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I'm reminded of young Kadri after seeing a comment from ex-Leaf Johnny Wilson- a window into how the game is so different now

When I was working on a piece about Ron Wilson and his contract extension recently, I remembered that I had written some time ago about Ron’s father Larry, and uncle Johnny, both well-known professional players in the 1950s and ‘60s. Both had nice careers, Johnny spending quite a bit of time in the NHL, including with the Maple Leafs briefly in the late 1950s.  (He actually helped the Red Wings of Gordie Howe and many other greats win a number of Cups in the early 1950s...)

Both gentlemen,  later coached the Detroit Red Wings and were respected hockey guys, for sure.

When it was announced that Johnny Wilson had died last week at the age of 82, I came across a thoughtful piece on Johnny (pictured in his early 1950s Red Wing days at left) by one of my favorite mainstream media guys, Mike Zeisberger of the Toronto Sun.  In that piece, Mike recalled an interview that his Sun colleague Steve Simmons had penned before the current season got underway, in which he spoke with Johnny Wilson.  Wilson spoke proudly of his nephew Ron, of course, but also made a very relevant observation about the way the game is played nowadays.

The elder Wilson was quoted as saying, “I was a left winger. I don’t know how I’d react to all this coaching today. (In my day, as a player) I’d go out there and react to the situations as they transpire. I’d do it instinctively. Today, you’ve got somebody telling you, you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that. I think I’d go out there and be too afraid of making a mistake.”

The comment is of particular interest to someone like myself, because I am old enough to actually remember watching Johnny Wilson play in the NHL, and I, too, have seen such a massive shift in the way the game is played in this era, compared with the 1950s and ‘60s, particularly.

Given the passage of time, I guess that's not a shock, eh?  Oh, sure, hockey is the same sport, but it’s a very, very different game these days.  It’s not just that the players are bigger and faster, though that certainly contributes.  But players are able to do such high-skill moves at lightning speed that it's, well,  quite remarkable. And beyond that, the game is, of course, coached in such fine—sometimes excruciating—detail.

In the elder Wilson’s day, back when I was just a kid, there was one coach on the bench.  He wasn’t the “head coach”—he was the only coach.  There was nobody “upstairs” sending messages to the three guys behind the bench.  There was no one by the coach’s side in charge of, say, the defensemen.  Video was introduced by some teams in the 1960s (there was actually a Hockey Night in Canada feature about Punch Imlach's use of video in the mid '60s), yet wasn’t used so much to break down opposition tendencies until people like Leaf coach Roger Neilson made such opponent analysis part of his daily game preparation in the late 1970s.

But what really caught me about Wilson’s comment was his reference to doing things on instinct.  I’m not saying that’s a lost “art”, because the players today (at least many of them) are supremely skilled and are not only talented but in many cases very creative, too.  They think on their feet awfully well, and again, at very high speed.

I just think that the game is coached in such a way that many guys are, as Johnny Wilson put it, “afraid to make a mistake”. 

If you played for Jacques Lemaire in Jersey or Minnesota over the past fifteen seasons, or you play now for Ken Hitchcock (or any number of other systems-obsessed modern-day NHL coaches) you better be at the “right” spot on the ice- or else,  It’s all there in their “x’s” and “o’s” coaching and systems manual.

I think of a player like young Nazem Kadri now with the Leafs.  How many times has he been up and down already, between being sent back to junior hockey and of course, the Marlies.  And he's still only 21.  Every time the kid comes up, we all micro-analyze his play, look to see whether he “turns the puck over” at the other team’s blueline or loses his man defensively, etc.

And we’re just the fans.  Imagine what he’s hearing from the coaches.  Like the elder Wilson said, “Don’t do this, don’t do that….”.

I've said here many times about Kadri:  I wish they would just let him play.  I don;t mean he should be allowed to free-wheel and just do whatever he wants on every shift, but I've always believed that an athlete gets better by making mistakes- and being allowed to make mistakes without instant punishment.  And Wilson is not even as dogmatic as some NHL coaches, I don't think.  But Kadri has certainly been on a very short leash, it seems to me.

