I figured out the real reason that I don't watch hockey like I used to anymore.
I started watching hockey hardcore in the mid 90's when the Detroit Red Wings were one of the best if not the best franchise in the league. At the time, they were the only Detroit professional sports team that was in that position to win it all, but I didn't jump on the bandwagon right when they won a Stanley Cup in 1997. No, it was actually two years before that when they lost in the finals to New Jersey. The following year they when they set a record for most wins in a season with 62, they got crushed by Colorado in the conference finals and so did my heart, but I stuck with them and got rewarded as a fan with Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
I absorbed any and everything that the NHL did for almost a decade from 1995 to 2004, and then the second of commissioner Gary Bettman's NHL lockouts happened. Well they aren't his exactly, but they both happened on his watch as did the third one in 2012. It was that second one that really hurt me though because it wiped out a whole season and was the official line of demarcation between the NHL that I used to know and the one that we all know now.
Rules changed, players changed and a salary cap went up. Suddenly this NHL looked a lot different than what I remembered before the second lockout and I didn't like it much, not nearly as much as I used to. Was it because I got older and started leaning more toward football and baseball? Did I have blinders on for the way things used to be since so many people told me how great the game of hockey had become now and I just couldn't see it? Was it simply because all of the players I grew up watching were now retired and many gone into the Hall of Fame? I'll admit it's still weird seeing Steve Yzerman as the GM of Tampa Bay instead of wearing No. 19 down at Joe Louis Arena. Maybe I am getting old.
But seriously, the true reason finally came to me when the NHL released the list of the 100 Greatest Players of All Time. I read this whole list three times, and each time I read it for a different reason.
First I read it to make sure Steve Yzerman was on it. Check. Good, now the list isn't complete crap.
Second, I read it to see how many players on it were former Red Wings in their careers. 28. Damn right. GO WINGS.
Finally, I read it to see how many players on the list were ones that I actually grew up watching live either in person or on TV. 40, and only six of them are either currently active or only recently inactive like Pavel Datsyuk.
There it is. That's why hockey changed for me. It wasn't just because of the strike in 2004, it was also because an era where 34 of the best players in NHL history that all played at the same time had ended. I didn't know it at the time, but I had literally started watching hockey during a golden age for the NHL. It was so obvious looking at the names on the list:
Ray Bourque, Martin Brodeur, Pavel Bure, Chris Chelios, Paul Coffey, Sergei Fedorov, Peter Forsberg, Ron Francis, Grant Fuhr, Mike Gartner, Wayne Gretzky, Dominik Hasek, Brett Hull, Jaromir Jagr, Pat Lafontaine, Brian Leetch, Mario Lemieux, Nicklas Lidstrom, Eric Lindros, Al Macinnis, Mark Messier, Mike Modano, Scott Niedermayer, Joe Nieuwendyk, Adam Oates, Chris Pronger, Luc Robitaille, Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic, Teemu Selanne, Brendan Shanahan, Scott Stevens, Mats Sundin and Steve Yzerman.
That's more than a third of the list of the greatest players of ALL TIME and they all played at THE SAME TIME. Incredible. What are the odds of us seeing that much all-time great talent on the ice at once ever again?
This isn't an indictment of current NHL superstars in the league now, it's really just pointing out that there aren't nearly as many of them in the league at once anymore and it likely will never be that way ever again. So when I talk about how different the game is today than it was in the 90's when I loved it as much as life itself, it's because I was watching it at the peak of its combined talent level. The odds of the NHL ever reaching that zenith ever again especially with continued expansion efforts and how the rules have changed since the 90's era are slim to none.
So maybe I should accept that and move on, right? After all, it's not like the NHL is devoid of talent today. There's much of it that I don't know and am not familiar with, much like I'm not familiar with the Red Wings being one of the worst teams in the league like they are now. The rules have changed but the game still remains the same and I really should give it another shot because I do miss it. A lot.
But don't tell me that it's as strong talent-wise now as it was in the 1990's. The NHL now agrees with me that it isn't. Not by a long shot.