Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The 1980s were completely insane -- but why? And what changed?

Two weeks ago we introduced a new feature called Holy Crap, the 1980s Were Freaking Insane, a look back at a decade that saw goals scored at a level never seen before or since. We had some fun with a few of the decade’s stranger success stories, and plenty of longtime fans took the opportunity to reminisce.

But a few newer fans reached out to me with a question: What the hell happened? How did the NHL go from shattering offensive records throughout the ’80s down to the dregs of the dead puck era by the mid-’90s? What changed? That’s actually an interesting question, and the answer ends up being a lot more complicated than you might think.

First, it’s worth remembering that the ideal amount of offense in an NHL game is subjective, and that scoring rates have been going up and down for years. Many would argue that goal scoring was too high in the ’80s, turning the league into a one-sided arcade game lacking anything resembling defense. Lots of fans would prefer something closer to the middle ground we saw in the ’70s or early ’90s. In fact, some would even argue that the current scoring rates are just fine the way they are. (That last group is wrong, but we’ll save that debate for another day.)

So instead of arguing about whether plunging scoring rates were a good thing or a bad thing, let’s focus on why things changed so much in the first place. As it turns out, the list of suspects gets kind of long.

The Goalies

Goaltender equipment got bigger

We’ll lead off with this one, not because it’s the most important but because it’s the explanation that always comes up. It’s certainly true that goaltending equipment evolved considerably during the 1990s. Shoulder pads went from being almost unnoticeable to looking like they’d been borrowed from a linebacker. Leg pads went from lumpy brown sofa cushions to massive pieces that extended well beyond the top of the knee. Trappers started looking like hubcaps, oversize jerseys became the norm, and some goalies even started wearing their hockey pants several sizes too big.

By the end of it, goaltenders had looked like this. The NHL eventually introduced rules to limit some of the more ridiculous offenders, but it was too little too late.

Fans tend to focus on the equipment issue because it’s so easy to see — watch any old footage from the ’70s and ’80s and the difference is striking. But the impact of equipment is probably overstated. It was a factor, but far from the only one.

The goalies themselves got bigger

It wasn’t just the equipment that increased in size throughout the ’90s and beyond; it was the goaltenders themselves. With a handful of exceptions, they’re massive now.

There had been big goalies before six-time Cup winner Ken Dryden was considered huge at 6-foot-4 but the league was still home to guys like 5-foot-7 Allan Bester or 5-foot-5 Darren Pang in the ’80s. These days, it’s rare to see a goaltender who stands less than six feet tall, and even Dryden would find himself looking up at guys like Ben Bishop and Pekka Rinne. (To really drive the point home, here’s a recent shot of Pang and Bishop trying on each other’s equipment.)

While it’s true that forwards and defensemen are getting bigger, too, the trend has been much more pronounced for goalies. And that’s because the way the position is played has changed...

>> Read the full post on Grantland


  1. I think you've missed one factor in your discussion about equipment, namely its composition. You don't see goalies wearing leather pads anymore, it's all water resistant synthetic materials now. So the gear now doesn't soak up water like it used to and wind up weighing half a ton. Which of course plays into the whole increase in size of the goalies and allows for bigger gear. It's the circle of goaltending I guess.

  2. The youtube clip of Ovechkin slacking on the back-check brings back great memories from the decade where every other player scored 100 points per season. In the 80's and early 90's half the forwards in the league rarely crossed their own blue-line. Now it's (almost) impossible to make the NHL if you don't back-check hard on every shift. If we want more scoring we need more lazy forwards.

  3. Nice post.

    I think there's another big factor to the wildness in the 80's that no one considers- expansion, the lack of parity and the ridiculous playoff structure.

    Let's use the 1987-1988 season as an example. There were 21 teams in the league and only 5 of them missed the playoffs! The Leafs had a 21-49-10 record (second worst in the entire league) and still made the playoffs because the only team worse than them (Minnesota) just happened to be in the same division.

    Back then you could go around and screw up as much as you wanted. Go out and act like a goon, turn the puck over, give up 6 goals or whatever. You knew at the end of the year you're probably still making the playoffs because pretty much everyone did.

    Not much accountability needed. Almost everyone made the playoffs so the season was like a big exhibition schedule.

    Compare that to the parity of today where some poor defenceman has a bad giveaway in the third period and then watches his team drop from from 6th place to 9th in one night. Or the goon who's afraid to start something in case he causes a PP against that costs his team two points.

    The parity in the league today and that only half the teams make the playoffs helps makes todays game so much more structured and disciplined compared to back then.