The National Hockey League is great now.
It’s why we cover it. It’s why we can’t get enough of it.
We stay up until after midnight every night to watch P.K. Subban skate, Alex Ovechkin to snap off wrist shots and Sidney Crosby dangle; to see Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick steal goals from opposition; to see what incredible things will happen in that particular evening on ice.
Yet, we are cynical adults, and nothing still compares to the NHL of our formative years — the 1990s. The league made remarkable strides in the 20th Century’s last decade, and millions of hockey fans were birthed thanks to that age. We are no different.
In honor of the 15th — yes, 15th! — anniversary of the 1990s ending, we decided to look back at the 15 things we miss most about the NHL’s most special decade.
The list is in no particular order. Have one you think we missed? Let us hear about it.
1. North America vs. The World
It was a gimmicky ploy to take the world’s best players, and the NHL’s marquee event, and turn it into an event with global ramifications. Yet, for six seasons — between 1998 and 2003 — the NHL suited up a pair of all-star teams, one from North America and the other made up of the best European players, and played them off.
All-Star Games are silly endeavors to begin with, so why not have this format? It did also spawn moments like this — a previous impossibility if the league stuck with the East vs. West format.
2. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim’s jerseys
The 1990s Anaheim Mighty Ducks uniforms were glorious. Jade, eggplant and a fearsome duck bill goalie mask logo.
Anaheim’s current black, gold and orange uniforms lack the charm and uniqueness of the franchise’s inaugural jerseys. It sure was cool when the Ducks wore their eggplant and jade oldies during “Throwback Night” on Oct. 13 last season.
The Ducks are currently without an alternate jersey.
Bring ‘em back.
3. Classic barns
Nassau Coliseum is the last of the arenas of the 1970s.
Yet, drift back to 1990s, and some of the most remarkable buildings were still functional. Maple Leaf Gardens was still active as recently as Feb. 13, 1999. Boston Garden, the Montreal Forum and Chicago Stadium all met their demise in the 1990s, and although their replacements are still some of the best venues to watch a hockey game — there are no seats behind pillars, as there were at Boston Garden — they lack the majesty and history of their predecessors.
Back in the day, the NHL used to play weeknight games on ESPN and ESPN2. Some of the game’s most memorable moments happened in those time slots.
Every night after the NHL went to bed, John Buccigross and Barry Melrose — and Ray Ferraro during the playoffs after his teams had been eliminated — took the public through a show that featured news, highlights and analysis through the league.
That might seem like a nonentity these days, given the rise of the NHL Network and the internet, but at the time, it was the only way for we in the states to get our hockey fix. Many of us were not blessed with DirecTV’s NHL package — and even if we were, you can’t watch every game at the same time. What was best was Buccigross’ personality and Melrose’s analysis — plus, Ferraro’s chemistry with the duo — and they all had passion for the game.
It’s a show I still miss today.
5. Rockin’ arena music
Remember when NHL arenas actually played hard rock? Nowadays, most arenas play a majority of electronic dance music at deafening volumes. Whatever happened to the Ramones, Nirvana, AC/DC, Van Halen and KISS?
Nothing makes you think hockey arena music quite like Van Halen’s cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” Eddie Van Halen is straight up shreddin’.
6. The old guard
When the 1990s opened, there were 21 NHL teams — 11 in the East, 10 in the West. The San Jose Sharks became the 22nd in the 1991-92 season.
Yet, in the 1980s, the NHL had a quixotic endeavor to be in the United States’s biggest and brightest markets, and in the 1990s, that endeavor played out into remarkable shift in the NHL map.
Minnesota became Dallas; Winnipeg went to Phoenix; Quebec became Colorado; Hartford to Raleigh; expansion in Anaheim, Tampa Bay, Florida, Atlanta, Ottawa, Columbus, Nashville and back to Minnesota happened.
Now, there are 30 teams — four were added in two rounds of expansion in the early 1990s, and four more came on at the end of the decade. Plus, four more bolted its former city.
That’s 12 new teams in a decade. I miss the old ones.
7. The Russian Rocket
Pavel Bure brought fans out of their seats like no one else could. No one could match his explosive stride. No one had an arsenal of moves like Bure’s. No one did the unexpected and the spectacular more often. Think Alex Ovechkin the most exciting player you’ve ever seen? You probably didn’t witness the greatness of Bure.
It’s a shame that recurrent knee injuries brought Bure’s career to a premature end in 2003. One can only imagine what Bure would have accomplished had he been blessed with the longevity of Jaromir Jagr or Teemu Selanne.
