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Big Boy Hockey

As we sit navel gazing in Vancouver and await our execution in the "best place on Earth", maybe we can learn something from the pain. At least it is absolutely beautiful out once again!

Harry How

We all saw it in 2011, up close and personal. The Vancouver Canucks, one of the most skilled and entertaining teams in the NHL, lost an epic series in seven games.

Terrabytes of words have been written about that already, and this is not that. I just bring it up to point out that the Bruin Cup win then was one of those that promoted another "sea change" in the way our beautiful game is played. Did the Canucks miss the message of that series that so many teams seemed to have gotten? The LA Kings certainly paid attention the next year! Perhaps they just did not embrace it as much as the Hawks and Penguins did.

There has been a somewhat subtle struggle in the game that we love, amongst those that are proponents of the beautiful game that it is when played with the skill virtually every hockey player in the NHL has buried in him. ( even enforcers in the NHL can and did score at lower levels. Prolifically. That same struggle extends through front offices, to head offices, to referee rooms in arenas across the league.

This article is not to point to one approach or the other as the best one. Personally, my experience with the game on the ice was that I loved the hitting the most. It is not about being anti hitting. One can see from the way that the NHL ratings have spiked this year ( although maybe that has something to do with pent up demand and a 48 game schedule this year ) that the brand of hockey being played and shown is popular. More importantly however, it is not officiated as the game was when the Wings were the kings of "the beautiful game" in 2009, when they were both the President's Trophy and Stanley Cup winners.

That was the template here in Vancouver, and we were happy to follow along as fans. Our team has two of the most skilled players in the world, how could we not be excited? That attitude extended through, in this market, the drafting of smaller skilled centres like Cody Hodgson and Jordan Schroeder, for instance. It extended through the NHL head offices, where the still in effect crackdown on actually calling ( as John Garrett continually voices on Sportsnet, God bless him ) some of the rules as they are written was fresh. Offense was the buzzword. Hooking and holding were evil words, and interference an actual bad thing.

Fueled by a strong and innovative power play and creative players, Canuck fans were happy, more or less. The message was there, however, for those that wanted to see it, in the losses to a deeper and, while closer in spirit and playing style, quicker to embrace #BigBoyHockey team from Chicago in 2010. It was skill WITH the badass aspect of embracing what the NHL does anyhow in calling their game different in the payoffs ( the only one of the Big Four sports that does so ), and being equipped to play that style as well. THAT was the team that the Bruins, with their already built in narrative of "Bruin's hockey" used to such great success.

It lays within the practice of finishing every check. Of finishing it hard, and perhaps on the edge of what is legal. It lays within walking that edge freely and with a will to do exactly that, almost daring the referees to, you know, call the rules as they are written and all that. It plays very heavily on the one thing we all know is true by what we see, no matter how many times a league official denies it with the " a penalty in the first minute is one in the last second" press release. The NHL simply has "regular season rules" and "playoff rules".

This is not to blame those officials. I have pointed to things that could have been called differently in the past, because you can watch the playoffs in its entirety and notice how the game is actually called. They are only human, and it is a long ingrained thing to "manage the game" or have "playoff penalties" ( a fine example is when we get to O/T, when only stick fouls that draw blood or the automatic "over the glass" calls are made ). They simply don't want to be the "cause of a team losing", as a result of actually making thse calls.

But I do think that what happens is that skilled teams that play the skill game don't seem to get the same latitude to play #BigBoyHockey when they try. That aspect is dying out as the take no prisoners approach to the playoffs is embraced by both the Wings and the Canucks no matter if a little slower than everyone else. Two of the most successful of the proponents of "the beautiful game" can never be blamed for relying on skill. One only need look at the size being drafted and signed by Mike Gillis since 2011 to see that he sees the sea change too. He has seen it and reacted to it, while still trying to promote and play the skilled game. That is an excellent thing for me as a fan. I love watching the game being played beautifully. Even though it has not met with the success it has in the recent past ( The Canucks were 19th in scoring in the shortened season, while going 5th, 1st, and 2nd in scoring the three years previous ), I still love watching that, while noticing how the game has shifted.

We are trying to have the best of both worlds. One that still embraces the skill and wizardry the Sedins personify, while being firmly aware that teams that play that more robust style are going to be better equipped for what is going to happen in the playoffs. So, while hope is slight now, it still burns strongly long term.

