“Toughness” in hockey is valued to a borderline comical degree, but amongst the majority of hockey people the concept is often misunderstood. It’s not just fans who associate the trait with knuckle-hucking face-punchers, meaning somehow guys like Brian McGrattan have NHL jobs. True hockey toughness, the kind that really matters, is found in the players who are willing to win races to pucks.
Everyone even loosely affiliated with hockey is aware of the expression “take the hit to make the play.” It’s particularly relevant to wingers: you get the puck on the wall, and either the opposing d-man is pinching or F3 is bearing down on you, and you have roughly a second to do the right thing with the puck, with the “right thing” being “try to find a tape-to-tape play, and if there isn’t one, find a way to get the puck out of the zone.” It takes some mental steel to know you’re about to get hit hard and still hang in there to make the right play instead of the easy one. (Interestingly, this is where I find “tough guys” to be the least tough. They don’t want to get embarrassed, so they bang the puck off the boards into the neutral zone without looking for a better option, then try to hit whoever’s coming to hit them while knowing they made their coach happy by getting it out. Then they regroup and wait for their pseudo-turnover to come right back at them.)
But “take the hit to make the play” doesn’t just apply to the times you have the puck – more than anything it applies to the times you’re racing for it, and somebody’s gotta get there first and get hit. Which do you think Colton Orr wants to do more – throw the hit or make a play on the puck? How about Patrice Bergeron? Jonathan Toews?
I wrote a note in yesterday’s Thoughts on Thoughts about Sam Gagner’s jaw injury, and how it’s hard to convince yourself when you just come back and it’s still tender to be first on the puck to take the hit. It’s much easier just to let the guy you’re racing for the puck neck-and-neck with to get there first and hit him (or try to steal the puck) than to hustle harder, get there first, direct the puck somewhere and take the lick.
That led friend-of-the-blog @67sound to tweet that he believes Randy Carlyle tells the Leafs’ d-men to let the opposing team get in on the puck first, hit them, then have the second d-men come in and scoop the puck out of the pile. I’ve never once played for a coach who advised getting to the puck second, and it seems doubly dumb considering that “hit-and-pin” is no longer legal in hockey (can you even fathom that it ever was??). Still, there were a lot of people agreeing with him.
Anyway, it got me thinking about the concept of true toughness within the game, and how getting to the puck first is really at the core of it. Coaches rail about commitment and effort and all those things so much because there are countless times in a hockey game where you can look like you’re playing at full speed, but you can choose to do something that looks cool (hitting someone) instead of directing the puck.
Hockey analytics are taking us to a place where we can more-or-less quantify who the “play drivers” are, and we’re finding the odd surprise as the answers come to light. No kidding, Clarke MacArthur is good at getting the puck going in the right direction? Justin Williams is a Corsi god? Andrew Shaw is effective at tilting the ice for his team?
You only have to touch the puck for a split second to direct it the right way (literally). You may not have the time to gain solid possession and attack the net, but you’re able to direct it towards a teammate who might have an extra split-second, who can direct it to a teammate who might have a full second, who might have enough time to snap the puck past the goaltender. That touch can come from the corner in the d-zone, the neutral zone, wherever. It can be to a teammate, out of the zone, or as a dump-in under pressure. The point is, the guy who gets there first gets to make that decision.
And, if you think about a guy like Patrice Bergeron, one of hockey’s best play drivers, you’ll note that winning those races to the touch has consequences. When you look at him in playoffs last year - a broken rib, torn cartilage, a separated shoulder, and a pneumothorax – you understand there’s a cost for always having the stones to be the first guy on the puck. You get hit. You get hit, and you get hit, and you get hit. And getting hit hurts. It takes the wind out of you, it saps your energy, and you can get injured. It’s real easy to be the second guy in on a puck race, rattle the glass and get that crowd roaring. Nobody roars for the touch.
If you’re a hockey team that lacks toughness, you shouldn’t be looking to add raw size, or a fighter, or anything of the sort. You need players, no matter their size, who are tough enough to take those hits to make those plays. Hockey games are decided by five or ten plays that often come down to an inch, or a “barely.” The problem is, you rarely know when you’re in one of those moments. So all you can do is be first on the puck over, and over, and over again. The guys who commit to doing that are the league’s toughest players.