It strikes me that guys are rarely just allowed to play and develop naturally.  Sometimes making mistakes is in fact the best way to learn.

If you watch games from the ‘50s, ‘60s and even into the ‘70s, you see all kinds of mistakes, all over the ice.  Mistakes were just part of the game.  Oh, I’m sure coaches weren’t thrilled if a defenseman gave the puck away in his own zone, or a forward threw the puck blindly somewhere and it caused a rush going in the other direction.

But it was just a different mindset.  Some teams were always a bit more “defensive”, sure.  In fact, the Leafs, under Imlach, were never a star-studded team and tended to be more of a checking team, as opposed to a team like the Red Wings or the Black Hawks.  Heck, the always-successful Habs were famous for being a “fire wagon” team for decades, until Scotty Bowman (in the ‘70s) started also focusing on defensive awareness, tied into a still explosive attack.

No one spoke in those days of the “transition” game, the “trap”, the “left-wing lock”, “fronting” or any of the modern-day jargon that now populates the game.  Most of the statistics we focus on now weren’t a thing, even for GM’s, in those days.  As Johnny Wilson said, guys basically went out and played, and reacted to what was happening on the ice.  Players didn’t sit back in a football-style defensive posture, just waiting for the other team to try to find a way to break through the human logjam.

I always sound awfully out-of touch when I say this, but I do sometimes prefer the way the game was in those “olden days”, including after expansion in 1967 when there were suddenly twice as many jobs for players—and a little more job security, on the one hand (I realize if you were a young guy playing for someone like Imlach in Toronto in the ‘60s, a trip to the AHL was always a possibility if you made too many mistakes…).

But in that post ’67 era, especially, there were tons of mistakes, goals—and goalies who didn’t cover the entire bottom half of the net with technical precision and perfection.

And the era was filled with players, like Kadri, who weren’t afraid a “mistake” would earn them a one-way ticket to the minors.


  1. It's difficult not to observe that even with bench coaches and video and "eyes in the sky", the 2012 Leafs still can't get a decent PK together. I don't think it was any worse back in the days of "let 'em play"!
    Of course, systems are going to be with us for a good long time, because they "work", but there's still lots of opportunity for instinctive play - it's the essence of game. And I think that's where a player like the old Kadri got caught - too much instinct, not enough system. These days, he seems to have found the balance - I hope it continues.
    It may not be fair, and may even harm certain players' development or career possibilities, but I think it's the same in all pro sports at the highest level. Players have to mould their skills to the coaches' plans - and to the openings available to them on their team. Thankfully, it looks like Kadri has put it together this time around!

  2. Very well said, Gerund O' does look like Kadri is finding a balance between what his instincts tell him and what the coaches "want"...We'll see if it can continue....

  3. Well if one practices something, whether it be a sport, music or whatever. the more you practice the more it becomes instinctual. The idea of "over coaching" is just that, do something over and over again so that it becomes instinct... its the talent in that particular thing that makes this possible... think about something you're good at (naturally talented at) and practice doing it over and over again and soon enough you can do it without event thinking.

  4. I think I see your point, A. Donnybrook. And I agree. Repetition, doing something so often that it becomes reflexive, "muscle-memory", in a sense, obviously is part of being instinctive and being really good at something, whatever it might be.

    I guess the only distinction I draw, and maybe it's only in my mind, is that coaches so emphasize systems that a player sometimes does things that are counter-intuitive for fear of betraying the "system" and facing the repercussions from the coach. For me, there needs to be a balance between the hours and hours of "practice" and training and the in-game capacity (and being allowed) to follow your gut....

    Thanks for posting.

