Hockey; Our Beautiful Game.

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.

~Jeff Ulmer

jeffulmer44@gmail.com

For the Rookies

Jeff Ulmer NYR

For the Rookies

Everyone is watching you. Most coaches, GMs and even a few of your older teammates will know whether you have a future in hockey or not during the first few times that they see you on the ice. And in some cases, just by having a conversation with you. Can you prove them right or wrong? Sure. But that’s up to you.

Some players are stars from their first few seasons of playing hockey as kids and translate that into solid careers. Others are so used to having easy success that they can’t take some adversity and may be out of hockey after a year or two of playing professionally. I’ve played alongside both.

Some are late bloomers that decide that they want to take hockey seriously and do whatever they can to make a living out of the sport. They may have been cut from several teams but simply won’t take no for an answer. Meeting adversity head on may have given them the strength to translate failures into new opportunities and learn what it takes to be a professional hockey player. I’ve seen plenty of these as well.

Whether you play your 4-5 years of junior or your 4 years of college hockey, you will end up in the same place as several other players. On a hockey team, or trying out for a hockey team, and then it is entirely up to you. Talent will earn you a shot at being a professional hockey player but it is the passion that you show in wanting to improve that will keep you in hockey.

Set your path. You will be given an opportunity to showcase yourself in different situations at first. If you are successful, then congratulations. If not, you may not be written off yet. Most organizations will give you a few years to establish yourself as a player. And if they see you as a player that doesn’t fit in their organization? Then another team may give you the chance that you need.

Most players fail to make a team at some point. Very few are blue chip prospects, World Junior stars and then full-time NHLers for 15-20 years. Yet, every NHL team has to carry 20-22 players on their roster, with several prospects ready to be called up. Also, as I can attest to, there are plenty of opportunities in Europe to make a successful living in hockey.

Over the beginning of your career you may be immediately projected as a “powerplay guy”, “checker”, “grinder” or even “defensive D-man”. Coaches, scouts and others are not always right, however. Being a grinder isn’t sexy but if you have some offensive skills and are willing to play a “200 foot game”, any coach will find a spot for you. So do what you can to learn to do both.

Use your strengths to help you get to a certain level of hockey but improve your weaknesses to stay there or move higher. If you know your shot is weak but you can skate like the wind, then keep skating but work on your shot. A “powerplay guy” can become a very effective penalty killer and a “defensive D-man” can learn to be more offensive. Watch the veterans, learn some tendencies and try your best to grow as a player and a teammate.

The people that make decisions for a hockey team are not looking to see whether you can score a fancy goal on a shootout attempt, although that may help. They are looking to see how you react when your teammate didn’t pass to you on a 2 on 1 chance or whether you will give a defenceman on your team a pat on the shin pads after he was beaten for a goal, telling him to forget about it and that he will “get him next time“. They will read your effort in practice, whether you skate until the end of a drill or stop in front of the net after a shot attempt.

Are you a good teammate? Being angry if you don’t record a point when your team wins or showing your frustration if you get called off of the ice are a few examples of poor teammates. A reputation for having characteristics like that will stay with you for your career. You will learn that doing your part to help your team win games is the most important and that personal statistics will soon become forgotten by others. Your teammates will notice if you don’t backcheck, intentionally move out of the way instead of blocking a shot or seem jealous of a teammate having success. However, they will remember how you invited everyone when you went for lunch after practice, consoled a teammate in a slump or maybe even helped some of the equipment workers carry some bags in from the bus after a long trip.

Learn the names of the people that work for the team, whether they are volunteer equipment people or working in the office for your team and remember them. Ask veterans for advice, as they were rookies at one point as well, and if they tell you something that you really don’t believe is right, thank them anyways. Respect for your organization, coaching staff and teammates is important. You, however, are also important and a key member of the organization. Know that in your mind but don’t act like it. Your attitude will contribute to your value within the organization.

If a coach tells you something that you don’t believe is right, don’t argue. Acknowledge it and don’t give him another reason to doubt you. Most coaches can live with mistakes if an honest effort is put in. So don’t worry about making a mistake. We all do, and you will. Learn from them and trust that you will learn over time, because you will do that also.

