Fun fact: the photo crew on Long Island like long exposures.

 

“Well, that dude loses his guy here.” He freezes the frame. “So he’s one. But who’s the other?”

“I dunno.” I lean in closer to the TV, squinting as if that will somehow miraculously improve the resolution. “Him?” I point to a burry shape in the bottom corner.

“Must be.” We survey the other players. “Yeah, he’s good, he’s good…”

“Process of elimination, this guy at the bottom. But what did he do wrong?” The picture abruptly jumps into motion again, and less than two seconds later there’s a puck in the net. I still can’t quite see the error.

We’re going through Bourne’s old Systems Analyst posts and testing our vision; trying to watch the clips and figure out the mistakes before reading the explanation. It’s impossible to see the video without reading the headline, so there’s always a little clue, but nevertheless, I often don’t see the error without two or three viewings. Even with the entire play neatly cut into a perfectly bite-sized, pre-wrapped highlight, I still miss things.

***

The life of a late-blooming hockey fan is an unenviable one, a constant struggle to catch up with everything the stick-in-my-hand-from-the-cradle types already know. However, we who started as adults have one tiny advantage: like Socrates said, we know that we know nothing. Fans who were born with the game know a lot, certainly, but they are apt to confuse knowing a lot with knowing everything- like all those guys you meet in beer leagues, good players for their level, who go on and on about how they coulda made it in the NHL, oblivious to the fact that they’d have had about as good a chance of making it as a professional player as a jellyfish has of making it as a shark. A person who’s known hockey all their life can easily think they’ve already learned everything there is to learn. A person who picked up the game at 20, 26, 37 sees the rabbit hole for what it is.

This is the essential thing about hockey: the closer you look, the deeper it goes. All sports get interesting as they get bigger and broader- think of the culturally-influenced styles of soccer playing or the romantic Americana of baseball mythology- but hockey also gets more interesting as it gets smaller and narrower. It gets a lot of credit for being an intense sport and that’s well-deserved, but what is often overlooked is that it’s a fantastically dense sport, packing more elegance, more strategy, more drama and more pain into each minute than any other game. Any given thirty seconds of hockey have as much interesting and important shit going on as thirty minutes of football.

***

Hockey is a butterfly effect game. Some very small error leads to a slight mistake which creates a significant distortion which leads to a huge breakdown which results in catastrophe. We can all see the catastrophe, most of us can see the breakdown, and if we’re really paying close attention and we know the teams, we’ll catch the distortion. But the mistake is tough to notice without some slow motion replays, and the error often passes entirely unnoticed. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins stares at the puck for half a second too long. Karl Alzner turns on the wrong foot. Nick Palmieri goes into the boards at a too-steep angle. The difference between the absolutely perfect decision and a disastrously bad one is literally a matter of one look, one stride, one degree.

This is the invisible essence of hockey, the game not of minutes and feet or even seconds and inches but milliseconds and millimeters, the game that turns on the edges of blades and the lies of sticks and the minute fractional gestures of bodies. At the highest levels, hockey players are not so much pushing the boundaries of human strength or human speed but of human precision, of how long a man can sustain a series of fine-grained actions and reactions in response to an unpredictable sequence of high-speed events. It’s the synthesis of strength, speed, endurance, perception, and reaction, and even the greatest players can barely sustain it for a single whole minute. It’s that difficult.

***

This dense web of detail and consequence makes the elite game simultaneously complex and exciting, but it also makes it problematic to try to understand it through standard human behavioral concepts. Take, for example, intent. In normal life, intent is a pretty clear thing: it’s forming the idea to do something before you do it. It’s meaning to do what you do. The intentional is the opposite of the accidental, and the distinction between the two is essential to how we judge the actions of others. Think about the difference between accidentally running over a dog and intentionally running over a dog. One is a misfortune, the other is an abomination. Intent is the difference, in real life, between a normal person and a psychopath.

But forming intent takes time. Not a lot of time, true, but enough to perceive something, have a feeling about it, make a deliberate decision, and select an appropriate action. Comparative to unintentional reactions- jumping in surprise, turning your head towards a sound- intentional actions are painfully slow. Slower, most of the time, than hockey. I submit that probably no more than half of the actions players undertake in an NHL game are ‘intentional’ in the layperson sense, in the sense that the player in the moment of playing made a conscious decision.

Hockey playing is best understood not as a process of thinking and deciding and choosing but rather a process of conditioning and executing. NHL players are the result of a very long, very intensive training regime that starts from young childhood and continues until their retirement. It’s a process of constant, complex drilling designed specifically to get rid of the need for intent as much as possible. The aim is to take strategies and tactics and turn them into reflexes and instincts, the kind of actions that can be acted with as little conscious thought as possible. The ideal player doesn’t think about where he should be on the ice, doesn’t decide whether he should make that pass or not, doesn’t choose to shoot. He just goes where he should, passes the second the window appears, shoots when he sees the gap. It’s beyond even the discipline of the body, it’s essentially the deliberate, controlled automation of the body, the inculcating of habits so deeply and thoroughly that, when a given situation throws itself up in one nanosecond, the desirable response happens without the tedious process of intention.

