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By Tom Wheeler, 05/17/19, 2:45PM CDT


The patron of the EDHC's Thomas B. Wheeler Collegiate Athlete Wall shares his thoughts on the last 50 years of hockey.

     As I annually observe the Stanley Cup playoffs, the NCAA Frozen Four, and the Minnesota State High School tournament. I am struck by how different the game of hockey has become from 50 years ago...when I was playing against Europe's best players and teams.
     The sheer size of the players: they are bigger, stronger, and faster. I was 5-10, weighed 175 pounds, average size for a hockey forward; today I would be severely undersized. We never lifted weights, nor had specific training regimens. We just "played" our way into shape. While playing in Sweden, our coach had borrowed some Soviet training techniques, then "cutting edge", but now routine for today's players.
      Goalies in particular are huge, part physically and part the increased size of their equipment: pads, protective gear, etc. The hockey goal remains the same dimensions, but less "open space" coupled with goalies’ increased dexterity has decreased scoring. Few goalies in my day could do the "splits", nor was the "butterfly" yet in vogue. Goalie masks were used by some, but not all.
      While on equipment, I used basketball knee pads as my elbow pads, and far smaller shoulder pads than contemporary models. Players had no face masks  -hence loss of teeth/stitches were commonplace badges of honor; helmets were leather; I played two years in Austria without a helmet; they were required in college and most other countries. The added protection is now reflected via increased shot-blocking...players are braver!
      Curved sticks have truly impacted the game. Shot speed has increased significantly and can impart erratic puck trajectories. We had choice of left, right, or neutral sticks; the former two, having ever so slight a bend...some players heated up their stick blades to achieve a slightly greater curve by then bending them further via a door jamb. Curved sticks do detract from backhand shots; fewer goals are scored this way today, even though it is harder for the goalie to get an accurate read.
     Stickhandling elements have likewise changed. A "toe drag" has emerged as common parlance versus what was once only referred to as a “quick draw"...or "the move". The player I most identify with is Patrick Kane; he epitomizes good, old-fashioned stickhandling.
     What is totally foreign to me is the increased, conscious effort to score via the goalies "five-hole", the opening between his legs, as he moves into a "butterfly" position. Any goals we scored through the legs were simply good fortune, not an intentional effort,
     Rules and rink size in Europe were different:
     1. Icing was not allowed during a penalty, putting significantly increased pressure on the short-handed team.
      2. Teams switched ends halfway through the third period so each team spend 50% at each goal.
      3.  There was no "sudden death" in overtime; the full 20 minutes were played out...I once scored a hat trick  in overtime, something few other Americans could claim.
       4. Penalty shots were much more common in Europe, reflecting the influence of soccer where penalty  shots are more frequently awarded. I had 1 through, youth, high school and college; I failed on that effort. In 4 years in Europe, I converted on 6 of 9.
      5. The increased size of the European rink (typically 200x100 versus 190-200x85) makes for a much more wide-open game...something I preferred.   
     Hockey strategies overall have evolved. "Head-manning" the puck was then in vogue whereas now we see circling back in both offensive and defensive zones. The use of an "off-wing" was just beginning, again largely a Soviet contribution. Setting up for a "one-timer" was similarly in its infancy, although I scored the first goal in Tyringe's new hockey rink via such a set-up. "Cycling" (puck control in corners) was uncommon; actual hockey fights were more common (except in Europe) were hip-checks. Then there’s the increased usage of “indirect” passes, using the boards as a billiard play advance to a teammate.
     Lots of hockey changes in 50 years - the norm for everything: one of many life lessons I learned from this wonderful sport.