Just as most players do, I have failed at several points in my career. I still fail myself or my team occasionally. Am I scared to fail? Hell no. I wasn’t drafted. I wasn’t handed an NHL contract after graduating from College. I had to prove myself in my first year of pro hockey that I deserved to be given a chance. And by doing that, I was given another chance, and then another. I know that I have earned those chances and I want the puck in tough situations. If I fail, I will want it again next game. In my nearly 1,000 career games I’m almost positive that I have just as many failures as successes, I just have learned to take them as a lesson and clear my mind for the next shift. At first, that wasn’t as easy to do.

“You have an NHL-calibre shot and you skate well. Most teams already have their top 6-8 forwards set for the next few years though. If you would play like more of a pest, I think you could be a regular in the NHL.” I heard that from a coach in the AHL during my second pro season. I played that way in the AHL for a while but then went to Europe and had scoring success. I came back to the AHL the next season and scored more so I did less of the “pest” stuff. That was my best, albeit last, season in North America. Maybe he was right. Maybe not. But who knows? There were several opportunities waiting in Europe nonetheless and I have no regrets.

As an older player (30) coming off of a high scoring year in Germany’s DEL and then a stint in the Russian KHL, I made my way to the top Swedish league (now the SHL) in Modo. We had several big-named players. Niklas Sundstrom, Mattias Timander, young stud Mats Zuccarrello and even Peter Forsberg for a stretch, as he was attempting a comeback. All of those players were tremendously talented hockey players and great people. However, we also had a young defenceman that was a top prospect. I had come to the team in early December and had played well in my first few games, scoring a hat trick in my second game and showcasing a big slapshot that would put me on the point on the powerplay. The referee would call a penalty and on I would go, giving the young prospect a tap on the shin pads as he skated off, to watch and learn from the bench as the veterans played the powerplay. Not once did he complain that some 30-year old Canadian was getting minutes on the powerplay (that he or someone else could have been playing) in Sweden. He partnered with Timander and would continually ask him questions and emulate what he saw from watching the older players. I would sit next to him on a few bus trips and chat with the prospect about his family or life in Sweden and came away impressed with his maturity for a 17 year old kid. He still remains to this day one of the best skaters that I have played with and I am not surprised with the success that he has had in the NHL. Victor Hedman (the prospect) learned from some of the best leaders in Swedish hockey, grew up in a humble and hard working town (Örnsköldsvik) and never once showed entitlement or bitterness at losing ice time to veterans, despite his popularity and potential. He has turned into arguably one of the top 5 defencemen in the World, and his attitude is a big reason why.

So be prepared to work hard, laugh a lot, gain friendships and ask questions. I’m finishing up my 18th year of hockey in an up and down career that has taken me through 13 countries and I learn something new each and every day. If you can deal with failure now and again but keep grinding to see your successes realized, then you might just have a future in hockey.
Good luck.


Jeff Ulmer

Hockey DB – Jeff Ulmer

Elite Prospects – Jeff Ulmer

JU

jeffulmer44@gmail.com

Teammates (3)

KHL Hockey Jeff Ulmer

18 years (so far). Hundreds of former teammates. All different personalities. Some are funny, some are serious. Some are quirky, others are as straight as an arrow. Some have left a permanent impression on me. I will feature a few ex-teammates in a short package of stories of past experiences that I hope will help others to see the different personalities and characters that I, and most certainly others, have come across through the game of hockey. Throughout the game of hockey, there are some people that once having met them, you will not forget them. There will be a few from North America and a few from playing overseas. This is the third instalment. Enjoy. 

 

Alexander “Sasha” Vyukhin

“Russia. Really?” White Russia, to be exact. Belarus’s (literally translated to white Russia) capital city of Minsk would be the next stop in my hockey travels. I had played a few seasons in Germany’s DEL and had a chance to make some big rubles. So I told my agent “Let’s do it. I can always go back to Germany if I hate it.”

