“You find that you have peace of mind and can enjoy yourself, get more sleep and rest when you know that it was a 100 percent effort that you gave- win or lose.”
- Gordie Howe
“I always hear you coming after me, every time. Tssh-tssh-tssh.” She imitates the sound of my skates, their short, thunky hiss. Other people’s strides sound long, sinuous and dangerous, like anacondas on the hunt. Mine sound like an angry kitten with hiccups.
“Trying to forecheck.” I gasp, between gulps of water. Trying to forecheck her, more accurately, which is a lost cause. Her skating is so much more fluid and economical, her angles so much clearer that I cannot possibly pressure her in any meaningful way. The moment I get to her, coming all the way up the ice with my bitter choppy strides, she’s gone, or the puck is gone, and I’m going back the other way.
“Yeah, yeah,” the instructor nods a bit. “You’re trying really hard.”
This is not a compliment. It’s not a dig either- our instructor is scrupulously positive with us at all times, because Lord knows a bunch of thirty-forty-fifty year-old women with rudimentary hockey skills are going to face plenty of negativity once they get out into the wider playing world. It’s merely an observation, and a painfully obvious one too.
If there is one thing you can say for me in a hockey game, it’s that I try really hard. Or, in the customary vernacular, I hustle. I work. I forecheck, I backcheck, I muck along the boards, I skate fast. I hustle until the air rips in and out of my lungs so hard it chafes my throat raw and those weird little back-and-ass muscles you only ever use for hockey are sending long achy spasms up my spine. I work so hard my brain kind of fizzles out and for two hours after I can hardly hold a coherent conversation. I exhaust myself.
The question is: why?
Hustle is a prized quality in hockey. It’s one of those intangibles that is sometimes praised over and above skill itself, because it is considered not merely tactically good but morally good. It’s a component of the way most hockey people believe the game should be played, similar to ‘toughness’ or ‘grit’ or ‘teamwork’. There are good players as in talented and there are good players as in right, and given a choice between the two, hockeyists often favor the latter- the guys who seem to have the right attitude, the right character. Virtuous men, according to the peculiar hockey definition of virtue. Talent without hustle earns, at best, a grudging admiration. Hustle without talent earns love.
It has always been this way. In the early rule books there were minor penalties for ‘loafing’, which was apparently defined as playing without sufficient urgency and/or enthusiasm. In my observations of beer league culture, there seems to be a special sort of disdain reserved for errors of laziness or slacking that just doesn’t apply to other kinds of mistakes. I’ve seen a lot of guys get angry at their teammates for a lot of things, but lazy behavior draws a kind of contempt that rarely shows up on other occasions. The deepest circle of hockey hell is not reserved for traitors; everyone in hockey will do a little treachery in their time. That frozen pit is reserved for the lollygaggers.
Somewhere along the line, without ever really intending to, I absorbed this ethos. I can’t do anything, short term, about my incompetence, but dammit I can work hard. The least, best thing I can do- for my teammates, for my instructor, as a spiritual gesture of good faith towards the hockey gods- is hustle.
The problem is that my hustling is largely unproductive. I am always moving, true, but not quite fast enough or forcefully enough to make my presence useful. My hard work sometimes gets me the puck, but it does nothing for my leaden hands or uninspired brain. It doesn’t help me make good plays, or even better decisions. I’m always trying and very seldom doing. Yoda would not be proud.
The tricky thing about hustle is that it is at best a fractional contribution to winning. Yes, there are times when a sense of urgency on the backcheck may be the difference between a save and a goal against, but for the most part apparent effort level doesn’t necessarily correspond in any meaningful way with effective play. It is perfectly possible to work one’s ass off with the most purehearted sincerity and still do absolutely nothing right, and in fact the desire to dosomethingdosomethingdosomethingbigrightnownownow that comes from the hustling impulse can itself lead to overly intense commitments to overly aggressive plays. In this regard, hustle may be the skater’s equivalent of the acrobatic goalie save: it looks great, but if dude had been in position and made the right read, he wouldn’t have had to do it in the first place. Any time you find yourself racing back into your own defensive zone as fast as you possibly can, somebody made a mistake. Maybe it was you.
Patience is a virtue, the theologians say, and in hockey it is a most underrated one, which is sad. There’s a lot to be said for taking a little bit of extra time to try to open up a better shooting lane, for careful positioning and good gap control, for disciplined, economical movements and moments of quiet observation before jumping into a play. Unfortunately, we do not say all that we could about the virtues of these things except in the cases when they directly lead to goals. A patient player on a hot streak is loved, as anyone who scores is loved, but a patient player in a slump is subject to insult and attack, with words like ‘floater’ and ‘perimeter player’, ‘lazy’ and ‘disinterested’.
We overestimate the importance of hustle because it just looks so damn good. A hockey player going full-tilt is a visually, aurally arresting thing, all blurred legs down the middle and big booms along the boards. Hard work is one of the few elements of professional hockey that you can see clearly, that doesn’t simmer beneath the surface of half-finished plays or flare up and out in half a second. I’ve taken novice friends to hockey games and they couldn’t tell you a center from a winger, but they can tell you who’s putting out a lot energy. It’s a very obvious thing.
Some coaches just love hustle. Randy Cunneyworth, for one, seems to prize work ethic so highly that he’ll give favorable ice time to fourth-line talent with a lot of showy physicality over more skilled players of less obvious enthusiasm. It’s a trade-off that rates work ethic so highly that it puts it ahead of even winning, as though it were better to lose playing a high-energy game than win with any appearance of loafing.
