The good and bad of the Old Guard

Updated: August 17, 2006, 6:06 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Harry Sinden's departure as the Boston Bruins' president adds to the impression that the NHL's Old Guard is leaving the building. In this case, Sinden's exit removes one more connection to the era of the Boston Garden and everything that took place on the short rink.

Old Guard?

Because one can be "young" at 68 or 87, and to discriminate on the basis of a number is as unconscionable as any other form of prejudice, that's not as much a statement about age as about attitude.

Among the owners, Bill Wirtz was Old Guard when he was relatively young, as was Jeremy Jacobs.

The Sutter brothers are going to be Old Guard forever, and justifiably proud of it.

We've all heard words, some from the mouths of 17-year-olds that make it obvious they have been indoctrinated with, and bought into, attitudes that could have been expressed on trains during the Original Six era.

Old Guard (and its linemates, Old School and Old-Fashioned) can be attitudes expressed in Section 132 as much as in the front office or the press box.

Old Guard isn't necessarily a pejorative term.

In other words, just because Pat Quinn has silver hair and occasional attitudes that should be given a dose of Grecian Formula doesn't automatically mean that the man isn't still in touch with the evolving NHL and the game itself and that he wouldn't be capable of stepping behind another bench and doing a decent job.

Like most things in life, it's a balancing act.

As the NHL moves forward in the Cap Era, and continues to attempt to heal the wounds that still linger from the dark season, it should continue stepping away from aspects of the Old Guard attitude, even while attempting to embrace or bring back other elements of that agenda.

Some examples:

• The Old Guard attitude was that while college boys and Europeans are handy to have around, they must prove their talent is so exceptional or their grittiness so evident that they can be forgiven for not coming up through the ranks in Canada. In essence, those players were on probation their whole careers.

Of course, that's completely behind us. Because members of the Old Guard now are such men as Lou Lamoriello, the former coach at Providence, and Brian Burke, his one-time captain.

OK, at least it's not as prevalent as it used to be.

• The Old Guard attitude was that any call in the last five minutes of the game was gutsy, no matter how obvious. Unless the call was against your team. In which case it was an abominable act of egoism by the zebra who took the right to decide the outcome out of the players' hands.

Finally, the NHL is attacking that mind-set, and it was one of the biggest roadblocks the league had to overcome in making sure the enforcement of the anti-obstruction standards lasted through entire games, much less an entire season.

• The Old Guard attitude is that it's always the coach's fault, even if the general manager is an inept incompetent who stays on the job because he acts as if the owner's money is his own and Toe Blake couldn't have coached that roster any better than the poor guy who is about to be fired.

Not that we're going to name any names, but that informally is known as the "Sinden Syndrome." (If a film ever is made about it, it will star Matt Damon, who will go through six coaches between opening and closing credits, then say: "How do you like them apples, Grapes?")

There is a term limit on coaching effectiveness. But if the NHL can find that middle ground between untouchable, professorial tenure and the scapegoating phenomenon, which often causes players to rationalize tuning out coaches and leads to self-fulfilling prophecies, it will be good for the league.

• This Old Guard attitude wasn't universal, but many members of the Old Guard believe(d) that local radio and television broadcasts should give the audience credit for intelligence, with frequently sonorous tones and an acknowledgment that ignoring team shortcomings and committing excessive, blinkered cheerleading would be insulting. They even were smart enough to understand that almost any debate about the team was good for the franchise and the game. And they often were saying worse things in public themselves because, what the heck, what's wrong with a little candor?

Isn't there a way we can bring that back?

Because it's baseball season, this point is driven home to me every night: The same broadcasters who go on and on about what an icon the Dodgers' Vin Scully is act as if he does nothing right because their play-by-play calls are laced with such intelligence as, "Come on, ball; come on, ball; get outta here!"

The hockey parallels are many. It's far from everywhere around the league. But now, between periods, when we hear "elsewhere in the NHL" broadcast highlights, we'd think every goal by the broadcaster's home team, even the one that cut the margin to 5-2, was Bobby Orr flying through the air after clinching the Stanley Cup.

From afar, we say, "What homers!" and then "our" team broadcast resumes and we're agreeing when the play-by-play guy is screaming, "Kerry Fraser has always hated us!" Because "our" homers aren't homers; they're only telling it like it is! (Of course, on the other broadcast three minutes later, someone is saying, "Kerry Fraser has always hated us!")

We should be able to tell which team's broadcast it is, and there's nothing wrong with acknowledging the perspective of one team's fandom. But not to the point of absurdity.

• The Old Guard attitude lingers that no one player is worth promoting over The Team.

Heck, it's amazing that some 2005-06 team media guides had individual players on the covers. No, none of us wants this to become the me-me-me, player-describes-self-in-third-person world of other sports, but the NHL still needs to stop being so darned self-conscious about promoting its superstars, including those on opposing teams.

Even teams trying to sell season tickets are doing it with a generic approach that leads one to believe that the top line is Jones, Smith and Johnson and that the opponents might as well be the Trail Smoke Eaters.

I'd love to have been a fly on the wall, or been able to leave a tape recorder under the table, for the meetings at which the ad agencies laid out their innovative campaigns, only to have hockey men say: No way!

• The Old Guard didn't invent this one; in the "old days," this was a relatively open league with the media. But as the relationship became more antagonistic, the Old Guard enthusiastically agreed in many cities that the ink-stained wretches deserved to be kept at arm's length while 11 of the 18 skaters hid out in the training room or other enclaves.

Now, though, with newspapers in even major markets taking a hard look at whether to cover their home teams on the road, availability is even more important than ever. This is inside, but last season's postgame availability regulations were eminently reasonable, if enforced with common sense. They were largely ignored in many markets, with the proponents of the Old Guard attitudes seeing nothing wrong with it.

• The Old Guard attitude is to open the arena doors and the beer stands. Sell skinny programs with rosters and ages and maybe a feature article or two about the boa constrictor collection the left winger started as a 12-year-old in Prince George. Have some guy on the P.A. system say who's going to the penalty box and who just got the goal and who assisted. Tell the organist to play whatever he or she wants, short of "Ave Maria." Don't let an FM disc jockey roam the stands with a microphone and trivia questions. And don't let anyone with purple hair and piercings, who couldn't name five NHL players but is proclaimed a "game-night experience" genius by folks with master's degrees in sports management, anywhere near a computer that can have any one of 1,362 songs blaring over the speakers at the click of a mouse.

Well, that's not only the Old Guard attitude. That's mine.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."