Today in the National Hockey League, there is much controversy amongst fans over players who pad their stats, whether it is trying to show that a certain number of goals a player scored in a season came against an empty net late in the game, or even more popularly, the role of the secondary assist in the game of hockey. We all know today, that each goal scored has the potential to have two assists attached to it, a primary and a secondary, being the last two players to touch the puck before the shooter puts it in the net. Sometimes, the passers make brilliant plays to get the puck to the scorer, but other times, a lucky bounce just happens to glance off their stick or body before landing right on the sweet spot of the eventual scorer’s stick. Is it really stat padding or just a part of the game? The answer to that question will vary based on who you ask, but there is no doubt that recording points today is much easier than it was, in let’s say, the first year of the NHL’s existence back in 1917; before that, the professional hockey league of the era being the NHA, short for National Hockey Association.
We have all seen the antique pictures of these trailblazers of the fastest sport on earth; once we dust off the frame, we see rudimentary ice skates and flat-bladed wooden hockey sticks. Their jerseys, which today, some nostalgically refer to as “sweaters”, were, in fact, actual sweaters. One would think that playing with this kind of equipment (or lack thereof for goaltenders, who were still about 50 years away from wearing masks) that games would be boringly slow, almost as if players were trudging along on rough ice surfaces, using all their effort to just try to lift the puck off the ice with their flat stick blades, let alone score goals. Oh, how wrong you would be after making this assumption, just as I was.
In fact, games in the early days of hockey were ridiculously high scoring, even more so than today, which is ironic, not only because of how fast the game has become, but because of all the rules in place to increase scoring. While today, a normal offensive outburst in a game can be considered three goals, in the earliest years of hockey, few teams scored less than four per game. In the NHL’s first season alone, 11 goals were scored three times, 10 goals once, and nine goals five times; all of this happening in a much smaller league. When looking through individual stats, not one forward played an entire season, which was a mere 24 games, yet there were five 20-goal scorers. The leader of the pack was a man nicknamed “The Phantom”, whose real name was Joe Malone, a player who could be considered the first true power forward in the game of hockey.
In just 20 games that year, Malone managed to score a whopping 44 goals, a feat even more incredible than Maurice Richard’s 50 goals in 50 games, and a total on par with Wayne Gretzky’s remarkable 92 goal season. If you equate what he did in such a short time back then with the type of season we have today, which is 82 games, it is possible that had Malone played over the course of such a season, he could have scored more than 170 goals. However, as amazing as his goal-scoring ability was, that was not the stat that caught my attention, because with all those goals, came a mind-boggling lack of assists, and when I say mind-boggling, I mean zero. Yes, that’s right: in the 1917/18 NHL season, “Phantom” Joe Malone recorded 44 goals and 0 assists on the season, one that nearly mirrored his previous year, which was the last for the NHA, when he scored 41 goals and 0 assists in 19 games. How is this even possible, I wonder? It is actually harder to not get assists over such a long amount of time than it is to get them. One cannot say that he was a puck hog, because still, even accidentally, he had to be bound to touch the puck at least once before another player scored, even if it bounced off his face. But then I figured out the main culprit of this scenario; there were no secondary assists in the league at that point in time.
Unlike today, where a puck may bounce off a player’s leg before going to another player who passes to the goal scorer, and both get credit, back then, only the last person to touch the puck received credit. But where does that tie into hockey today? Just watch games closely and you will see how sometimes, these secondary assists come from nowhere: a player has his back to the play and does not even realized he touched the puck, and before you know it, he cannot even control it, and it goes to another player. They then both get points, and although the stat sheet at the end of the game reads that a certain player created the play, in real life, they did not really contribute anything.
This all leads to the question, what if there were no secondary assists in the NHL today? How different would the stats of our favorite players look if the league just came in and took the points away? How many of Wayne Gretzky’s record-setting 163 assists back in the 1985/86 season were truly primary? With game logs unavailable now, let’s look to a more recent center in Sidney Crosby. In the 2006/07 season, he recorded 84 assists, but 35 were secondary. Take them away, and he goes from a superstar quality 84 to a more modest, but still very good 49. Then comes last season’s NHL assist leader, Henrik Sedin, who recorded 75 assists. Of those, 30 were secondary, bringing his grand total down to 45. Please keep in mind, I do not use these two players to take away from their abilities, rather, just to illustrate how sometimes looks can be deceiving. The same can probably be said for every single player in the league.
Now, with this article, I am not advocating that the NHL should eliminate secondary assists, because the league needs players with out-of-this-world numbers, and everything [unfortunately] relies on offense nowadays, and when players hit or get close to triple digits in points or assists, everyone gets giddy. I would make the suggestion that discretion be made by the official statisticians in awarding such assists, citing that if a player really did not do anything to contribute to the play, he does not get the point, but let’s just face reality and say that is not going to happen. This assessment does, however, give an interesting look into how stats operate in this sport, and how many are rewarded with “gift” points. Granted, lots of times secondary assists are important parts of the play, but the ones that are not truly stand out and make one wonder. It also puts the history of this great sport into perspective: if you took Joe Malone and put him in this league today, with differences in rules, fitness centers at players’ disposal, and combined with equipment and stat changes, how much more incredible would he have done?