  5. There was an interesting comment by Howie Meeker not that long ago in which he said that the speed of the modern game actually hindered the modern player. The game happened so fast that you couldn't think your way through the game the way you did before. You rarely see the quality of passes you once did because there isn't time to make them.

    So perhaps the modern emphasis on systems is really there to help the player because the game happens too quickly to be dealt with otherwise. He has to already be in position because the play will be past him if he isn't.

    I think there was a lot of defensive awareness in the old days. Hap Day was looking at 5-man defensive systems in the 1940s and an inability to fit that style led to a one-way ticket out of town (ask Gordie Drillon). I think the terminology has become more developed and there is more variation, but systems like the left-wing lock have been around for decades.

    Elmer Lach, back in the 50s, said you couldn't even compare offensive numbers of players on different teams because you had to understand their system of play first.

  6. Thanks for the comment, 1967ers...

    I agree, there have always been systems of play in hockey. I saw that myself in the late 1950s a and early '60s with the Red Wings, who I followed a lot, and of course Montreal, Toronto and even the Black Hawks. (If I'm not mistaken, HOF'er Pierre Pilote has said the Hawks should have won more Cups, but they couldn't adjust to a more defensive style of play come playoff time.)

    The Leafs were almost always a defense-first team in my memory (even before, as you cite with Hap Day). They certainly were under Imlach in the late '50s and through the '60s and of course a decade later Roger Neilson.

    To Meeker's comment, I don't doubt he is correct about the speed of the game now. We all see it. It has to be awfully tough for the players, even guys who see the ice and anticipate well.

    As I said in chatting here with A. Donnybrook, the challenge is having players work within whatever "system" of play your team believes in, but allowing for individuals to use their own instincts as situations demand. Easier said than done, I'm sure.

  7. I was actually at the game in Winnipeg and Kadri sure looked like full-time NHL player to me...let him play.

    He was noticably dangerous and created scoring chances. He could hang on to the puck in the offensive zone like few other players on the ice.

    I would not trade him. He didn't look any smaller than Lombardi. There is too much potential. I would hang on to Kadri for a while longer and see how he develops.

    I didn't even mind his penalty. It showed some spunk against a larger player.

    I would only send Kadri down if he regresses and stops playing with energy and speed.

    But at the same time, you have to give Frattin an equal degree of scutiny. It seems like Frattin has had it easier than Kadri. Frattin hasn't done that much and he is older. Frattin blows scoring chances all the time...while I think Kadri would bury those chances. Frattin shot a prime chance right over the net in Winnipeg.

    When Armstong returns I would send Frattin down before Kadri.

    Would the older Frattin still be waiver exempt?

  8. Long suffering Leaf fanJanuary 2, 2012 at 7:44 PM

    Happy New Year Mike and to the rest of vintage Leafs followers! Funny thing reading your post today. I recall not so long ago in an radio interview that Pat Quinn basically stated the same thing. He felt that the game had become sooo much about x's and o's that it was sucking the creativity out of the players. It is certainly dishearten when you see it at the developing level of minor hockey. Kids playing midget hockey already are being shape into what I call "robot hockey!" So much so that some minor coaches are grooming young players to be defensive specialist as their ticket to the NHL. Not that it is a bad thing in teaching kids defense, but, not at the expense of individual creative instincts. The game may be faster than in glory days of the flying Frenchmen, Blackhawks and Red Wings, but as you accurate said, maybe its time to allow the young Kadri's too use their creativity without fear of receiving a ticket to the minors. To every NHL executive who cares about this game of ours, please allow some creativity back into the game before the "ROBOTS" completely take over!!

  9. I'm not sure about Frattin's waiver limitations, DP. Some others will have a better handle on that one. I'm guessing he can be sent down without his being exposed to a waiver claim.

    Kadri has looked good, yes. It looks like he'll have the opportunity to show he can be consistent and play well all over the ice...

