Andy Van Hellemond hasn’t worked for the NHL for more than six years. And although he doesn’t follow the pro game nearly as closely as he did as an on-ice referee or the director of NHL officiating, he doesn’t lack forceful opinions about the direction of the sport at its highest levels.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s (better),” Van Hellemond said when asked about today’s NHL product compared to the game in the 1970s and ’80s. “We had a lot of goals scored in our time. They changed the game to get more goals and (yet) we have these 1-0 and 2-0 and 2-1 games…and if they don’t change the goalie equipment, the game will always be like this.”
The 62-year-old Van Hellemond, who was just elected as a city councilor in Guelph, Ont., bristled when he was the NHL’s director of officiating and league brass attempted to pin the blame for the low scoring of the Dead Puck Era on a lack of rule enforcement that led to massive on-ice obstruction.
Now, he said, the changes that have been implemented – and the subsequent lack of a significant rise in NHL scoring – have justified his beliefs.
“The excuse of too much hooking and too much holding, that doesn’t wash anymore,” said Van Hellemond, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame who resigned as director of officiating in 2004 amid reports he borrowed money from the officials he supervised. “That’s what they said was wrong with the game. If you remember rightly, there was too much of that going on, so they had to change and have a big summit because (they) wanted more goals.
“That hasn’t really happened; you don’t hear the league announcing that goals are way up because (games are) more entertaining. So we heard all this B.S. about hooking and holding and that by getting rid of it, we’re going to have higher-scoring games? I don’t see it, but you be the judge.”
Van Hellemond, a Winnipeg native, began his NHL officiating career in 1969 and continued working as a referee until 1996. The difference between the hockey he saw four decades ago and the system-centric approach to the modern game is stark.
“You can only watch 2-0 and 1-0 games and ‘chip-it-in, chip-it-out’ for so long,” he said. “When you had Vic Hadfield and Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle going down the ice, there was a bit of a play, a bit of a drop pass. Guy Lafleur got a drop pass from (Jacques) Lemaire and let it rip, you know?
“It’s the players’ game, so you let the players play the game. If you knock a guy down in front of the net and it doesn’t have an effect immediately on the play, you let him get up and fight for his ice. You’ve got to fight for your turf. I watched the (Leafs/Senators) game…and the guys are standing in front of the net, Chris Neil and Mike Fisher, they’re just standing there and the defensemen are standing right beside them. That’s not the hockey I know.”
Van Hellemond – who frequently takes his grandchildren to Ontario League games featuring the local Guelph Storm – said the biggest impediment to higher-scoring NHL games is the still-contentious size of goalie equipment.
“It all comes back to that,” he said. “You’ve been to a lot of games and you’ve seen how big some of those goalies are and how they cover the net. The net stays the same size and the equipment – they keep saying they’re going to police it, but I don’t know…you don’t hear about it.
“So the goalies are keeping the games 2-1 and 3-1 – and now they’re athletes, where, way back when, in the late ’60s or early ’70s, the goalie might not have been a great athlete.”
In fairness, the NHL has slowly whittled down the size of goalie equipment in the past couple years. Given that fact, would Van Hellemond be amenable to bigger nets as a solution to stagnant scoring?
“That could be tough – there’s a lot of traditionalists in the game,” Van Hellemond said. “I don’t want to be a critic, don’t get me wrong. A lot of people make their living from the game and it’s hard for me to judge, because first of all, I don’t see a lot of games.
“But when I was involved in (the league), they kept blaming us because we were not calling this and not calling that and now they’ve put in these rules and tried to get more penalties called and nothing much is changing.
“Something has to change.”
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Wednesdays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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