I didn’t love it. Our coach, with whom I had chatted about my future role on the team, was fired before training camp began. It was the first year of the new Kontinental Hockey League, and Minsk was buying and selling players (and coaches, apparently) in a desperate attempt to win some games. That would prove to be difficult, as the talent level in the KHL was extremely high, and competing with big money clubs on a lower budget is very tough. But, every season brings optimism and high aspirations, so off we went…

At a pre-season tournament in Cherepovets, our Dynamo Minsk team would meet up with the host team, Severstal. We had played well and had scored a few unconventional goals. It seemed that the little stand-up style goalie could make some highlight reel saves but would then let in a goal right along the ice due to his style. I’m not sure of the score, whether we had won or lost, but the fans were treated to a shoot-out either way. 5 skaters per team would shoot, and give the host fans a little bit of bonus hockey to watch. I was one of the 5 shooters that would shoot against Cherepovets. So, I gathered my thoughts, took a few hard strides and went in on my attempt. A second into that attempt, as I was hitting the blue line, out charged the little goalie! In a crazy attempt to surprise me, he had come charging out of the crease to catch me with a wild poke-check. I calmly deked to the backhand and slid the puck into the open net as he went sliding past the top of the circles. Skating back to the bench I recall looking at him and thinking “Who in the hell is this guy?”

He was Alexander “Sasha” Vyukhin. A legend in the Russian Super League, naturally he would be a starting goalie for a KHL team when the new league was formed. I would not see him much the rest of that year, as after just 13 games in Minsk I collected a buyout and was playing in Switzerland by November. I would go back to Germany the next season to rejoin my former team, the Frankfurt Lions for the 2009/2010. 

Rarely do things go perfectly in hockey but that year seemed to go well for me. I led the DEL in scoring that season, and then parlayed that into a multi-year deal so that my girlfriend (now wife) Robyn and I could finally unpack. As July came and we began to get ready to fly to Frankfurt, I received a phone call that Frankfurt had gone bankrupt. There had been rumours to that effect but none of us thought that it was a serious concern. Now I had no current team and certainly no multi-year deal in the European hub that we had grown to love. So…where to next then???

Hello Siberia!  Specifically, Novokuznetsk, again in Russia’s KHL. I had played alongside defenceman Nick Angell in Frankfurt and he had signed with Novokuznetsk a few weeks prior. When Frankfurt folded, he had put in a good word for me with his team. So off I went, chasing those Russian rubles again. 

Upon arrival (Calgary-Frankfurt, Frankfurt-Moscow, Moscow-Novokuznetsk), I really didn’t know which day it was anymore. Between the hours in the air and a long layover in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport (sweating bullets with the locals while pushing 4 bags) I was physically spent. Most of the players on the hockey team were housed in the same cement apartment building, where we would file down to hop on the team bus to head for practice. Customary morning handshakes and “Dobre utrem” (good morning) were in order for each teammate and coach before loading the bus. A few teammates didn’t live in the same building though, and we would meet them at the arena. 

I didn’t recognize his name or even the face of the little goalie that had played in Cherepovets as I shook his hand, but as soon as we hit the ice for our first skate, I was happy to see Alexander Vyukhin, my new teammate. His playing style and demeanour had no rivals. I would catch myself just watching his weird style in practice, and how it somehow actually worked. In a new era of big, butterfly-style goalies, he was the opposite. If you thought you had him with a shot that would go under the crossbar on a normal goalie, there he was, laughing as he had guessed right and caught your attempt while he remained standing. I games he would save dump-ins with his angled skate blade, not with his goalie stick, deflecting them into the corner of the rink, to the roar of the crowd. All with a smirk on his face. 

We were in Omsk to play a pre-season tournament, where Sasha had played for 10 seasons. Avangard Omsk had a much better team than we did, with Jaromir Jagr and Roman Cervenka as two huge examples of why. Omsk had a nice new building with a large “Jumbotron” high above the ice. Sasha would make a save and then play to the crowd, watching himself on the Jumbotron’s replay, raising his stick or spinning around to get them going. Always the showman. 

Between periods throughout the season, he was the player with the towel around his neck and the beet-red face. He would put his skate guards on or waddle on his pads to a secluded spot, most of the time to the shower or a stall in the bathroom, for a cigarette. Sure, not really a huge deal in the days of Guy Lafleur, but in 2010/2011, smoking in or around the dressing room was not a regular occurrence. 

Our team, Metallurg Novokuznetsk, was named after the huge metal refinery plant in the city. The refinery would leave our white window sills black from the polluted air and leave a slight sulphur-like smell in the air. However, Sasha would be jogging outside and look over at the imports (Nick Angell, Mark Bomersback, Vaclav Nedorost and myself) and in heavily broken English say “Mmmm…breathe it in…tastes like money!”, as he chuckled away….