If you ask a player after a game why he made a particular pass or went to particular spot, he will be able to give an answer, but that thought process, that justification, doesn’t reflect what he was actually thinking at the time. It’s the thought process behind the training that taught him the instincts that he acted on at the time. He’s speaking not with the voice of independent judgment, but with the voice of the all coaches who ran him through that breakout drill a hundred upon hundred times, the voice of a legion of color commentators who’ve Telestrated that play on a hundred upon hundred broadcasts. That play was chosen not on the ice in a single game but in the thousands of practices before. The choice is finished and made long before the opportunity arises. What happens in the game is just execution of a pre-made decision.

Of course there are breakdowns. Until the secret Bauer Cybernetics Division finally releases their long-awaited KaneBot, there will always be breakdowns. There will always be times when emotions interfere or attention flags and something goes wrong, because the discipline is so arduous as to be essentially unperfectable. Like the pursuit of truth, the pursuit of perfect hockey playing is doomed to failure. The struggle is what matters.

***

All of this amounts to little more than some interesting observations, but it does give rise to at least one difficult question: why is it that only in questions of dangerous or illegal hits that “things happen fast out there” is considered a valid excuse in hockey? Think about it. Things are always happening fast out there, and obviously it’s always hard to keep up. But when Nugent-Hopkins loses Kessel behind the net because he was staring at the puck too long, do you think he goes back to the bench and Renney says, “It’s okay, things happen fast out there”? When P.K. Subban gets pressured into a bad move at the blue line and loses the puck, do the fans at the Bell Centre go, “That sucked, but it’s not his fault; it happened so fast”? When a goalie makes a misread and cheats too far and gets horribly beat, is the intermission panel going to say, “Well, it’s too bad, but you know it’s a really fast game”? Players make a dozen split-second tactical errors a night, several of which result in goals, and nobody analyzing the end result is going to forgive them those mistakes because hockey is fast. Everybody knows that hockey is fast. It’s their freaking job to do shit fast. And yet, when a guy comes halfway across the ice and levels an opponent with a shoulder to the head, suddenly oh-so-many people are ready to excuse it because “it’s a fast game.”

We fans and commentators and analysts all understand that players will make tactical mistakes due to the speed of the game, but we never, ever give them the gift of it as a justification unless someone gets hurt. If the consequence of an overzealous, premature committal results in a gap in defensive coverage that results a goal against, as in the Palmieri example above, people will point out the mistake and fully expect that the man take responsibility for it and never do such a thing again. Yet when an overzealous, premature committal to a big open-ice hit results in a concussion, we will pardon the offender because everything-is-so-fast and he-didn’t-have-time. When a goalie misjudges the angle of a shot, it’s on him. When a hitter misjudges the angle of his shoulder vis-à-vis his victims head, it’s just an accident. When it comes to the tactics of offense and defense, we routinely expect a fantastic level of incredibly detailed discipline from players, but when it comes to the tactics of contact, we’ll throw up a bunch of jibberish about speed and chaos as though nobody could possibly control what happens out there.

This contradiction is what creates a space in the game for recklessness that is not really recklessness and accidents that are not really accidents. It forces those of us who like the game fairly violent but still baulk at outright bloodlust into a queasy tolerance of actions we don’t want or need to tolerate. It gives ammunition to those who want to make radical changes to the game on the grounds of safety. We could expect contact to be exactly as rigorously disciplined as we expect damn near everything else to be; it’s not as if expecting more judicious hits is any more burdensome for players than, you know, expecting them to keep their head turned the right way every damn millisecond in the defensive zone.  If someone wants to make a case that a hit was good on it’s merits, so be it.  But don’t tell me a bad hit is excusable because the game is fast.

Comments (17)

  1. Excellent read through. I know after I read one of Bourne’s breakdowns I rewatch the highlight about 10 times to see what every player on the ice has done right/wrong to lead to the highligh. Fascinating stuff.

    As for the actual point of your article it just goes to show that in the Jr leagues and all through development hitting is not being taught properly or should be taken out of it completely.

  2. Great post! Intent in hockey is fascinating. Especially as for all intents and purposes about 95% of the time the intent IS to run over the dog. That’s the goal. The intent is not necessarily to hurt the dog, but definitely run him over and if injury results that’s in the hands of fate. Really it’s the difference between intent to act and intent to achieve a result. Did you intend to injure someone while hitting or just wanted to hit them?

  3. Great analysis -

    But . . .

