Bergeron Oduya

“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.shaw_battle_crop-2

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.

Comments (18)

  1. Why players willing to be first in on the puck are the toughest in hockey? Because they’re the first with their face in the glass, and they know it.

  2. It can be argued the Bs lost in the Finals because their team toughness caught up to them, with Bergeron, Campbell and Chara (hip pointer) the prime examples.

    • It could also be argued that they wouldn’t have even made it to the Finals in the first place if not for their team toughness.

      • You’re both right. Unfortunately, that style of play will get you into the league will also hasten your exit from the league.

        The moral of the story: you better pick up a few new tricks if you want to stay in the league. Learn how to avoid big checks if you want to keep picking up big cheques


  3. Getting to the puck second and timing it appropriately works just fine for me (and my roughly 30 minutes of playing time per game).

  4. Being smart about the ’1st to the puck / 2nd to the puck’ dilemma is a good thing obviously but yeah… you need to be way tougher to take the hit to make the play.

  5. The most efficient, arguably best, D man in the game, Nick Lidstrom used to do a version of the Carlyle method. Or most likely, that’s where Carlyle got it from. But the idea is that two men chasing the puck, defending guy skates hard enough to keep chasing offense man on his hip (sort of a pick/interference) and they would careen into the boards together, D-man tying up puck to be swooped up by his partner of first forward back.

    • All you need to do to make it work is be Nick-Lidstrom-good, or play in an era where pinning players is legal.

      • You see it all the time though. Defensemen and F1 race to the puck and tie each other up. The second D man skates up, pokes the puck loose, and skates off with the puck behind his net.

        I agree with you that racing to the puck and taking that hit makes you tough, but it’s not the one and only factor. Your buddy Andrew McDonald leads the league in blocked shots by a large margin. Certainly this adds to his toughness. A winger that willingly slides with his face towards someone shooting a 90+mph slap shot certainly is tough.

      • Oh is that not possible? Basically anyone can be as good as Nick Lidstrom.

  6. huge relation to soccer here, not in terms of “toughness” but the point you make about games being decided by a handful of moments:

    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”

    Soccer matches are almost always decided by one or two of these moments, yet the players who win the ball and continue play are the most under-appreciated in their sport as well (holding midfielders and defenders that get up the field).

    Nice read. Send this to EDR over at Counterattack!!

  7. This was a really well written post. I enjoyed the parallel here between hockey and life in seizing every opportunity and being tough enough to take the hits as they come.

  8. Great article, every fan/spectator should particularly note this for defenseman. There is timing/being really good at playing the body and removing the puck versus deciding to not race to the puck in the thunderdome. If you ever do a post about the thunderdome area of the ice I would be happy to compile some videos for you. Lost more than enough brain cells back there.

  9. I remember in football, Alex Ferguson once commented on the bravery of Christiano Ronaldo whereas rival fans often focussed on his supposed diving. Ferguson described how he always got up & demanded the ball despite inferior players trying to take him out of his game. Contrastingly, there was a rival player who Manchester United repeatedly fouled in a gane (It almost looked like a plan as the fouler was rotated) & he was never the same player in English football again. I think this is the same thing.

  10. Gay article
    The goons are the toughest. End of story

  11. Slow clap for this piece. Thoughtful use of analytics to help build up a narrative that actually sheds light on the game. Really enjoyed the read.


    I’m increasingly annoyed by the false dichotomy between hits and Corsi. I get the reasoning-you only deliver hits when you don’t have the puck-but ithas been taken to a ridiculous extreme by the analytics crowd. You’ll often hear the line “the perfect game has 0 hits, because you always possess the puck.” It’s true technically, but the problem is that game doesn’t exist and it never will. It also suggests that by reducing the number of hits dealt out a team will play better hockey. Except the Kings, the gods or Corsi, are second in the league in hits. Bourne praises Justin Williams but forgets Dustin Brown who is fifth in the league in hits and is a great Corsi player. And Kyle Clifford. And David Backes. And Justin Abdelkader. Hell, even Andrew Shaw throws a ton of hits.

    Do the meatheads too often confuse players that only know how to smash people for tough guys? Sure. But it looks like the players who don’t throw so many hits are being confused for the smart/effective guys. Some of the more effective players in the game are some of the biggest hitters.

    • Except hits are a near-meaningless stat that is horrendously skewed by the home-team scorer. Look at LA… they have 160 more hits at home than on the road. The #1 team for hits, Toronto, somehow manages 470 more hits at home than on the road.

      Are their games REALLY that different home and away? Or is it more likely the hometown scorer is padding the stats to make their team look better?

      Hits are a garbage, BS stat that should be utterly ignored.

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