Once again, I would take the money and make a move back to Europe. Our last-placed team would begin to sell off some players and thus , after just 24 games I packed my bags and went west. Off to Sweden I went, for my second stint there, where I would finish up the season with Linköping in the Swedish Elite League. Vyukhin would also move, to Yaroslavl, to finish up the season with Lokomotiv, and then sign on for one more year with them. 

It was back to Germany yet again for me, this time to Düsseldorf in the DEL, for the next season. Far removed from Russia and happy to be out of Siberia, albeit having met some great people and teammates, I was on the ice for practice when some chilling news came in that I would never forget.

On September 7, 2011, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was travelling to Minsk for its first game of the season when their aircraft would crash shortly after takeoff. 44 of the 45 passengers, including Alexander “Sasha” Vyukhin and all of his teammates, coaches and the team staff would ultimately perish in the disaster. 

There are no words to describe the loss that Sasha’s wife and 3 children have had to deal with. 37 other hockey families also lost a son, husband, father or sibling that tragic day, with 7 of the 8 crew members also passing away. It was truly one of the biggest disasters in the history of sports. 

Alexander Vyukhin was a unique person that loved life. Hockey was a game to him, as it should be to all that play the sport. He was unorthodox, quirky and most of all, unique. He was a special talent, able to play an acrobatic style in the modern age of hockey, with a smile on his face. He would never get the chance to play that one final season (his 19th pro season in Russia) before moving back to Omsk with his young family. At 38, Sasha and his teammates would not get the chance to continue (or begin) their careers in Minsk that day in 2011. 

From the few short months in playing with Alexander Vyukhin, I have learned  to take advantage of the chance to play hockey, to enjoy the good (and bad) days at the rink and to not take for granted the opportunity to play the game that I love. Also, I have learned to be thankful to the loved ones that have sacrificed to allow me to play hockey. Because of them, I have had the pleasure to meet players like Alexander “Sasha” Vyukhin. Lastly, for the members of Lokomotiv that lost their lives that day, I have and will continue to treat hockey, and life, as a gift. 

~Thanks for reading. I will post another article on an ex-teammate in the future. All the best in and outside of hockey.

Jeff Ulmer

Hockey DB – Jeff Ulmer

Elite Prospects – Jeff Ulmer

JU


jeffulmer44@gmail.com

Teammates (2)

Hersey Bears

18 years (so far). Hundreds of former teammates. All different personalities. Some are funny, some are serious. Some are quirky, others are as straight as an arrow. Some have left a permanent impression on me. I will feature a few ex-teammates in a short package of stories of past experiences that I hope will help others to see the different personalities and characters that I, and most certainly others, have come across through the game of hockey. Throughout the game of hockey, there are some people that once having met them, you will not forget them. There will be a few from North America and a few from playing overseas. This is the first instalment. Enjoy. 


Dennis Bonvie & Brian McGrattan

I was on the golf course, not surprisingly, when a call from my agent came. “The Rangers just included you in a trade. You’ve been traded to the Ottawa Senators.” So off I went, from Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I had been training at my alma mater (UND) with other pros and college players, to Kanata, Ontario. Training Camp had a completely different feel that year, however, as I watched with the rest of the Senators and “Senator-hopefuls” on the testing day of our camp (Tuesday, September 11, 2001),  as the World Trade Center towers fell in an act of terrorism. Hockey was suddenly secondary to what was going on in real life, in the city that I had lived in the past season. Speaking to some ex-teammates in New York, they had felt the ground shake as the Towers fell. Scary stuff. Life, and hockey, did eventually go on and after a few exhibition games with the Senators, I was shipped to the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL for the season. We would eventually lose in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs despite a 95 point regular season.

After re-signing with the Senators for one more year, I again was shipped out midway through camp. This time to Binghamton, New York, as the Sens would switch affiliates. Our team was stocked full of prospects. Jason Spezza, Antoine Vermette, Chris Kelly and Ray Emery were some examples of players that would go on to have success in the NHL. I was lucky enough to chip in the first goal in the B-Sens’ history, over Rick DiPietro’s glove, in our first game of the season. A backhand saucer pass that hit me right on the tape, from another future long-time NHLer, Brian McGrattan.

