Hockey: Our Beautiful Game.
“The Beautiful Game”… Football, for those outside of North America. We have renamed it soccer. And I suppose in a way it is beautiful. Green grass, a shiny ball, players racing back and forth on the pitch. But now freeze that pitch, throw some razors on the hardest shoes you can find, give those players a weapon and allow them to hit each other with their bodies and that weapon while chasing a frozen piece of rubber disc around on the frozen pitch. Shoot that disc past a mask-wearing player with hard pillows on his legs and big oven mitts for gloves? I’d say in a way that that’s even more beautiful.
Canadians live and breathe hockey; it’s in our blood. It is far and away our most popular sport and you can even find hockey on Canadian currency (back of the 5-dollar bill). Americans have closed the talent gap considerably that once existed at one time between the two countries and are now considered nearly on par with the Canadians. The Russians, Swedes and Finns are known as Olympic contenders and other European countries are gaining on the powerhouses as well. Passion, pride, cohesiveness between teammates, trust, honesty, integrity…. they are all words spoken in describing hockey. But one word is synonymous with the sport of hockey; competition.
Competition. For everything. It’s not a sport for everyone. If you’re waiting for your turn, then prepare to wait forever. If you want the puck and you want to score, you need to compete to get it, compete to keep it and compete some more to score.
Of the 4 major sports in North America, only hockey is the sport that doesn’t give each team equal chance at possession. There is no bottom of the ninth, kickoff return or inbounds to give your team the ball (puck). It’s a 60 minute battle for possession and competition to see who can not only win the puck but keep it long enough to make a scoring play.
Football may have more body contact for the 10 seconds or so of each play, but no game is played at the speed of hockey with the constant motion of the athlete for an extended amount of time (shift length) that hockey has. Baseball players have their turn at bat and in the field need to be ready for the ball to be hit to them, while a pitcher’s heart rate will be high with the stress, movement and effort of pitching, but hockey has 12 bodies in constant motion for an entire shift, which could be up to 50 seconds. Basketball comes the closest to constant physical exertion, but there is no real body contact allowed, thus having players exert less energy. (If you don’t agree then try skating after taking a big hit that stops all of your momentum).
In hockey, the greatest players in the game sit on the bench and don’t handle the puck for the majority of the game. Your body needs a 2 minute rest after 50 seconds of maximum effort. Thus, the best forwards in the world will top out at 22-23 minutes of 60 and defencemen 26-28 of 60. As a result, hockey is a team sport in which you must draw on all of the players to contribute. It’s why at the end of the game, all players feel as if they’ve contributed and you rarely hear a hockey interviewee substitute “I” for “we”. In football, baseball and basketball, the star players handle the ball the entire game and each get a fair shot. An at-bat, 4 downs and a possession arrow in basketball all give the players their chance at creating offence. In hockey? Get it yourself. Earn it.
Football coaches must design several plays and relay them through the quarterback or middle linebacker’s helmet radio to call each play. Baseball players have their individual chances at the plate, having been guided by a hitting coach or, if in the field, a fielding coach. They have time to check the signs from the third base coach and check him for when to take an extra base or score a run as well. Basketball coaches have the ability to draw plays to get their player a good look for a shot and can relay the code of the play as the starting 5 head up the court. Hockey? No time. Coaches have taught the players some technique or systems in practice but once the game starts it is up to the players to produce. Teaching is over and the coaches rarely ever get a chance to correct systems or individual mistakes during the game, with the exception of the 2 intermissions. A coach turns into a motivator, intimidator or a cheerleader once the puck is dropped.
The best hockey coaches, as can be the case in the other sports, are the coaches that can deal with negative results and get players to remain positive and focused through inevitable miscues. A hockey bench is a small and confined place. It’s like sitting on a large couch with 15 sweaty friends while your dad and his 2 friends stand behind you. There is nowhere to hide, and believe me, you can feel it when the coach is staring bullets at you from behind your back. You can sense frustration, positivity, pride and nervousness from the coaches and there is nothing better in any sport than having a positive coach that believes in his group.
So, next time you are at a hockey game or even watching a game on TV, look for the demeanour of the coach, the flows of the line changes, the maximum effort of the participants, the post-shift exhaustion of the players and really how little the top players are even on the ice. You’ll see a team of 20 players, backed by coaches that, after 60 minutes (and sometimes more), are exhausted. Win or lose, they will huddle by their goaltender and look at each other to congratulate each other on an honest effort. There is nothing better than playing hockey and being given not only a chance to play, but to compete together as a team and try to win.
Enjoy the season.
Thanks for reading.