But if some coaches like dramatic displays of effort, pretty much all fans love them. I think it’s because, unlike pretty much everything else in a player’s toolbox, hustle is a conscious choice. So much of good hockey is opportunism, and opportunism requires opportunity, which has a large element of luck in it. A man can’t really choose to score a goal or make a beautiful play just because he’d like to. But he can choose to skate hard, he can choose to block a shot, he can choose to go for a big hit, he can choose to go into the corners and drive to the net and push people around. Watching at home, we believe that choices matter, that victory will go to the person who wants it more, and so we root for the hard-trying types. Or maybe it’s the other way around: we hope that players will be rewarded according to the depth of their wanting rather than the depth of their abilities.
How much of what we see and interpret as heart and intensity and passion is really just hustle? How much of our perception of intangibles results primarily from the appearance of effort? Fans are forever saying that they know who on the team has real heart/grit/leadership ability, despite the fact that they hardly see more of these men than tiny figures darting like flies across a white field. How can you tell which fly is more passionate than another? Is it just the one who’s flying fastest and buzzing loudest?
Hustle is the currency of fourth-liners and rookies for exactly this reason: because they are not the great players on the team, their job security is dependent on being liked, and there is no surer, easier way to be liked than to make a great show of working hard on the ice. The whole function of an ‘energy’ line is to look effortful, which makes it much easier for a player on the bottom rungs to live up to our expectations of him. Although at any given time the worst players on the team, the ones who hurt the most on the shot clock and the chance sheets, are inevitably on the bottom line, those are very seldom the guys who end up as the objects of fan rage when things go badly. Because even though they’re terrible, they always look like they’re working hard.
Hustle is a performance. Because it’s something controllable, it is also something that is deliberately cultivated to make an impression. We want to invest it with deeper meaning because it’s a conscious choice, but this very consciousness makes it deceptive. A player knows that the appearance of hard work will make him more popular, that it will deflect some criticism and earn some affection. He knows it may be the difference between professional hockey employment and having to go look for a less glamorous job. It is only those skilled enough to realize that patience is an aspect of effectiveness who will risk looking ‘lazy’ and ‘indifferent’ to play their kind of game. For those who have little skill, though, there is nothing sacrificed by making a show of going hard always. The look of effort might actually have a gently negative correlation with raw skill.
Am I really a hard worker, pumping my little legs up and down the ice from goal line to goal line? Or do I just want to be seen that way? Because so long as I am making this great performance of hustle, as long as I am trying so very very hard, who will criticize? Who will point out the many, many flaws in my game? I’m a beginner, after all, and I’m working hard. I’m doing my job, nevermind that it’s a useless one. It looks so selfless when I’m out there panting and aching for the team, but ultimately it’s a very self-interested performance. I’m covering my ass.
But it’s not just a performance for others. It’s also a performance for myself. So long as I run myself ragged, the pain and exhaustion are proof to me that I did something. When I’m lying on the couch after practice, staring at the ceiling and thinking nothing, the lingering tingles in my muscles tell me that I did the right thing, and I can bask in a sense of hockey-righteousness. In the absence of skill, sometimes effort is all you have. It’s the only real sense of self-validation you can get from playing bad hockey.
Like Gordie said: I hustle so I can sleep at night.
There is some value in it. I work so hard I get myself out of position, but in a class where hardly anyone knows anything about positioning anyway, that’s not such a big loss- being in proper position all the time would just leave me out of things entirely. The effort gets me into the play, closer to the puck, closer to the action. I make more mistakes, terrible mistakes, horrible depressing embarrassing mistakes, but I learn more from making the mistakes than I would have from not making the attempt. At my level, better to get the puck and screw up than never touch it at all.
Perhaps this is where coaches learn their love of hustle, from the lower tiers of hockey. When you’re still learning, when you’re a kid or a beginner and still raw in the game, having the work ethic to push yourself hard will put you in the way of opportunities you’d never get to otherwise, and getting opportunities is the essential foundation of improvement. And, of course, you build up your stamina. I can see why hustle is such a prized characteristic in the developmental leagues.
But at some point a player needs to go beyond hustle. This, perhaps, is the difference between being good at hockey and mastering it, because at the level of mastery what is essential is not so much doing something as doing the right thing. Relied on too heavily or valued for it’s moral characteristics rather than it’s limited usefulness, frantic effort can become just as much of a crutch as raw talent, and a player who is relying on his work ethic alone to get him through is coasting just as much as one who relies on an inborn genetic advantage. Working hard means improving up to a point, but not inevitably, and not forever. At some point, one has to learn patience. Even in a game as fast as hockey.
Towards the end of the practice, my center clears the puck from our zone and all the way back to theirs- a good clear, just short of icing, but not a good breakout. The instructor skates back to get it, her legs gliding out wider than her height, miles ahead of me. I’ve been chasing her all night. I’ve been trying so hard. It’s failed every time.
I start down the ice, tssh-tssh-tssh, and then, somewhere just beyond the red line but before the far blue, it occurs to me that I don’t need to chase her anymore. She is coming back this way, inevitably, invariably, the tide of the game demands it. I cut a loop through the neutral zone and get back to my place. She is coming.
I watch. And I wait.
Patience is a virtue.