Two decades down, eight to go for the NHL in the 21st century. The years have been filled with ups and downs, but for a league that prides itself in being steeped in tradition, plenty has changed since the beginning of the new millennium. There's been new teams, resurrected old teams, new arenas, a lot of (too many?) outdoor arenas, and an entire generation of players has come and gone. The NHL has grown in viewership and revenue, made the game more high-speed, and updated from some questionable fashion decisions. But the league has also lost a season and a half from lockouts, instituted a frustrating and difficult-to-understand goal review system, and continued to be an organization dominated overwhelmingly by the white male demographic.
One man who has covered all of these changes is Adrian Dater, a reporter who has covered the Colorado Avalanche since their move from Quebec City nearly twenty five years ago. He's seen Cup winning teams, basement dwelling teams, and everything in between. With that experience comes plenty of understanding about the changes have come and gone throughout the sport, so when he agreed to be interviewed about this topic, I was ecstatic and honored. Please check out his work at ColoradoHockeyNow.com, he provides excellent day-to-day coverage of the Avalanche. AD, thank you again for your time.
1. Over the last twenty years, the NHL has gone through plenty of changes. Which rule changes have you appreciated the most, and which have you enjoyed the least?
"I really like that the red line was taken out for two-line passes. I think that really has made the game more wide open and eliminated much of the trap. I also like the no-touch icing. No doubt it's saved a bunch of injuries." 2. The early 2000s marked the end of the “dead puck era”, and since, fighting and physicality has become a smaller part of the game. Do you prefer that slower, more methodical style of play, or the faster pace played today?
"Without question, I like the faster pace. I still don't mind a good fight if it's warranted, but the staged fighting - it's great that it's out of the game. It was just starting to get really foolish." 3. The NHL has already experienced two lockouts this century. How did those work stoppages affect the morale of the league? Do you believe league officials and the NHLPA will be able to avoid another when negotiations reopen in 2022-2023?
"I think they will avoid another lockout, yes. Absolutely nobody wants to go through another one of those. I don't think it'll happen. Then again, this is the NHL. You never quite know for sure." 4. What aspects of your job have changed the most over the last twenty years? Have those changes been positive or negative for you?
"I mean, it's like night and day really. In the old days, your work day would end at about 6 p.m. on days where there wasn't a game. Today, I'm not sure your work day ever quite ends.
You have to be "on call" all the time. In the old days, if anything newsworthy happened after the last presses rolled, it wasn't written about until the next day. Now, you can publish anything at any time. The internet has been a blessing and a curse to my career, and many others. I miss the days of good newspapers, but realize that time moves on. I like being able to consume more as a reader than I used to, thanks to the internet. But there is also a ton of crap out there, obviously."
5. If the top 6 players from 2000 played the top 6 players from 2019, who would be on the teams, and who would win?
"Well, I'd hate to bet against Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic, but I think today's players would win. Everybody is just faster. Forsberg might actually be a lot better today, though. He was hooked and held and grabbed his whole career."
6. One thing the NHL has striven to achieve over the last two decades is a sense of parity around the league. Yet from 2009 to 2017, the Kings, Penguins, and Blackhawks won eight out of nine Stanley Cups. What “magic ingredients” caused these teams to rise above the parity?
"Good question, but I think a great "core" will still win out more often than not. It's just hard to knock out a good young team with a good core. If a team is young and talented, they will stay together for years, thanks to the free-agency rules and whatnot. But as we saw in the playoffs last year, anything can happen. The bottom four teams in the first round knocked out the top four teams."
7. Between the Wild, Blue Jackets, Jets, and Golden Knights (with Seattle on the way), plenty of teams have been founded or been on the move this century. Has the NHL completed it’s expansion/relocation plans for a while, or are more changes on the way?
"I think that's it for expansion for a while. And I don't think we'll see a team move for a good long time, either. I think the league is pretty stable, though teams like Florida and Arizona are always a worry. But their ownership seems stable."
8. What will the NHL product look like in 2040?
"Just a lot faster. I bet the rinks will be expanded a bit to make up for it."
(This article was going end here, and was supposed to be a simple discussion with Mr. Dater of some interesting, but ultimately unimportant, changes in the NHL over the last two decades. But recently, something far more pertinent and necessary has been occurring in the sport, and I wanted to briefly discuss it.)
Change is inevitable, even for a sport and a league seemingly dedicated to upholding tradition above all else. Recently, these changes have taken a new form, and several very established hockey men have found themselves unemployed after years of going unchecked for some rather despicable behavior. Mike Babcock belittled and berated his players seemingly on a regular basis, and established a working environment based on distrust (seen in the Mitch Marner fiasco). He struggled in Toronto, and was recently fired. But even if the Leafs had won the last three cups, his actions still wouldn’t be acceptable. To quote Mike Commedore on Twitter:
“(Babcock) is one (coach) who 95% of his players can’t say a good thing about. With the ability to end players' careers, he’s chosen to do so to long-serving vets that have resulted in all his players turning against him. He’s used his power to turn teammates against each other, and choose to continuously lie to his players.”
Bill Peters, recently displaced coach of the Calgary Flames, is another example of positive, but slow, change in hockey culture. Most are somewhat familiar with the story, but to recap: Akim Aliu, who played under Peters during his rookie year, reacted to Babcock’s firing on Twitter by bringing to light Peters’ affinity for using the N-word towards him because of his music choices. Aliu stated that Peters made no effort to remedy the situation afterwards, and asked GM Stan Bowman to send Aliu to the ECHL, despite the rookie’s on-ice success. using that type of language and disparaging a human being is inexcusable in every way, and it is unbelievably sad it took ten years for Aliu to discuss the situation. But this pattern of behavior can also be found in Coach Peters' time with the Carolina Hurricanes organization, as Peters physically abused players on the bench and was given hardly any consequences for doing so.
Hockey culture, for too long, has been strictly about toughness. While there is no fault in being tough, not being able to report verbal or physical assault that is inflicted by a superior because of fear of being ridiculed is an unacceptable by-product of the chase for total masculinity in the NHL. The recent development of these stories getting out and these coaches being let go or allowed to resign is most certainly positive, and these incidents are unlikely to be the end. This change, more so than outdoor games, or video replays, or equipment, is the far most important change in the NHL, even if it is the most recent change. There is still a long way to go, however. The Calgary Flames did the bare minimum is condemning Peters for his actions, not even firing him once the Aliu allegations were brought forward, but rather letting him resign (ironic, a team named the Flames would not fire someone they should). The Carolina Hurricanes did not fire Peters for physically assualting his players, despite knowing about the situation. It is no wonder players so rarely come forward with actions done to them, when little is done to rectify that injustice, if it isn't just covered up as a whole.
The NHL has to do better, and they're on the right track. It is my hope that we as fans do not allow them to get away with the belittled of anyone in the sport, whether it be through racism, sexism, ageism, or whatever else. It is my hope that we as people will treat each other with the respect and kindness that will eliminate this kind of behavior as a whole. And while that hope, realistically, will never come to fruition, I at least hope I can do my part. Won't you join me?
Again, thank you to Adrian Dater for his time and wisdom. I interviewed him before the Babcock and Peters brouhaha, but he wrote an excellent piece about the situation on his site ColoradoHockeyNow. You can find that article here.
Have a blessed holiday season, one and all.