Checking on the NHL in ‘Centennial’ (?) year

In its wisdom, the National Hockey League has proclaimed the 2016-2017 season its “Centennial” and will regale us with lavish commemorative moments throughout the fall, winter, and spring with hopefully the celebration being done and the music ending by the time next summer arrives.

As is often the case in this otherwise wonderful game, the logic behind this grandiose venture is a bit off the wall. Perplexing for openers is how the deuce they came up with 2016-17 as their magic year. A little history needs to be reviewed.  

If the first sign of anything approaching organization marks the official beginning, it came in 1893 when Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley himself, Queen Victoria’s august royal governor of Canada, her majesty’s crown jewel of a province, promulgated hockey’s first bylaws. They were aimed at bringing order both to the ice and the chaotic mishmash of rowdy amateur rivalries that had sprouted from vernal Quebec to Manitoba’s vast central prairies. Sweetening the pot, his Grace posted a shiny silver cup in his name as the grand prize for the national champion. A year later came the first Stanley Cup playoffs, won, naturally, by a team of roughnecks from Montreal.  Essentially, that’s how it all began.

Nor did it change much for the next quarter century. By 1914, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Blueshirts (later renamed the Maple Leasfs) had been hatched. In 1915, eastern teams of the so-called NHA were challenging western teams in the PCHA for the Cup. In 1916, an American team from Portland, Oregon, joined the fray, losing in the finals to Montreal and its illustrious goalie, Georges Vezina. It’s in 1917 that the term “NHL” first appears, although nothing else changes, and consisting of only four Canadian teams, it isn’t much of a league. In 1919, the season is cancelled right in the middle of the playoffs by the devastating worldwide Spanish Flu epidemic.

It is not until the mid-’20s that the National Hockey League as we know it evolves. That’s when competing leagues finally concede NHL dominance and surrender claims to the Cup, and it’s when the NHL finally gets serious about responding to the Roaring Twenties-inspired surge of interest in the game coming from the United States.

It’s your Boston Bruins who lead the charge, signing on in 1924. By 1926, the Rangers in New York, Pirates in Pittsburgh, and Blackhawks in Chicago have also been conceived. In the 1927 finals, Ottawa, winner of the Canadian Division, sweeps the Bruins, American Division champs, and Lord Stanley’s silver bauble officially becomes a prize to be annually contested by all of North America. With 10 stable franchises the game is firmly established on both sides of the border. If the NHL has a true centennial year, 2026-27 would make a lot more sense.

But who needs to wait another whole decade for a good old-fashioned, year-long bender. Certainly not “the New NHL,” as it likes to think of itself, with its freshly asserted international acclaim, rigorously enforced parity, revised image,  rising TV ratings, and, at long last, increasingly widespread profits. Near a decade after staggering out of their latest near-ruinous labor dispute, the NHL no longer feels “minor league.”

Which is not to say they’ve put all their problems behind them. Expansion beckons. Not everyone is impressed with the choice of Las Vegas demanded by iron-willed commissioner Gary Bettman. Deeply entrenched, Bettman just might be the sporting world’s most powerful czar in terms of getting what he wants, and ruthlessly, if need be. Not that the horizon is perfectly clear. Another contract battle looms by the end of the decade and issues bugging the players pile up. Hockey stars, after all, make only roughly the money baseball scrubs command, and they’re acutely mindful of that.

But all that’s for another day and it’s the action on the ice, not in the board room, that still matters most. So, what can we expect from the Bruins?  Only five games deep in the new season it’s a safe bet it will be neither more nor less than what we’ve been fed grimly the last two seasons: The cast changes, but not the prospects. Not yet! With luck, they’ll again be touch and go for the playoffs, but don’t expect more.

At least half the teams in the league are jammed in the middle of the pack, destined to grind away all season, making or missing the playoffs the last fortnight by a couple of points. It’s called “parioty” and it can be equally boring and infuriating. Clearly these Bruins are one such team, maybe a textbook example. But it’s the road you must travel when you’re rebuilding, as the Sweeney-Neely axis is fitfully attempting. You only hope it doesn’t last a decade. We’ve been there before. Watching the kids develop could be interesting; presuming, of course, that they do develop.    

Meanwhile, the big Centennial bash rolls on all season, with or without the Bruins having a seat at the head table. A highlight will be the naming at mid-season of the top 100 NHL players of all time. There better be at least three Bruins in the top 10 – all of them defensemen. Or there will be hell to pay. Count on it!