With about a week to go before the playoffs, this National Hockey League season has been a revelation.
Cynicism reigned supreme back in October as the players, badly outplayed by the owners in their contract dispute that wrecked an entire season, finally returned to the ice. But with new rules permitting faster and more offensive play, fans have been turned on once again by a sport that had become slow, bloated and boring.
It doesn’t hurt that the Montreal Canadiens have iced a credible and often exciting team that, as of this writing, has won eight straight games in the most critical part of the season, all but clinching a spot in the postseason.
Most importantly, we’ve seen young, hardworking players win the spotlight. Young guys we’ve never heard of before, such as Christopher Higgins, have been a complete surprise for the Habs. Older guys like goaltender Christobal Huet have been given a chance later in their careers and shone. Without Huet and Higgins, in fact, it’s difficult to image a playoff run for the Canadiens.
Elsewhere, Jonathon Cheechoo’s inspiring drive for a 50-goal season (he has 48 at press time) is making him a superstar not only in the Cree world, but around the hockey world as well.
Even seeing Jaromir Jagr get back in touch with his scoring touch for New York doesn’t bother me, because he’s drawing fans to the rink wherever the Rangers play. Indeed, he’s helped that team make the playoffs, likely finishing first in its division, for the first time since 1997.
The irony is that New York, like other big-money teams such as the Detroit Red Wings, have succeeded despite the salary cap imposed on teams this year for the first time. That demonstrates that while having an unlimited budget to outspend your opponents can help buy success, it is not necessary.
In the case of the Rangers, the argument could be made that too much money even hindered the team’s success because buying superstars got in the way of the essential task of getting the players to play together as a team. While the Red Wings have always had lots of cash on hand, their success has come from solid coaching, smart draft picks and an irreproachable work ethic. That’s why Detroit has continued to lead the league this year despite the salary cap.
There’s a lesson there that goes far beyond the National Hockey League. It shows that bigger budgets alone do not ensure success, no matter the endeavour. Like the New York Rangers before this season, a company or an organization can fail at its goals regardless of the pile of cash it has on hand. Rich or poor, what does make for success is teamwork, smart leadership and good old-fashioned hard work.
Just look at our Habs. After Bob Gainey – Mr. Cool – took over behind the bench, he’s inspired or frightened his players to buy into his system, play hard and with heart, and demonstrated that success will follow smart play. The fans will come along for the ride, too.
Bring on the playoffs, and Go Habs Go!