Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Man Who Killed the NHL

It has become something of a hobby for the mainstream sports media to take shots at the NHL. This charge has undoubtedly been led by ESPN in their effort to show Gary Bettman what a fool he was for moving the NHL to the Versus network. As a hockey fan myself, I am not about to pile on the NHL during these dark times, but I can't deny that the league isn't what it used to be. Despite many attempts to open up the game, the NHL is still not the wide open, creative, up tempo kind of hockey that was around in the 80's and early 90's. The NHL has been constantly adjusting the rules for years in an effort to "open up" the game and increase offense, but that is not going to solve the problem. Clutching and grabbing is not the NHL's problem. Neither is the dreaded neutral zone trap (which was around long before the Devils won the Cup in '95). The lack of offense in the NHL is attributable to the increase in elite level goaltenders in the NHL, and there is a single person to blame for this... Patrick Roy.

If you were a French-Canadian kid in the late 80's to early 90's you worshiped this guy.

When Patrick Roy won the Stanley Cup in 1986 in his first full season with the Canadiens he set into motion a change in the hockey landscape as the world knew it. As Roy began to dominate the NHL he made it cool to be a goalie. Young Canadian kids (French-Canadians in particular) who used to grow up wanting to be the next Orr or Lemieux now had a new idol. Patrick Roy brought a new level of athleticism to the goalie position while at the same time showing that a goalie could dominate the game like no other position in any sport. Youth hockey was no longer just about sticking the slow, fat kid in net. All of a sudden the best athletes wanted to play in net, and the result turned the NHL upside down.

When Roy won his second Cup in '93 he solidified his place as one of the game's brightest stars. But his real impact on the sport was also starting to take shape as the first wave of top French-Canadian goaltending prospects were starting to arrive in the league. Goalies like Felix Potvin, Stephane Fiset, and Dominic Roussel were already starting to appear in the NHL and in some cases, like Potvin with the Maple Leafs, have a huge impact on their teams. The '95-'96 season saw Roy leave his hometown team and move on the the Colorado Avalanche where he would lead the Avalanche to Stanley Cup glory in the team's first season since leaving Quebec. He would later win a second Cup with the Avalanche and become the first and still only player in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP three times. These seasons also saw the emergence of even more dominant French-Canadian goaltenders in the NHL. The likes of Martin Brodeur, Jocelyn Thibault, Jose Theodore, Roberto Luongo, Patrick Lalime, and J.S. Giguere have all followed in Roy's footsteps to NHL stardom. Many of them by imitating the butterfly style of goaltending that Roy himself perfected.

The definition of a winner.

Patrick Roy retired as the most successful goalie in NHL history in both the regular season and playoffs, but his true legacy lives on every time a French-Canadian goalie takes the ice in the NHL. Like I said before, Roy made it cool to be a goalie. That single change in attitude led to a league-wide increase in the quality level of goaltending in the NHL that has not subsided. Despite all the rule changes, equipment advances, and overall improvement of player quality in the NHL scoring is still down from 10-15 years ago. The reason in my opinion is largely due to the quantity of outstanding goalies currently minding NHL creases. And the man to thank/blame for that, is Patrick Roy.

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