While I can hope and still, as a fan, have that faint hope of a comeback from the current 0-3 hole, noticing that the team I love is not in step with the rest of the NHL has been a bit painful, of course. No one likes losing, and you look for the reasons. For instance, while it seemed that this year the "regular season" refereeing never really was up to the levels of previous years ( they just went straight to playoff reffing right after the trade deadline! ), a power play once feared never got on track to inspiring that fear, and suddenly average numbers for previously above average number producers was the result.

#BigBoyHockey was just how they are calling it. Some of that was the edict sent down to let defensemen and forwards have more latitude in taking that extra piece of the onrushing forechecker. Something had to be done, right? Defensemen all over the league were getting concussed as they were getting crushed trying to pick up pucks behind their own nets. Some of it is just the incredible size and speed of the athletes as they join the league. The NHL is not the only league to benefit from teenagers training and getting coaching the way previous generations never did.

But, mainly, BBH is just an attitude. Sure, that attitude takes advantage of the rules in a more proactive way. Most the teams that play it also employ the "all five guys in front of the net in the defensive zone" style of play as well. It is no mistake that the teams that employ this style are all coached by guys with the "defensive coach" reputation. The last three Cup winners all played this style to a lesser or greater degree. You can have skill on a #BigBoyHockey team. Someone needs to score on the power play! You better have an excellent penalty kill keyed by a solid goaltender as well. All those ingredients are important.

But the most important signature of a BBH team is the 3rd and 4th lines. They need to be big and bad, and be able to chip in. A few of the players on those lines better be top notch penalty killers as well. But it is the size and still having some skill that seems to be the thing that separates the teams just OK at the style ( Columbus Blue Jackets in the second half of 2013, for instance ) from the ones that win Cups. Glenn Healy was full of shit, and himself, on the weekend broadcast, but when you look beyond the hyperbole and whatnot, he did have a point on Thornton in Boston. I would also point to Chris Kelly as well. Nolan and King last year for LA. There's a reason they kept a regular season flop like Dustin Penner around in LA, and it's the same reason he is paid so handsomely. The seemingly ever changing 3rd and 4th lines Joel Quennville unleashed on that deep 2010 team, for instance, had the same kind of style and, obviously, met with success. They don't need to fight all the time, but the threat of it is usually there. They don't even need to hit you on every shift, but they probably will. The CPR line in St Louis this year is a fine example of #BigBoyHockey. They can move the puck, and know how to play the game at both ends. But just watch how this line plays below the offensive goal line tonight. They make the Sedin Cycle that the entire NHL adapted years ago slightly obsolete as they add menace and physicality to it, in spades!

The Canucks have some great forwards that can play in a variety of ways. But a Jannik Hansen does not have the same sense of "menace" as some of these other, bigger guys have. Honey Badger can play #BigBoyHockey because he has the right style and attitude, but he needs help. Mason Raymond? Not likely. Derek Roy is handicapped by having 1st line skill on a 3rd line, while not being big enough for that role in the current NHL environment.

Guys like Alexandre Burrows, Zack Kassian, Ryan Kesler are all players that can and should embody that attitude on this team. You would think a player like Maxim Lapierre would be perfect for BBH, but perhaps Game Three of this series showed us that having a bad reputation going into trying to play it that way is not a good thing. Never mind Burrows, as he obviously draws less calls while playing a robust style than anyone on the NHL. The "Auger Incident" obviously had longer lasting repercussions than we all thought it would, huh?

So, maybe there will be a sea change, and the Canucks will get the calls as they embrace this style of game more and more. Or, maybe they will just continue to have a bad reputation that precludes ever being able to get away with the things that you do when you play the "we're going to do everything, so you just call what you think is REALLY bad then ref" style that personifies the #BigBoyHockey attitude and success. Who knows? I can't predict the future anymore than you can.

But, I do know that I love watching the puck move around the offensive zone. That Wizardous Sedinerie is a wonderful thing that makes me smile giddily. The fact that you will see more and more "playoff goals" in the regular season, as pucks are just shoveled to the net and three guys crash it to literally push it over the line like a running back on 4th and goal from the one, is one you should be looking forward to. Because, to the utter despair of those of us that love seeing skilled plays too, that is going to be how you score in the second season.

Like I said, I love hitting, and that part of the game is always going to be a big part. It is just that I bemoan the artistic aspect of the game becoming less important as the size of the player at this point in the NHL's cycle. You better hope that the Pens and Hawks meet in the Final. At least these two most successful examples of adding #BigBoyHockey to "beautiful game" skill to create a new hybrid are a better template than the brutish Kings and Bruin examples.