    If you are right that what makes NHL players so good at high speed is the long history of their training (practices, games, etc.), we cannot expect them to duplicate their defensive/offensive precision in regards to hitting unless their is a similar long history of training on how to hit correctly.

    In other words, if a player has been sticking out their elbow to get a piece of a guy for the last 20 years, you can’t expect him to make an adjustment to the new rules overnight.

    We need to keep expectations high on these things – but we have to be realistic about how long it will be for players to adjust

    • While education at all levels of the game should be encouraged to improve upon those “instincts” that are the basis of this blog, we cannot allow someone who has a history of dirty play to have this excuse. Will some people who legitimately acted unintentionally get punished for it? Yup, but thats the price we have to accept to try and improve safety. If we punish someone who really didnt “intend” to do it, it will lead to others to actually try and think before acting.

  4. really well written.

  5. Elvis,

    Nicely done. Your columns remind me of some of the best eps of The Wire. Densely packed, meticulously constructed, and wholly satisfying. Descriptive, too, of a finely crafted ale.

    Whatever your day job is, I sure hope it won’t ever impede or otherwise curtail your puck prose prolificity.

  6. I never, ever, post comments on anything,ever. But I have to say, sh*t, you do a fine job every time. Kudos.

  7. Fantastic read.

    The significance of all the conditioned execution, the reflexive reaction discussed herein is front and centre when one considers the supplementary discipline process (Shanabans). Much of the argument for increasing suspensions relies upon the notion of deterrence, and deterrence is a concept that is oriented towards intentional acts- the idea is that the imposition of harsher penalties for certain actions induces rational actors to change their behaviour so as to avoid suffering those consequences. If, however, the actors to whom the consequences are oriented are not in fact making choices, but instead are only reacting instinctively, the strategy of deterrence is bound to fail at actually reducing or eliminating the proscribed conduct because there is no rational decision making process to influence in the first place.

    To the extent that many (most?) of the cheap shots/headshots are products of unconscious (no pun intended) behaviour, we may expect that enhanced supplemental discipline procedures will have little or no effect on the number of infractions committed and the number of injuries sustained by the players. What is implied is that the NHL (and organized hockey in general), if they are serious about enhancing player safety, needs to develop a strategy for addressing these concerns that does not rely upon supplemental discipline as the problem-solving engine. Instead, it seems likely that the solution lies somewhere in player development – in the thousand practices and drills prior to that moment in time when the player is called upon to react to a given situation, and the nature of his reaction will leave his opponent either crumpled on the ice with a brain turning to jelly or unsplattered and healthy enough to play on.

  8. I agree. Well written.
    But I disagree with the premise. Ellen points out that the mistakes on defense allow for offensive scoring chances (ie. System Analyst), but disregards the fact that mistakes can happen while hitting.
    She says: “But don’t tell me a bad hit is excusable because the game is fast.” Actually I would say its possible a bad hit is excusable because of speed (except for elbowing, those are pretty inexcusable). If mistakes happen every game on offense and defense (because a perfect game is impossible), why can’t mistakes happen in the milliseconds before the hit?
    One on hand she states mistakes happen, and then on the other, she expects every hit to be perfect? How is that possible?
    Take Moore’s hit last night. He didn’t aim for Fed’s head, that not the kind of precision the players practice a million time in practise! He saw someone in his peripheral vision and braced. He’s not a big guy so he knows he has to stand his ground.

    • Reread the concluding paragraphs: my point is not that errors will never happen in hitting, my point is that we make excuses for hitting errors that we don’t tolerate for tactical errors. A player who makes a tactical error gets criticized by his coach, his teammates, the media, the fans. We expect him to take responsibility for the error and do better, and if he doesn’t improve, then it’s natural that he should suffer a loss of ice time, demotion to a lower line, or- in the case of borderline players- even demotion to the AHL. We would pressure him, heavily and completely, to fix his problems. We don’t make the kind of excuses for defensive lapses that we make for dirty hits, even though both may be equally ‘unintentional’.

      • Thanks for the response Ellen. I see I may have misread that last paragraph. I better understand the disconnect you are pointing out (ie. “we make excuses for hitting errors that we don’t tolerate for tactical errors”)
        Although I disagree with the scope of this statement:”A player who makes a tactical error gets criticized by his coach, his teammates, the media, the fans.” If it wasn’t for Bourne’s analyst most fans wouldn’t see the tactical errors (you pointed out earlier they are hard to find). And when we do, its an annoyance that that player isn’t perfect, but quickly forgotten. The media will point it out, but won’t keep playing it over and over to embarass the guy. As for the coach, we know that if the same mistake is repeated over and over, he will be held responsible. But that’s his job.
        Take Crosby’s “Golden Goal”. The fact that Rafalski overcommitted and Millar left a puck-sized hole between his legs were never mentioned but once, that I saw. These could be looked at as the biggest mistakes on the biggest stage, but they’ve been barely talked about (although that may have something to do with being from Canada)! Most understand that these guys aren’t perfect.
        I do agree that guys making the same hitting error over and over should be held responible, but I think the fact that this year there have only been a few repeat offenders, seem to point to the fact Shanahan is doing a good job…

  9. The place where I make allowances is when a player suddenly changes position in a way that would not be reasonably anticipated. The classic example is the Doug Weight hit on Brandon Sutter from a couple of years ago. Headshot? Absolutely. Weight got all of Sutter’s noggin and then some. But who expects a guy to lunge for a puck like that with a checker bearing down on him?

