Playing hockey well, as Ellen Etchingham brilliantly laid out in February in a blog titled Milliseconds and Millimeters: A Meditation on Precision, Intent, and Discipline, is really hard.
Knowing that, we sometimes excuse away violent acts with the adage ”It’s a fast game” because, hell, it is. But there’s something else that makes hockey hard, and it’s at the other end of the spectrum from reactionary plays. Let me attempt an explanation:
In order to make reactionary plays, your mind has to be somewhat clear, and that’s nearly impossible in sports. We aren’t monks. As a result, you end up doing stupid things that, had you just not been thinking, you’d have made a better decision.
When a player gets on a hot streak, reporters will put the mic in their face and ask “What are you doing differently right now to have so much success?” “Why are things clicking for you right now?” and the player will try to rationalize their success. Whether they point to linemates, the systems and coaches, or simply luck, they often don’t know. Things are just….happening.
When you’re trying to dig your way out of a slump however, it’s the opposite. You’re thinking about everything, and it exacerbates your problems.
That’s because in hockey, thinking too much can get you overly locked-in on something. You’re skating into the zone on a forecheck, and you know your coach wants you to play more physical – I’m going to hit that d-man, you think, even if it’s a few seconds late. I am getting this hit. Then that d-man immediately passes a puck in range of your stick, you miss it because you were obsessed with something else, and you’re still eight feet away skating at him like…oh shit, this is going to look weird if I carry on what do I do?
It happens on breakaways too - you get locked into an idea, a shot or a deke where, had you just kept your mind clear, looked up and shot at the biggest hole, you’d be laughing (I’m the worst for this. I almost always have a set move in mind on a breakaways, and I’m way better when I just try to make the goalie move and find a hole).
It happens on defense – you can think the slot is my responsibility, and forget that the guy that’s “supposed to be” standing in the slot may have decided to stand somewhere else close by, and you blow the coverage.
The worst part is, this locked-in thinking can cause bad hits. Your coach wants you to hit, your teammates want you to hit, and you want to hit. The adrenaline rush of plowing a guy over is intense, and gives your legs massive jump. The crowd roars. It’s just a great feeling, so sometimes you make the decision to hit someone very early.
When Dion Phaneuf plowed into Stephane Da Costa this season, he may have decided when Da Costa was at center – if he cuts across here, I’m going to tee him up. And that planning can make for the biggest hits. When things go according to plan, then of course, planning was a beautiful idea. If my breakaway plan is to go high glove, and the goalie has his glove on his hip, I look like a genius.
But when it’s low blocker that was open….
And that happens on hits. The plan can simply go awry. You can be locked in on a hit, and the guy could suddenly turn his back to you and face the boards. You’ve been dialed in on one thing and one thing only, and he turns as you get there. You look like a criminal, where had he not turned, you’d be “playing the right way.”
You can be locked in on hitting a guy clean hit who lowers his upper body 20 degrees, and suddenly catch a piece of his head (I know James Neal was being a beast and looking to run guys last game during The Shift, but I personally thought this is part of what happened on the Giroux hit – I got him he has the puck I got him he has the puck I got him oh shit he moved). While the intent to hit someone hard can be there and is allowed, accidents and minor changes that can affect the outcome of hits do happen. (I’m okay with the suspension because that also qualifies as playing “reckless,” which is something that could use a little curbing.)
All this leads to precisely to why I hated the Raffi Torres hit, and all hits where people opt to select the “launch” option at the end of a borderline play. There’s no attempt in the slightest to change course after locking in. You can usually tell when it’s an accident or when a play didn’t go as planned by a level of awkwardness. Even when you’re “locked in,” if a guy suddenly turns and shows you his numbers, it can feel like falling in a pool. Nobody just falls in. There’s usually some awkward “Oh god this is happening” motion that lets you know that this was not a part of that person’s plan, even as they go through with it.
But that Torres hit… that was a swan dive from the 20 foot board. That was a triple backflip with a rip entry. He meant to do that shit.
He wasn’t the player with the open mind, taking what comes along. He wasn’t the locked-in player awkwardly falling into the pool. He was the locked-in player thinking regardless of what unfolds in the next milliseconds, that guy is eating my shoulder.
Torres should get suspended, and suspended for a long time.
I’d bet the farm that he does.