  10. Happy New Year to you, Long Suffering...You've captured precisely what I was trying to say in my column. It's not that there aren't wonderful things and skills on display in today's game, but it is so "coached" from the youngest levels that I think it sometimes detracts from the "watch-ability" for fans and doesn't allow players the freedom to react instinctively at times...

  11. Looks like Wilson is listening

    - Joey Crabb was bumped up to more of a scoring line in practice, something Wilson said was a reward for how he has played. He'll skate with Grabovski and Kulemin while Matt Frattin goes to the fourth line. Clarke MacArthur was with Matt Lombardi and Nazem Kadri.

    I checked and I think because of his age, Frattin only has 60 games of NHL play before he loses his waiver exemption.

    He's already played 36, so he's only got 24 games left. If they are going to send him down they have to do it soon or Frattin will burn through his waiver exemption this year.

    Because Kadri is younger, I think he gets 80 games. That gives the Leafs way more room. Kadri has played 38 games and has 42 more before he loses waiver exemption.

    42 vs 24?

    For that reason alone Kadri should be allowed to play some games without worry.

    Give Kadri some games this year. If not all now, then later in the year. Try to put him in for at least 20 games. He has room in his waiver exemption..while Frattin is running out of time on his.

  12. My reply will be somewhat off topic but will come full circle if you take the time to read. Concussions seem to be a big issue. Equipment is the leading cause behind this, followed by (in my opinion) ice size.

    Look at the size of theses players: Howe (6'1, 205lbs), Gretzky (6'0, 189lbs), Orr (5'11, 200lbs), Bossy (6'0, 185lbs), Hull Sr (5'11, 208lbs), Hull Jr (5'10, 200lbs). I have listed a decent sampling of players. The Era in which they played all pretty much mesh together and as you can notice they are all roughly the same size. Players today are easily much bigger in every aspect and then you put them in even larger equipment. Anyone under 6 foot and less than 200lbs is considered "small". I would say most players now are around 6'2" and 205lbs. The league has guys around 6'6" and over 230lbs. (Chara stands 6'9", Byfuglien is 265lbs)

    People talk about growing the game but never stop to think what that really means. Everything has grown but the area they play in, the rink. Everyone is much bigger and a bigger space is needed. Time for the owners and league to put their bottom line aside and increase the rink size while taking from the seats. Even something as small as a simply yard increase to each side of the ice would make a world of difference.

    For example, you have a Honda Civic Hatchback and only you ride in it. Then you get a girlfriend, then a dog, then you have a child, then a second....the point, as the players grow, so does the space they need. A logical person would get a bigger vehicle to accommodate the size increase of "players", why does the NHL not think this way.

    How does this tie into the topic? More space equals more freedom or creativity. The players I listed played in a league that was smaller thus giving them more space and time. Some could argue the more space would only increase the time given to build up a thunderous hit but I beg to differ. That is a narrow sighted excuse if you think increasing space would increase injury and wouldn't increase creativity.

  13. DP, the waiver restrictions you cite are important, I'm sure, in determining who stays up and for how long. Both Kadri and Frattin seem on the cusp of proven they "belong" long-term, but they both still have things to prove. Hopefully they will both continue to get that opportunity.

    Skill2Envy...the larger rink size argument is one that seems logical, though I admit I have no proof that it would lessen the number of serious injuries. I have to believe it would and I'd be interested in hearing the views of others who have studied this much more than I have.

    While I acknowledge I have never been as big a fan as some people of the larger ice surface, we are in a new era with many players who are bigger and almost everyone is faster than was typically the case in earlier eras. (There were always speedy players but we're into a whole generation of guys who can fly, it seems...)

    The reality seems to be that NHL owners are reluctant to pay to change the seating arrangements in their buildings. Much like NFL owners who insist on their multi-million dollar stars playing on concrete (though yes, the new turf is a bit better) because it's cheaper to maintain, NHL owners perhaps care more for premium seating revenue than protecting their highly-paid players-- the guys who actually sell the tickets.

    Thanks for posting!