Quiet, huge, and usually with his hair spiked in some way, McGrattan was instantly a hit in the dressing room. He was the big kid with the serious look on his face that, as soon as he heard something funny, could not stop laughing. Dubbed the “big human” by veteran defenceman Steve Bancroft, he had a habit of looking at himself in the plexiglass on the ice during warmup to sneak a glance at his hair or how he looked in his jersey, a fact that I still ride him about today. He quickly made a name for himself in the AHL though, taking on all challengers and besting opposing veteran heavyweights in fights, while also chipping in a few goals. We were a few weeks into our season when McGrattan and the “baby Sens” would get a reinforcement from Ottawa, taking our team toughness to a whole new level.

Dennis Bonvie had signed with The Senators prior to the season and made the team out of training camp. He had shown what he was capable of in Ottawa, sticking up for teammates and playing physical, but a full roster up top meant that he would join us in Binghamton. An absolute fan-favourite wherever he had been prior, Dennis was an immediate presence in our locker room. He had a natural “Maritimer-wit” (from Frankville, Nova Scotia) that, despite the obvious intimidation in looking at his career penalty minute totals or glancing at his permanently swollen knuckles, could make any teammate feel like “one of the guys“. Looking over at a nervous teammate tightening his skates before a game he’d shout, “Relax dude, you’re as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs…”. Off he’d go onto the ice for warmup, shoulder pads consisting of shoulder caps tied to suspenders (that’s it) , no helmet (he’d wear an old-style Gretzky Jofa helmet for practices and a regular one once the games began) and stretch at the red line facing the other team, daring one of the opponents to come over for a chat. Sitting on the bench beside him during a game was always an entertaining spot. An opposing player would skate by and Dennis would yell loud enough for the bench to hear…”Jeez boys, get a load of this guy, starting centre on the All-Ugly team! He’s got a face like a horse eating thistles….”, to which our whole bench would crack up laughing. He would wheel through the dressing room, hiking his boxer shorts up to his ribs, giving the guys his “1950’s boxer” pose while picking out something about you or your wardrobe that may have been a bit off. To me, for example, it was “Jeez Ulms, watch that fake leather jacket doesn’t crack, it’s cold outside man.” After his arrival, he joined McGrattan and I on the right wing, forming what he dubbed the “Helicopter Line”, yelling out “Lucky you Ulmsy, you’ve got no wings!”

On the ice, playing between two of the toughest guys in the league definitely adds some swagger to your game. But it was on the bench, again, that we had some of the biggest laughs. On a night where we were able to play in Ottawa for a neutral-site game against the Leafs’ farm-team, the St.John’s Maple Leafs, McGrattan had came out on fire, chipping in two goals for us pretty early, while Bonvie had had an early scrap with Doug Doell, one of several tough guys on their team. Because the “baby Leafs” were trailing (and the “brass” was watching) they had started to get more physical, taking some runs at some of our players. As we were about to go onto the ice for our next shift, Dennis yells to Brian, “All right Gratts, we better go settle this down eh bud?”, to which Gratts replies as he jumps the boards, “It’s all you tonight Bonsai, I’ve got a good game going…”, giggling like a schoolgirl as he hit the ice…

We were in Hershey to play the Bears around mid-season, probably in the Sunday afternoon game of the dreaded “3 in 3” where we would play 3 games in 3 nights and then bus back to Bingo (Binghamton) after the game. McGrattan got into it with Hershey’s D-man Jeff Paul sometime early during the game and they dropped the gloves. Gratts caught one one the button, something that very rarely happened, and he hit the ice. After his five minutes was up and he hopped back onto the bench, he looked over and said “Jeeeeeeeasus, did you see that boys?”, as he giggled away and got ready to hit the ice again. Truly a big kid in every sense. Our Bingo Sens team would eventually lose out in the semi finals of the Calder Cup playoffs to a stacked Hamilton Bulldogs team and we would part ways after the season. Most of us into our SUVs to make the trip back home,  but McGrattan, all 6’4″ and 235 pounds of him, folded himself into his Dad’s minivan for the trip up north, driven also by his Dad, back to Hamilton (a fact that we still ride him about to this day).