    I mean, if you see it in enough time to make that decision to change angles, then by all means, do so, but if you have less than that quarter-second it takes to perceive and react (never mind the excruciatingly slow time it takes to fire the muscles to pivot that handful of degrees or shift the torso’s position to shift the point of contact), I can’t blame you for following through. That’s not like a tactical decision on the ice, where it’s ingrained in your head to recognize the development as it’s happening and decide before it finishes how to respond. That’s someone making a split-second irrational decision on the ice and you being left to deal with the consequences of an action you can’t anticipate. That’s the essential difference, to me.

    • Sure, there’s always going to be accidents that the hitter could not possibly have anticipated, but think there’s a problem with inculcating a style of hitting that makes it impossible to alter course should the situation change. Guys will commit to attempting a huge hit with a level of speed and intensity that, again, if they applied to other areas of the game would be considered ridiculous. If you’re going so hard that you overskate the shot and blow a good chance, that’s a mistake, you shoulda been more cautious. If you go so hard at the guy you’re covering that you screw up the gap and he gets around you, that’s a mistake, you shoulda been more cautious. But if you’re going so hard into a hit that you can’t do anything at all to mitigate contact when your target moves, that’s okay?

      • Well, no, but I don’t see hits like that as a function of excessive speed, so much as a function of Shit Happens. I mean, you do have to close on a guy with good speed to a) keep up, and b) deliver a hit with sufficient force to dislodge him from the puck. I think there’s a fair argument to be made that guys go for the Big Hit way too often, but that’s often bred out of all but the best with time by the fact that the Big Hit will frequently take them out of position. Those who remain practitioners of the Big Hit, meanwhile, are slowly starting to adapt. Note that Dion Phaneuf and P.K. Subban have both had multiple monster explosions this year that connected at the sternum, whereas in previous years, it would’ve been the skull.

        I think we’re fundamentally talking about different things. It seems like you’re talking about the head-on shoulder-to-head hit that only started getting punished this season, or the kind of hit Matt Cooke used to be an expert at, the kind that David Steckel laid on Crosby at the Winter Classic. Those are failures of technique and timing, no question, and should not be excused. I’m thinking more of the exceptions. Like how Shanahan always says, “the player did not suddenly change the position of his head relative to his body” in those videos. I’m talking about when the guy does change his head position: that’s not something that can usually be anticipated, but it’s something that changes a shoulder-to-chest or shoulder-to-shoulder hit into a shoulder-to-head hit. I give some allowance for that; I don’t give allowance for the other thing.

  10. Good piece. I agree with the premise that players that are held to a standard of performance should also be held to a standard of conduct, with regard to injurious hits.

    I don’t know that the argument isn’t somewhat romanticized, though, at least on the basis of the Oilers analysis. It’s not so much a butterfly effect there as a tsunami of laziness and mistakes that result in a goal. After that play, the coach isn’t criticizing RNH for looking at the puck – he’s benching the D, if he has the luxury, for skating like it’s rec league.

    Also, for all that hockey at a pro level is about the execution of learned plays and instinctive actions, it also has a significant amount of chaos – which is again what makes it so much more appealing than, say, football. This chaos comes in the puck bounces, and in the flurry of emotion, and these things also have a significant effect on the choices made by players, along with the speed. We expect players to execute perfectly, but we also allow for bad bounces and hot tempers.

  11. you’re writing was recently brought to my attention.
    between the material here and elsewhere, it has been a real pleasure to read.
    outstanding writing. really, thanks for doing this.

  12. I think the double standard is pretty natural and comes from two things. One, from the fact that the consequences are different. Nobody gets a misconduct or a suspension for a dumb defensive lapse. Second, and connected, is that there is a “moral” dimension, as you point out, and as I agree there shouldn’t be in most cases. Nobody thinks that Cam Barker makes defensive errors on purpose, and nobody (but Horcov?) thinks Barker is a bad person for it. Whereas if you say that was a sloppy hit, there’s immediately a spectre of dirty-player Matt-Cooke-of-yesteryear (i.e. a bad person) kind of criticism inherent in it.

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