There’s some meat to the cliché “hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard,” but it’s not to be taken at face value. It doesn’t always. An adorable team of eight-year-olds isn’t beating the Kings because LA isn’t trying, and less ridiculous examples happen with teams in the same league all the time. “You can’t take any nights off!” is patent coach-speak bullshit, because some teams can. Sometimes the Canucks put it in neutral, make a couple talented plays and beat the Blue Jackets who are going mach six. (Incidentally, one of the worst parts about being on a crappy team is having to go balls out to have a hope to win. It’s a grind.)

When it comes to player selection at hockey’s highest levels, minimal emphasis is put on effort. Like, minimal. Only the ridiculously skilled are good enough to make the NHL without max effort (though don’t kid yourself, some are), and even they can’t get away with not trying very often. Regardless, you take “ridiculously skilled” when it’s available. Alex Semin over Tim Jackman every day of the week, I’m sure you’d agree, and the latter out-works him by eleventy-thousand percent.

The cliché has become more of an in-game threat than anything, given that it’s rare a coach will ever admit to his team that they’re the less talented one, so it’s said by the coach of the skilled team. “These guys can beat us if we don’t play up to our level, if we aren’t working.” Yada yada. Pro hockey comes down to 5-7 big plays a game, and if your team comes out on top of those, you’ll almost always win. (Problem is you never know when you’re in one of them.) Effort > no effort, obviously, but it’s not the be-all end-all.

BUT. There is one particular brand of hockey where it can be: rec hockey.

The worst part about this reality is that the “hard work” in rec hockey is kinda-sorta-a-bit based on will and pride and other “intangibles” (very, very little, if we’re being honest), and mostly based in youth and fitness. The point here, rec hockey teams, is to pick your teams wisely.

This morning theScore’s digital team took on the theScore’s TV side at the old Maple Leaf Gardens, and I was left remembering a couple things about rec hockey: young players simply haven’t had time to get truly out of shape yet, and people who are in shape are jerks (not really) but great to have on your team. Barring a gross disparity in talent level, if you have a team of young, fit or both players, you’re damn tough to beat.

After most rec league games, the team of 30-somethings will bitch and moan about the other team being a bunch of try-hards, but when you’re young and in shape, you’re like an Alaskan sled dog – it’s easier to go than it is to sit still.

As I’ve risen well above my playing weight, I’m certainly not about to stop playing hockey. I’m not saying old chubby dudes should stop playing the game they love and getting exercise. I’m really just pointing something out in general: “try-hards” make a huge difference in rec hockey, and it’s almost never a mentality, it’s a fitness level.

The bad news for those of us already past the young and fit thresholds, is that this damn game is tough to be good at, and it’s only going to get harder for us. Which is why you should always remember: when picking your rec teams, pick some teammates who won’t be useless after 30 minutes.

I was today, but thankfully my linemates weren’t. A little counterbalance can go a long way.

Comments (11)

  1. While you have valid points, I’ve still seen numerous (like alot) cases of older 50-sometimes who had cups of coffee in pro league who are excellent players despite skating at a casual pace and using sticks that haven’t been taped since 1997.

    Give me a player who plays smart over hard any day. Who do you want on your line, a grizzled vet who is always in the right place at the right time or a 20-something who skates like hell but doesn’t always make the best decision?

    • That’s fair, I’ve had this discussion with a few people today. Basically, having played some level of pro is probably more valuable than straight hustle. The poise/patience difference from most of those guys is big.

    • I agree Harv. I had a proverbial cup of hot chocolate (never quite made it to get the good coffee) but about 12 years ago I played rec hockey on the same team as Ross Perkins. Ross was in his early mid 50′s at the time but back in the day he was a pretty good minor pro and did ok in the early days of the WHA with the Alberta/Edmonton Oilers.

      Ross and I played on D together. Ross had terrible knees and looked slow as a slug on the ice. Yet he always seemed to be right where he needed to be at the right time and made perfect outlet passes to the right guy time and time again. I knew if I was anywhere near where I should be the puck would get to me.

      It was a lot of fun playing with a guy like that because some of the youngsters (read:30 year olds) would be chasing hell bent for leather but never seemed to quite caught up to the puck somehow :))

  2. We have a guy that shows up to pickup a lot, who’s super talented yet doesn’t put in a ton of effort. Granted, it is pickup, so nobody really tries. However, this guy puts in like 5 percent effort, yet he goes through everybody. Like, if he was going at full out, he’d kill everybody, and I mean that almost literally. We just hate it how he doesn’t put effort in yet he is by far and away the best guy out there.

    • There’s an obligation though, as the good player, to not do that. I was playing rec hockey in the AZ desert right after playing pro – it’s no fun for everyone else if I just wheel with the puck and go score. So, I didn’t win many races to pucks, I passed a lot, and only shot when I basically had to. Guys would get mad at me “Hey, we need one here, let’s go” – but I didn’t care enough to “get the big W” to be a prick and take everyone else’s fun. I’d still try and help create chances, I just wasn’t going to turn on the jets and wheel past the 50-year-old who just showed up from work.

      • Which is cool of you, actually. Once Tony Szabo, pro inline player, showed up to one of our open skates (roller hockey, obvs). He knocked my stick out of my hand on a wrist shot. I was still proud because I saved the damn thing. But if he had chosen to, he could have just spent 90 minutes scoring on everything in pads, and that would have taken it too far. It’s one thing to test yourself and another to be painfully outclassed.

        I wonder about that from the other POV, actually… what do the blessed few get out of the game when their opponents present no real obstacle? Fun, exercise, company of fellow hockey players?

      • I believe as well that’s exactly the right attitude to have in the position you found yourself in. I think a lot of us have seen people in your position do the right thing and it was noted (great player..nice guy) and we have all seen the other guy who plays mr super star (great player..what a douche). Good on you Justin.

  3. When playing in a league game quite far below you normal league; Its hard to give above 20% in that situation. However when you go close to 20%, you wheel past your aunt so hard and score to the point that she has still yet to send you a christmas present, in three years.

    Moral of the story is don’t play co-ed, even if your aunt asks you too.

    Also, Jsutin, im sure you wheeled a few 50 year old pylons out here in Az a few times. Then face palmed them like Davd Chappelle to a stranger as he walks in the club. probably not, but thats how i picture it and i laugh.

  4. For playoff hockey I’ll take Jackman over Semin any day!

  5. I coach youth hockey and over the summer we play sunday pick-up with the kids. The teams are normally mixed between a couple kids and coaches/junior players on each team. the adults and junior players only try hard when facing a 1 on 1 against a similar foe. We let the kids beat us unless it is a cocky bantum. the cocky kids get wheeled if they start to chirp too much.

    It is great fun when we all contain ourselves and a good skate. It is 7am on a sunday in the summer so we may have 1 sub per side on a good day. Big bonus I get to play on a line with my son.

  6. Justin nice article. Gary Dineen used to say the best players have the “Four H’s”…. hands, heart, head, hustle. A retired pro playing beer league can probably get away with having just 3 out of 4 of those.

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