Let It Die In Peace, or Against Hockey Nostalgia

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In July of 1994, my elder brother, with great aplomb, held up a t-shirt that read “Now I Can Die in Peace.” It happened to be his eighth birthday. There's a certain adorable and impossible to miss irony in the image, but at the time there was something almost—almost—reasonable about it. The Rangers had won the Stanley Cup after more than half a century of waiting, and the rules were different in that moment. The trouble, at least for the Rangers, was that the moment took so long to end.

Memory, and this specific sort of nostalgia, works in our favor this way—it saves things without us asking it to do so, and keeps them for us. Think about how weirdly present being 15 years old is. Trying to skateboard and failing, hiding in the woods and learning to smoke cigarettes or that time you unsuccessfully tried to shoot a firework out of your shoe only to have your sock catch on fire—that last one might just be me. These are right there, as rich and bright as ever; the other 58 nights of that summer, spent on the same dull street corner watching city buses pass, are edited out. This is a nice break for us, the access to our personal highlight reels. It's a lousy way to make hockey-related decisions.

And so it went with the Rangers and that 1994 Stanley Cup championship, which was revisited and harped upon so heavily that the past came to overshadow the present. It seemed a huge decision when the Rangers opted, just last summer, to part ways with the captain of that team of giants, the man whose tears contributed to the obsessive collective effervescence surrounding a championship team. The New York Rangers let Mark Messier, long retired but never far from the organization, walk.

This after he publicly acknowledged that he wanted to be the next head coach. It was the right thing to do, and not just because it likely would have worked out poorly from a hockey perspective, or because it's a lot easier to promote a winning team than sell the presence of an aging historical figure. For the Rangers and their fans—and not just for the Rangers and their fans—there can't be a viable, independent future without a willingness to leave behind the safety of the past.

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Sports fans set their lives upon a cast and accept the hazard of not being able to impact a team’s outcome in any way. It’s where the heroism of figures like Messier comes from—what they do to make things happen that we can't do from atop the silver spiraled springs of our favorite recliner. It's reasonable enough to love them for that, and anyway we're not likely to stop. But it is, generally speaking, a good idea to leave the past to the past.

It's practical, too. The last head coach to win a Stanley Cup for a team he once played for? Tom Johnson, the bench boss of the 1971-72 Boston Bruins. He played just over 100 games for the Bruins; he was not exactly a franchise great. But he did something that none of the great players to take their shot at coaching have done in four decades since.

Just two other longtime players turned coaches eventually their old clubs to a Stanley Cup Final appearance. Those two are Lindy Ruff, who never quite made it over the final hurdle and left Buffalo for the much warmer Dallas and Craig MacTavish, who was behind the bench the last time the Oilers went to the Stanley Cup final; in seven years as the team's coach, he made the playoffs only one other time. MacTavish also only made the playoffs twice in his seven years at the team’s head coach. This holds for GMs, too.

There are plenty of ancillary factors at play, of course. Not all coaches played professional hockey, some played for just one or two franchises and the timing simply never worked out. However, it seems safe to believe that if this sort of familiarity—with that freshly watered ice, with the team's culture, with the intangible Winning Thing—were a key to success, more teams would be winning the Stanley Cup with their fans' heroes.

More to the point, NHL owners that insist on returning to franchise icons as coaches are doing an unkindness to some treasured memories. These memories matter, and too important to risk supplanting the still-immediate good ones—a great bravely hobbling towards a shooter after blocking three shots to block another, or racing down the ice past a defense to slide the puck underneath the goaltender—with the image of a stuttering, answerless head coach running out of even the most clichéd rhetoric.

This is the chance that the Colorado Avalanche—who have hired Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy in hopes of recapturing the best times in franchise history—will prove that a team can win games, and maybe the NHL's ultimate prize, on the residual strength of memories. It's a nice idea, but it represents choosing those sweet memories over all that dull, excised history—the rather large sample size that suggests hockey games are more readily won by hitting a piece of black rubber past a contortionist on skates, over and over again. 

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