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.

Comments (9)

  1. Well written as usual. I think this is one that hits hockey players at all levels – i know it has happened to me. Torres is a punk. I get so tired of the expression “He plays on the edge.” That really just means:
    a. he’s a dirty player
    b. he’s on my team/side/etc, and I don’t want to call him out on it.
    He’s been referred to as ‘playing on the edge’ for years.

  2. The opening, where you discuss the psychology of slumps and overfocusing on specific actions, is really interesting because it dovetails with a lot of psych research on choking. It turns out that, at high levels of skill, conscious thought about an action while doing it almost invariably makes it worse- i.e. elite golfers swing worse when they’re specifically directed to think about elements of their swing than they do when told to think about random, neutral words. Seems like this might relate to the phenomenon of getting locked-in.

    • I play soccer and my right foot is my strong foot. In a game, in the heat of the moment, I can kick just fine with my left foot. When I stop and line up a kick with my left foot and think about it, I flub it every time.

      Thinking too much will screw you over every time in sports.

  3. Agree with all this, but I still believe if I had to pick one thing or the other to remove from the game I’d get rid of the non-hockey play related violence – Shea Weber, Aaron Asham, Duncan Keith, Todd Bertuzzi. There is no potential “gray” area on any of these, they were just thuggery. Not to defend Torres, but at least it was related to the play, even if it was terrible judgement.

  4. We need to make it so that guys who play like this are no longer worth having on your team. We’re reaching the point where the guys who can only fight and can’t remember which way they shoot are almost out of the game, and so we need to turn our focus to getting rid of this type of player now. All he’s doing is taking the skilled players that we all love to watch out, with a hit that we all hate to see.

    “I got him he has the puck I got him he has the puck I got him oh shit he moved”

    To me, this is what the Hagelin hit on Alfredsson was. He went in to finish his check like I’m sure Tortorella had been preaching with his hands a little high, Alfredsson moved to the right and he ended up catching him with the elbow. Still a dirty play and worthy of a suspension, but I can forgive that a little more than Torres.

  5. This is sort of a comment addressed to this article as well as the linked article by Ellen.

    I think there’s something being missed in Ellen’s article, that is hinted at/discussed here when Bourne talks about being “locked in”. My feelings in regards to hitting, that make it distinctively different than other types of mistakes mentioned in Ellen’s article, is that in many situations, hitting requires a level of commitment that other plays/mistakes do not require.

    Bourne mentions the awkward moments just before a hit where the hittie changes course and the hitter is locked in and likely winds up making a bad/dirty hit. You see it even more when a guy goes for the hit… and misses. To hit somebody, you have to commit to it., and it’s not something that can be decided on at the last millisecond. You need to target somebody, in motion. You need to prepare yourself to make the hit. Because, if you just skate in hard without preparing, you’re going to wind up knocking yourself out. You have to be locked in, not just mentally, but physically as well. You cannot throw an effective hit without being committed 100%, so even if the guy changes course, there’s not much you can do.

  6. Well written. Just one question. Didn’t Neal leave his feet too? I’m not sure Giroux ducked. Either way, good article, good points.

  7. Interesting take on the Torres attempt to avoid a collision.

    I watched this game and what I saw was Hossa losing control of a bouncing puck, spinning to follow the puck with his head down, and then Torres appearing in the picture frame braking, turning and jumping- in an attempt to avoid smashing heads or full frontal smashup. How can this be considered a blatant intent to smash an opposing player? First, anyone on the ice and I as a viewer assumed the puck was moving forward with Hossa- certainly a player 30 feet away is then going to circle upto follow the play as Torres is a winger he would do, so Torres is moving with speed to follow the play and butter stick Hossa losses the bouncy puck and stupidly figures he will spin on his skates to follow the puck….at speed…

    What I question is why this is such a terrible act when Torres is braking, turning, in an attempt to stop a collision, and yet the other nite, dustin Brown blatantly blindsides Sedin when the puck was shot into the corner, with his face to the boards and even the broadcasters are going “oh well, its a hockey play?”, what is with that Bullshit? blind sided, when a few minutes before a canuck was given an obstruction penalty- at least the willful boarding and headshot of Brown was at least an obstruction penalty.

    The question also has been asked why the violent play in these playoffs. The answer is as I had predicted since I did play professionally. When the referees and the NHL did nothing to the Boston Bruins players and organization during the final 5 games of the stanley cup finals last year- all players watching from the sidelines understood no consequences for violence on the ice, in fact Marchand did far worse to a Sedin using his head as a punching bag- hence intent and willful criminal behaviour, and no referree nor anyone at the NHL offices condemned the act nor gave out a suspension- so why is Torres suspended when there was no penalty?

    And before a smart ass retorts, using a head as a punching bag is not a bad thing- check out the experts opinions on head blows- the NHL is a fixed league.

    If it was not fixed, Torres would still be in Vancouver and not playing for the NHL owned team in Hispanic rich Phoenix, understand the NHL fixing of games and the league? and why Boston won using thug criminal tactics, hence every game being a bar room brawl which is illegal in every province, territory and usa state nowadays unlike the 1950′s.

    this article above was written by another NHL paid hack, who might even work in NHL headquarters or for the CBC or related affiliates promoting NHL.

    • You’d make more sense here if Torres was in fact turning to avoid Hossa. But it’s quite the reverse. Hossa stopped short – had Torres merely held course he would have zipped in front of him, unable to make any play. He had to angle more sharply to meet Hossa, and jump at him into the bargain.

      Your NHL-is-fixed whining and vague racial accusation don’t help you out, either. Just sayin’ is all.

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