Evolution of a three-letter hockey word

Remember when your favourite hockey team’s cap was something that cost $20 to keep the sun out of your eyes in the off-season? Today, having a cap means being a financial expert and/or a lawyer so you can assess how a team can be put together, who can be traded and who can’t, and who gets the best of deals like we’re about to witness between now and the March 3 trade deadline.

Back when a hockey cap was considered an object of haberdashery, being an armchair general manager was much simpler. Now, confusion reigns in a way rivalled only by those non-stop statistical analytics that prove — beyond all doubt — why this player does this, or that player does that. And if this player happens to do that, or that player happens to do this…well, nobody’s perfect.

During cap-only-wearing times, there were hockey schools where young players could learn the game and older ones could sharpen skills. Today, there are hockey schools where anybody can learn to be a hockey analyst, a title which used to be reserved for ex-players who sat next to play-by-play callers to add broadcast credibility.

How things have changed.

A salary “cap” is worn now only when front-office people mess things up and are sent to stand in the corner — presumably wearing one to replace a dunce cap. The salary cap was introduced after hockey skipped the 2004-05 season. At least part of its purpose was to create parity because that would “prevent large-market teams from signing all the best players.”

Parity became a big word in the National Hockey League after its original expansion that doubled the Original Six teams in 1967-68. What followed was a talent gap between the East (Original Six) and the West that lasted until the NHL expanded some more and scrapped the east-west format.

One parity measurement was the longest unbeaten streak by one team; the theory being that in a weak league, long undefeated streaks are more prevalent. Until expansion, the longest streaks were 23 games (Boston 1940-41) and 19 (New York 1939-40), both in 48-game seasons. After expansion, two teams blew past the Bruins’ streak — Philadelphia’s still-record 35 in a row — and five more passed the Rangers’ thanks to so many weak teams. Since the implementation of the salary cap, the longest unbeaten streak is 16 games (Columbus) and it’s ranked 25th all-time. Only five post-salary cap teams have streaks in the top 100.

Score one for the cap.

There is more statistical evidence that parity is closer since the introduction of the salary cap. In the first 15 years after expansion, the average difference in points between the first-place team and the last was 74.7. In the last 15 years, the difference is 59.8 points.

Expansion diluted the quality of hockey so badly that NHL President Clarence Campbell, who presided over it, proposed how owners could achieve parity. He suggested legislating against the trading of draft choices. He suggested reducing protected lists. He suggested some of the wealthiest teams make charitable donations to some of the poorest. He was 0-for-3.

He did not suggest a cap. Of course he didn’t. Mr. Campbell always wore a fedora.