Detroit Red Wings left wing Vyacheslav Kozlov proved he was one of the National Hockey League’s clutch scorers when he clinched the 1995 Western Conference championship with a double-overtime goal.
But Kozlov was more than just an offensive force. He proved he could adapt to a new defensive system—the ice hockey left wing lock—that helped transform a franchise.
For much of the four decades before implementing the defensive twist, the Red Wings were known locally as the “Dead” Wings.
But in the first four seasons the Red Wings relied on the unique system, the franchise claimed consecutive President’s Trophies in 1995 and ’96 and back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1997 and ’98.
Following the 1994 NHL owner’s lockout and leading up to the year-long 2005 work stoppage, the left wing lock strategy had a major influence on the NHL.
But like most hockey trends, rule alterations and evolving playing styles brought about changes.
What Is a Left Wing Lock?
Here’s what’s needed to execute the system:
- Change of possession of the puck.
- The left winger reads the play and ventures back to form a line with the pair of defensemen. If the left winger is engaged, the right winger will need to recognize it and cover the vacated area.
- While the defensemen and winger retreat to cover zones equal to one-third of the ice rink, the center and right winger attempt to execute a left wing lock forecheck.
- Players must concentrate and communicate consistently.
The left wing lock hockey system was initially used by Czechoslovakia in the 1970s during its international matches versus the then-dominant squads from the former Soviet Union.
The on-ice tactic was derived from a similar defensive philosophy, the neutral zone trap, which focuses on pressuring puck carriers in the area of the ice between the two blue lines.
The left wing lock philosophy differs in that, after a change in possession, left wings immediately skate back to join a line with the defensemen, cutting down the chances of facing an odd-man break.
Scotty Bowman coached the Red Wings from 1993 to 2002, helping rejuvenate a long-suffering franchise. An Original Six organization, the Red Wings entered the shortened 1994-95 campaign having failed to win a Stanley Cup in 40 years. The last time they appeared in the NHL final was in 1966.
As the league emerged from a work stoppage, Bowman was searching for a way to separate the veteran-laden Red Wings from other contenders. He found one by instituting a left wing hockey lock system.
The Red Wings made it work partly because they had smooth-skating defensemen like Paul Coffey and Nicklas Lidstrom. Both were able to “get after” loose pucks and initiate swift and precise breakouts.
They also had forwards and shifty playmakers in Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov. Both were disciplined and hungry for a run at the Cup.
The unconventional move paid immediate dividends as the Red Wings (33-11-4, 70 points) claimed the President’s Trophy, awarded to the team with the league’s top regular-season record.
The next season, the defending Central Division champion Red Wings (62-13-7, 131 points) recorded one of the most dominant regular seasons in league history.
Still, the Cup-thirsty Wings remained parched after qualifying for their first finals in 29 years.
With the score tied at 1-1 during the second period of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals, Kozlov streaked up the ice seeking to spark his teammates. He ended up finding himself defended by one opponent and targeted by another, New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens.
Known as one of the hardest hitters of his generation, Stevens skated across the ice, lined up Kozlov, and lowered his shoulder.
Kozlov laid face down on the ice for minutes, finally rising with a dazed look on his face.
This action summed up the finals as the underdogs swept the series, 4-0. The Devils shut down the Red Wings’ vaunted attack with its neutral zone trap, exploiting the Red Wings’ left wing lock.
According to a June 25, 1995, report in The Washington Post, the Devils’ championship seemed to “silence critics of their mundane, defensive style of play.”
For much of the next decade, mediocre NHL teams learned they could compete with contenders if they slowed the game down and consistently “hacked and whacked” their opponents.
It became trendy for teams to adopt a clamp-down system version to remain in postseason contention.
Fans who were accustomed to watching the high-scoring, free-flowing matches of the 1980s struggled to appreciate all the on-ice clutching and grabbing.
As a result, the sport’s popularity started to dip. In 1997, the Red Wings-Philadelphia Flyers Stanley Cup finals drew a 4.0 rating on Fox. And in 2004, the Tampa Bay Lightning-Calgary Flames cup final drew a 2.6 rating on ABC.
League-wide change appeared to be in the forecast.
In 2004, the owners locked out the players for an entire season as the sides negotiated for a new collective bargaining agreement.
Also on the table were new regulations to open the game back up:
- Two-line passes became legal.
- Goalie gear was reduced by 11 percent.
- Shootouts were introduced.
- Referees were instructed to exercise zero tolerance on obstructions and hooking.
- Icing rules altered the way coaches were allowed to switch lines.
This was the rise and fall of the left wing lock system.
The referees’ calling more obstruction penalties and the league’s virtually eliminating the centerline, which created openings for off-side wingers to cherry-pick, made left wing lock hockey virtually obsolete.