Stanley Cup?


Fast forward to this season. Another work stoppage. Another late-January start.

And it all comes back to coaching ...

In 1994-95, Jacques Lemaire led the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup over Scotty Bowman and the Detroit Red Wings.

Look back at the dozen or so Cup titles Lemaire and Bowman had won in Montreal.

It just so happens that Darryl Sutter, the coach of the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, is the only active from the 1994-95 lockout season.

In '94-95, Sutter was in charge of the Chicago Blackhawks, who lost to the Red Wings in the conference finals. On the other side, the Eastern Conference was won by the Devils who beat out the Philadelphia Flyers, coach by Terry Murray.


Only a handful of players are still around from those -94-95 rosters -- Teemu Selanne, Martin Brodeur, Sergei Gonchar, Jaromir Jagr, Jamie Langenbrunner, Ray Whitney, and Alex Kovalev. 

You can bet their coaches are picking their brains on what they might expect.

But it all comes back to coach's.

"Everybody's talking about the importance of a good start, but the one thing that I take out of the 48-game schedule that year was how you needed lots of players. I bet if you look back at Chicago that year we probably used 16 or 17 forwards," recalled Sutter. "We're all going to come up with ideas. But you really don't have time to work on a lot of things.

"We're lucky we have our team returning (other than injured center Anze Kopitar, who will miss about the first few weeks)."


"Excitingly bizarre," St. Louis Blues' coach Ken Hitchcock. "No lead will be safe. You'll be playing almost every second night, just like the playoffs."

Hitchcock, replaced Davis Payne as coach of the Blues and went on to become the NHL Coach the Year. He was not part of the last lockout. But you can be sure he contacted all sorts of coaches -- like Bob Gainey, the G.M. of the Dallas Stars, and Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA, who played 66 games in less than five months.

"Don't expect chemistry to be the same," Hitchcock warned. "The players won't be in same mental place they were. Don't expect a guy to give you 20 minutes of ice a night because he can't."

"It is going to be an emotional roller coaster," Hitchcock said, remembering the 1994-95 games from his home in Kalamazoo, where he coached the IHL's Wings. "I watched it in 94-95 and one week, it looked like this team was never going to lose and then next week, it looked like they could never win. I think the team that can keep it grounded, keep the train on the tracks is going to do well here because it is a huge challenge. You're going to have games that just can't get shut down. 

"The toughest thing to learn is checking. That's the hardest thing to teach players to do, to get out of summer hockey mode, get out of playing on-the-move mode and get into what you need to do to win in the NHL. That's a hard focus. It takes a long time to get there, and you're asking players to get there in seven days. You're going to have games where you gotta lead and it's going to evaporate quickly and you're going to have to gain it back. You're going to have games that are really emotional wins or losses. You're going to have to get grounded the next day. I think the teams that are going to be successful are the ones that can get their feet on the ground the next morning and get back to work."

Many of those teachings Hitchcock has gone through with the Blues who finished second in the Western Conference with a 49-22-11 record.

But, put it this way, Hitchcock (won a Stanley Cup title with Dallas in 1999), isn't the only Cup ring in this year's coaching ranks..

Philadelphia's Peter Laviolette (won it with Carlina in 2006), Toronto's Randy Carlyle (won it with Anaheim's in 2007), Detroit's Mike Babcock (2008), Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma (2009), Chicago's Joel Quenneville (2010), Boston's Claude Julien (2011) and Sutter (2012), also are joined Calgary's coach Bob Hartley (won with Colorado in 2001).

In essence says Hitchcock: "This is the playoff hockey before the playoff hockey."

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