The next season I would spend in Finland, my first season in Europe. After a good year (still toeing the line between prospect and suspect), I would sign back with the Colorado Avalanche on a two-way contract. Sadly, the lockout would mean that there would not be an NHL to work my way towards that season, and I would spend all 80 games in Hershey, playing again in the AHL, against a league stacked full of locked-out NHLers. I was happy to see a familiar face on my team, however, in Dennis Bonvie.

We wouldn’t be linemates that season, but we would spend a fair bit of time together. Dennis would have us over for dinner with his wife Kelly often, treating me and my other roommates at the time (Cody McCormick, Jeff Finger and Chris Bala) to some good food, always some wine and lots of laughs. We would be roommates on the road occasionally as well, and it was a common occurrence for me to have to pry the remote control out of his big paws if I wanted to change the channel, as he snored away on his side of the hotel room, sound asleep from showing us his favourite restaurants in each stop on the road. In Hershey (as had been the case in Wilkes-Barre in the Penguins farm team, as well as most others he played for) he could have run for mayor. During one day of golf at a nice course in the area (probably free as well), him and I had made our approach shots and for some reason decided to wait by the green while Chris Bala made his approach shot. After hearing “Fore!!!!” and turning our backs, the shot one-hopped and hit Dennis square in the hand. He was fine, but I had to nearly leave the course laughing, as there was no safer place for him to get hit, with the scar tissue built up in those hands. I said “Jeez, anywhere else and that might have hurt eh Bonsai?”. 4493 penalty minutes in the AHL (as well as 311 in his 92 NHL games), including a then-record 522 pims in one season, will undoubtedly do that to your hands…

80 games would go by quickly, as they always do in a hockey season. Dennis would periodically check his phone after the game and shake his head….”F’ing Gratts, another 15 pims (penalty minutes) tonight…”. McGrattan, back in Binghamton for the lockout, was tearing through the AHL and sending us text messages throughout the year….”I’m going to beat Dennis’s record.” 522 is a lot of penalty minutes. A lot of fights, some misconducts, game misconducts and the odd suspension. Even Dennis and Brian would fight each other that year, with each getting a few good punches in and, in a memorable moment for both, Brian (the protégé) nibbled on Dennis’s ear-lobe after a fight and said, “Thanks Dennis. I love you man.”

He would, in fact, break Dennis’s record that year. And Dennis would call him after to congratulate him. 551 is the new record in the American Hockey League. That record is forever safe, I believe, as is Dennis’s lead atop the all-time American Hockey League’s penalty minute list.  Hockey has changed too much for those records to ever be broken. McGrattan says “If I had never played with Bonvie I’m not sure I would have made it as a fighter in the NHL (He would play 317 games and tally 609 NHL penalty minutes)… He taught me that if you win or lose, you always go back, answer the bell. The basics in how to fight like a big man that he showed me have stuck with me for my career. I owe him thanks, and will always look up to him.” Bonvie responded, “For him to say that I was such a positive influence is truly gratifying. He worked hard to reach his goal of playing in the NHL. It was my responsibility as a veteran player to help him to see what it took to reach the NHL. Others did the same for me in showing what it would take to reach the NHL also. I am very proud of Brian, both as a hockey player and as a person.”

Gone are the days of a team having two heavyweights or even enforcers (most now have none) and gone are the days of fighting being a big part of hockey. The day may have also passed, where a veteran would take a rookie to lunch and break down what it would take for the rookie to make a living out of being an enforcer in hockey, like he is/was, and for the rookie to take that knowledge, build his own through experience, and later be known as arguably the toughest player in the NHL. Some say fighting will always be a part of hockey, while others say it slows the game down or causes long-term injuries. I’m not going to defend either side. Rather, I’m simply happy to have been given the chance to play with two of the all-time great enforcers (and people) and centre the “Helicopter Line” (far from it) for a while. They have taught me sacrifice, camaraderie and especially humour. I’m happy to say that we are still friends and do our best, despite young and growing families, to stay in touch. There may come a point in the future when fighting won’t have a place in the game of hockey, but I sincerely hope that the future of hockey includes character individuals like Dennis Bonvie and Brian McGrattan.

~Thanks for reading. I will post another article on an ex-teammate in the near future. All the best in and outside of hockey.

Jeff Ulmer

Hockey DB – Jeff Ulmer

Elite Prospects – Jeff Ulmer

JU


jeffulmer44@gmail.com

10 (More) Tips From Hockey’s Most Traveled Player.

