In the NHL, the most talented players in the world dazzle and dangle, yet fail to shine amidst the rest of players in the league. Despite struggling to market its biggest stars, the league has failed to create an environment conducive to showcasing the best talent.
It all begins with gameplay. Regardless of the NHL’s off-ice initiatives, stars like Alexander Ovechkin, Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon have the skills to attract attention to the sport. This trio and players alike put electrifying performances on display on a nightly basis. They are so tremendously gifted it is difficult to imagine how great they could be if the league was not holding them back.
Although the game of hockey is evolving in a way that will make the sport safer, the league has yet to allow it to change in a way that would create growth. Dangerous checks have been reduced, but other less compelling types of beatings continue to persist.
The best players in the game face more abuse in each game than any other player on the ice. The torment includes countless slashes, cross checks and shoves that make most shifts a rough battle. Of course, this is partially just the physical nature of hockey.
But the issue is that these stars deal with greater torment than the average player, and because of their skill are less frequently able to draw penalties from it. McDavid is such an exceptional, dynamic skater that referees will force him to endure numerous slashing and hooking violations before raising their arm to signal a penalty. McDavid is at such an elite level that officials, whether purposely or subconsciously, decide that defenders can do more to deter him. They hold him to a different standard, normalizing his terrific abilities.
Besides making it more difficult for top players to make plays, it also causes them to get beat down during a long season, racking up bruises and other injuries. As tough as players are, they are not going to perform as well when they are dealing with a slew of nagging problems.
The evolution of the game, including the removal of enforcers from teams’ lineups, has provoked this behavior within the game as players are now free to beat up on stars as much as they like. Ironically enough, reducing the quantity of fight-first players has relinquished some of the star players’ ability to make plays. Opposing defenders can abuse the McDavids of the league all night and not have to worry about getting a penalty or facing grief from the other team.
The mitigation of some of the physical aspects of hockey should make the game faster, more skillful and offensive. While this has occurred to some extent over the past decade, the league’s acceptance of brutality against stars has made these advancements minimal. Fighting and major body checks are an energizing part of the sport for the fans, so if the league wants to reduce those aspects, it needs to allow skill to flourish to its maximum potential.
This is not a cry to bring back more fighting or damaging hits to the head, but rather a call to let the stars take over the game the way they are capable. Hockey has created a culture that celebrates the gritty fourth liner. In fact, the term “Gritty” itself is synonymous with the sport. As much as hockey’s tough nature is an essential component of its identity, it should not be promoted to the level of taking away from the scoring, skating and deking talent that many players readily exhibit.
The love of grit in hockey is overflowing throughout hockey operations departments across the league, causing fringe players to take roster spots over phenomenal young talent. While it is true that teams need players with grit to win championships, players with only grit will get them nowhere. The teams that ultimately win are the ones that have players that display both the hard working, tough to play against mentality as well as skill and speed.
The team-first mentality that is heavily prevalent in the NHL is misconstrued into heightening the importance of low skill players. This mindset is what causes referees to overlook abuse against hockey’s best talent, and anchors star players closer to the mean skill level. Hockey will never lose its die-hard fans, but in order to reach the casual audience, it must free its elite talent.