Rick Charlton at Calgarypuck.com
asserts that the collapse of scoring in the NHL may be greatly overstated. He draws this conclusion from an historical perspective arguing that the statistics posted today parallel those dispatched right the way through much of NHL history.
Charlton argues “that if it was good enough then, in the age of Gordie Howe, The Rocket and Auriel Joliet, then why isn’t it good enough today?” Maybe Charlton is being kind, but he uses a Ken Dryden metaphor that is so facile, that it is hardly worth consideration. Dryden says in his day, “On radio, there was never a bad game ever played. Foster Hewitt gave you bare-bones information and you would fill in the rest with your imagination…” Sure Ken. Television killed the game and people today, especially the kids, don’t have an imagination! While the advent of anti-clutch and grab rules are clearly an effort by the NHL to get more offence into the game, Charlton portends that history shows us that in virtually every period where the NHL has seen dilution of talent, scoring levels have risen, not fallen. So the free wheelin’ high flying 1980’s, when NHL scoring hit a high of 8.03 goals per game in 1981-82 and continued apace until roughly 1992-93 was not because of the advent of European/Soviet speed and style of play, but simply because a Canadian population of 23 million, supplying some 90% of all NHL players, could not support continued expansion. The NHL had essentially expanded to the point where it was outstripping the available talent pool even with the influx of NCAA players and the boost the American game received in the 1980’s from the Miracle on Ice.
It also raises questions about the quality of play and player accomplishments during various periods of NHL history. Mike Bossy scored his 50-in-50 in 1980-81 just when NHL scoring was reaching an almost record high of 8.03 goals per game. The NHL of the 1950’s, when Gordie Howe ruled the rinks, averaged an eye-popping 5.16 goals per game, according to Charlton and I have no reason to doubt him. By 1974-75, in an 18-team NHL, goals scored averaged 6.85 per game. In 1976-77, with the failure of Kansas City – a boost for the talent pool – scoring dropped to 6.42 goals per game. With the addition of four WHA teams in 1979-80 averages jumped to the highest levels since WW2 at 7.03 per game.
During World War II, when English Canadians [French Canada’s participation rates were nominal] proudly pulled on puttees and took up the mantle of Lord Nelson, goal per game averages jumped from a meagre 4.8 per game from 1930-41 to an astronomical 8.17 goals per game in 1943-44. Maurice the “Rocket” Richard’s much heralded first ever 50-in-50 occurred in 1944-45 when English Canada’s hockey stars were in Europe risking their lives.
Fascinating insights are wrought from a comparison of Howe’s scoring stats in the 1950’s and Gretzky’s in the 1980’s. In straight totals, Howe scored 383 goals over the decade and Gretzky’s tallies were 637. Howe’s season was 70 games long and Wayne played 80. To account for the additional games we multiply Gordie’s totals by 1.15 giving Howe a total of 440. Then accounting for the goal per game average differential we multiply 440 x 1.6. Howe’s total jumps to 705 goals scored if he had played in the 1980’s - an average of almost 7 goals per year greater than Gretzky; one can only dream.
Charlton rightfully asserts that the busting of the Berlin Wall changed the face of the NHL in the 1990’s. In addition to the newfound skills in the NCAA the NHL unexpectedly gained access to a considerable collection of talent from behind the Iron Curtain. As Charlton says, “ A population base closing in on one billion people – instead of a single country of 30 million – was now providing talent to the NHL”. As Charlton affirms the 90’s were an era of expansion without dilution contrary to much of NHL history [except the original six expansion] where player excellence increased scoring has dropped.
Charlton’s stats show scoring totals stabilized at an average of 5.27 goals per game in the 1997-98 season after the wave of European talent crested in 1994-95. In a bizarre dichotomy, on the one hand pundits who praise the wide-open European style of the 1980’s epitomised by Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers and on the other Charlton’s revealing statistics and the implication that the freewheeling 80’s were the most diluted decade in the history of the NHL, bearing a resemblance more to shinny than heavenly hockey, we view that era. Charlton’s contention that, “It is a myth that dilution reduces scoring...the effect is quite the opposite” is correct. For me it signifies even more, affirming what I have intuitively known for many years by watching the great ones play, that Howe is far and away the greatest ever to play this game and that the accomplishments of Gretzky and more importantly Richard should be re-evaluated in light of the talent less era in which they plied their craft.
Even more compelling evidence of Howe's superiority is found by examining the second decade of both Gordie's and Gretzsky's careers. In the 1960's, with goals per game averaging 5.45 Howe tallied 314 goals. In the 1990's the average hovered around 6.28 goals per game, reaching a low point in 1997-98 of 5.27, a year in which Gretzky totaled 23 goals culminating in a decade tally of 248. Even without considering the effect of inflated scoring totals caused by expansionist dilution of the talent pool, Gordie outscored Wayne by almost seven
goals per year.