EDMONTON — There was a time in hockey, back when players like Ken Daneyko, Dave Manson or the Bros. Sutter roamed the earth, that Trevor Zegras would have celebrated the morning after his dazzling assist in dental surgery, having the aftermath of a Sherwood Sandwiched repaired.
It was a time, not so long ago, when Zegras’ lacrosse-style pass overtop the goal to a teammate waiting in the slot did not define, as hockey folks like to say, “Playing the game the right way.”
“And by the way? How was Sonny Milano allowed to stand in the low slot like that, with all the time in the world to bat Zegras’ pass out of the air and into the net!?!
“Somebody crosscheck that guy in the back, would ya!?!”
Oh, how far we have come.
The talk of the hockey world on Wednesday wasn’t even acceptable as a warmup tool in Rob Schremp’s day, when the ex-NHLer was a 12-year-old back in 1998, bringing together his two favourite sports, lacrosse and hockey. As an under-14 warming up for a hockey game, he would work through a collection of some of the tricks we see today — including ‘The Zorro,’ made famous by Auston Matthews — and up in the stands his Dad would hear the parents jeer: “Look at that hotdog! Look at him showing off!”
Schremp would make his way to the London Knights under head coach Dale Hunter, one of the toughest farmers ever to grind up and down an NHL wing back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Schremp had some serious skills by then, and would try things that no one else could even think of doing with a puck.
“Dale didn’t like it too much,” Schremp recalled over the phone from Latvia, where he settled into married life as a skills and power play coach, working out of Riga. “He liked skilled hockey, but this kind of realm? Not a chance. Dale understood how to win, and he is a competitor. But this stuff didn’t have any (value). It was a distraction. He was an old-school guy.
“Look,” Schremp continued, “this game was built on hard-nosed warriors. You think about the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s… It was a war, man. Brawls. Rivalries. A man’s game, where you had to own your piece of ice and earn it every night. Now, it evolves. Like, where is fighting now?”
Today there is one fight in every 4.2 NHL games. Meanwhile, Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk attempts a between-the-legs shot at least as often — more times in a month than the entire National Hockey League did in its history prior to 2010.
The junior ranks have all but ceased to stock the league with players who fight, and filling that void left by players like Tony Twist and Bob Probert are young, uber-skilled kids like Zegras, Nick Suzuki, Mitch Marner and even the legendary Patrick Kane.
On the same night Zegras was owning the internet with his pass, Connor McDavid tried and failed to score the Michigan goal against Minnesota, with the puck slipping off his stick as he circled the net going warp speed.
“They call it ‘The Michigan,’ but it wasn’t Michigan University,” corrects Schremp. “It was Mike Legg who had the courage to pull this off back in those ‘Sherwood’ times.”
Give Legg credit for a goal scored in the NCAA back in 1996 — five years before Zegras was born. It was a play we’ve seen over and over today, but one that “wouldn’t have happened twice,” back in Daneyko’s day.
“Do I think Gretzky and Lemieux and could have done that? Absolutely, but it just wasn’t a thing back then,” said the old New Jersey Devils defenceman. “Would it have happened twice? Never.
“Nobody wanted to get shown up. That was just the mentality.”
Legg’s goal, and the subsequent improvement by the Schremps, Kanes and now Zegras’s, has birthed a generation of kids trying to get a Legg up on that great innovator, and an internet phenom named Zac Bell, who took the whole thing to an entirely new level.
When Bell, a Youtube innovator known as The Hockey Jedi, started out on Twitter and Instagram, his mentions were filled with negative comments about how he would “get his head taken off” trying those tricks in a real game. Or that he was a show-off, and somehow now a genuine hockey entity but instead some kind of freak show.
Then he went away from social media for a few years, and when he came back, the climate had changed somewhat.
“There’s been a shift,” his mother Stacy said on a Youtube doc. “I think more people are accepting now the fact that, you know, this is kind of cool, and he’s doing some cool things. It’s fun.”
Is watching the Zegras pass more fun than watching two guys punch each other’s lights out?
It’s where we’re going folks. To a better place, that’s where.