8. NHL on FOX
Why? Because not only did FOX Network give the NHL a chance, but it also used innovation to help create more hockey fans.
Was the glow puck a gimmick? Of course, but have you tried spotting the puck in standard-definition? It’s not so easy. FOX had regional coverage — far removed from these days’ “Game of the Week” — and featured many of the league’s best matchups on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Mike Emrick and John Davidson were the lead broadcast team — which earns them bonus points to me. And even though they only broadcasted for five seasons, the FOX people left an indelible mark on the NHL.
9. ESPN NHL commercials
10. Original NHL video games
NHL 14’s “NHL 94 Mode” was a major disappointment. Sure, it had the blue ice, retro goal horn and star icons… but that was about it. The mode was an insult to the greatness of NHL 94.
You know what would’ve been cool instead? Current rosters with NHL 94 graphics, 16-bit sounds and gameplay – and the ability to play this mode online.
NHL 94 still stands alone as the most addictive and best sports video game of all-time.
11. The dawn of the third jerseys
Every year around Christmas time, I scour eBay to see what NHL jersey of my youth I can add to my collection.
Last year it was the Nike Mighty Ducks of Anaheim alternative. This year, I added the Maple Leafs’ third sweater to my closet. I always scour the 1990s Coyotes sweaters — yes, even the hideous third jersey.
I don’t dream of adding the yellow Boston Bruins third, or the two Statue of Liberty sweaters the Rangers rocked. Still, sinking money into alternative uniforms became a thing in the mid-1990s — even the Blackhawks introduced their spectacular alternate black sweater in 1996.
12. Nike hockey commercials
90s Nike hockey commercials were clever and hilarious. Fedorov, Mats Sundin, Theo Fleury, Jeremy Roenick and Rod Brind’ Amour forced out of work goalies to turn to lives of crime, begging on the street and working regular jobs.
A personal favorite was the “Landscaper.”
13. Red Wings vs. Avalanche
The Quebec Nordiques’ move to Denver officially went down July 1, 1995. Who knew on that day, the NHL’s hottest rivalry would be born?
The Avalanche and Red Wings met in the postseason five times between 1996 and 2002 — with those series reaching seven games twice. The Red Wings actually stoked the rivalry’s flames in December of 1995 by scoring nine times on 26 shots against Patrick Roy in an 11-1 win at The Forum — Roy’s last game as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, he was traded to Colorado just hours later.
From there, and thanks in part to Claude Lemieux, the Wings and ‘Lanche became appointment television when they met. The two were the Western Conference’s champion a combined five times between 1996 and 2002, and their games were among the fiercest and most skilled of the day. Their most memorable regular-season affair was “Fight Night at The Joe” in March of 1997 that was capped by a goalie brawl between Roy and Mike Vernon.
14. The Great One’s sendoff
1999 was the final year of Wayne Gretzky. Even in his final season, “The Great One” was able to record an impressive 53 assists in 70 games. When Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin decide to call it a day, they won’t get the kind of sendoff that the universally beloved No. 99 received at every building during his farewell tour.
Gretzky’s final game on Apr. 18, 1999 at Madison Square Garden was truly unforgettable.
Seriously, look at the All-Star Game videos.
Look at who the All-Star Game MVPs were in the 1990s. Don’t want to click? Fine, I’ll rattle ’em off:
If you’re scoring at home, that’s six Hall of Famers, four of the NHL’s top-10 in all-time goals scored, arguably the greatest defenseman of our era and the classiest player of our era.
Oh yeah, and I left out Al MacInnis‘ slap shot, Bure and Fedorov’s high-flying ability to get people out of their chairs, Scott Stevens‘ tenacity, Messier’s leadership, Patrick Roy’s sheer nuttiness, Jeremy Roenick’s skill, Lindros’ two-way game, Hasek’s unbelievable saves, Martin Brodeur, Nick Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, Mike Modano, Paul Coffey, Alexander Mogilny, Mats Sundin, Keith Tkachuk, Brian Leetch, Cam Neely, Pierre Turgeon, Adam Oates, Ron Francis.
I could keep going on, but you get the idea.
The point is, many of the NHL’s greatest played in the 1990s, and thanks to FOX and ESPN, we got to see and get to know many of them in their primes.
That’s what was best about the 1990s. The games, the players, the uniforms.
*- Except those two work stoppages, those kind of sucked.