JU

10 (More) Tips From Hockey’s Most Traveled Player.

Having played in every top league in the World and having been coached by over 30 professional coaches along the way, taking personal experiences and conversations with some bright minds in hockey, I’ve decided to write down some good tips for coaches (and players) to help with how hockey has evolved and where it is headed. By keeping some of these tips in mind it will help you as a coach/player to break some old habits and have you/your players think quicker/smarter in important situations. By no means is it a Hockey Bible, but as the years go by and the game has seemed to slow down in my mind, these are some things that have helped me along the way and I hope they can help others.

As I have played my career as a forward, I will have mostly tips for centremen/wingers (especially these 10) but include a few that may benefit defencemen as well. Here is the second instalment of my 10 Tips. 

 

1. Drive The Net:

“Go hard to the net!” Every coach preaches it, and hammers it home. As well they should. The goalie feels the pressure of a forward accelerating towards the net and by accelerating to the crease, it makes it difficult on a defenceman skating backwards to contain you. He has to watch the puck carrier while trying to take away your stick (and body), all while not getting in his goalie’s way or blocking the goalie’s vision of the puck. Tough to do. A good thought to have in your head as you drive to the net is “hard to it, slow through it.” You want to get there quickly but spend as much time in a scoring position as possible. Arrive early and stop? If the puck arrives at that exact time and on your tape? Congrats. 1-0. If not, don’t make yourself an easy target to contain. Subtle movements are best; shift your leg position, push off of the defender, shift your weight on the other foot …anything to keep in slight movement. If you see that you will arrive much too early, either before your teammate will fire the puck to the net or have a chance to pass to you, use the edge of your skate blade to slow your speed, creating some drag to help you slow down your speed (and mind) in order to have a chance to get your stick on the puck or arrive in front of the goalie at the time when he must face the shot. By slowing your speed before you reach the level at the bottom of the circles, you are also less likely to cost your team a goaltender interference penalty or non-goal. By staying in slight constant movement around the opposing net, you won’t have to backcheck from a complete stop with a defender doing his best to keep you there longer while his teammates are off to the races. It’s 2017…everyone has to backcheck and the game moves fast. If you’re stopped, the defenceman also can (and will) beat you up the ice.

 

2. Front of Net Play:

Goalies are big. They practice being able to face shots coming at them through traffic. Defensemen are smart (mostly). They will meet the forward before he is able to make his way in front of their goalie and attempt to clear the area so that the goalie can face an easy shot without traffic. Hopefully you have timed it right and have made it to the front of the net, in front of the goalie, when the shot comes. If you feel like you are standing in front of the net and there should be a stick on you or at least a good-sized crosscheck on its way, it’s probably that the defenceman is waiting until the shot comes before he gives you a shot in the lower back or tomahawks your stick so that you can’t redirect it. A good way to confuse a D-man is to take your bottom hand off of your stick as you jockey for position with him in front of the net. It’s easier to balance yourself and take a few crosschecks, and you can use a wide base as leverage rather than the old-school theory of using your stick in a “tripod” stance. Don’t hold him, but use that arm/outstretched elbow to separate him from you before the shot comes. As the shot comes, get your hand back on your stick and try to tip the puck. This enables you to have a free stick at the most important time, rather than the defenceman either lifting or slapping your stick at the moment the puck is coming. Once it has gone by you (or you tipped it), spin off one way or the other to look for the rebound. A good bet is to spin short-side, as chances are the goalie will want to direct the puck to the closest corner. Also, the defenceman in front of the net will likely want to keep his stick closer to the middle of the ice when the shot comes so that he can clear a rebound to help his goaltender.

 

3. Powerplay:

When a Hall of Famer talks, you listen. Getting the chance to play on the powerplay with a guy like Mark Messier, albeit for a cup of coffee (more like an espresso) was fun. That thought (and undoubtedly more) was probably going through my head as I camped out on the half-wall and surveyed who to pass to. Upon getting back to the bench, He said “never stop moving your feet on the powerplay. If you aren’t moving, you’re making it easy on the penalty killers.” It stuck with me. Shift the box. If you have the puck, you need to be either moving away from your teammate to give him more time when he gets it from you, or you should be creating a better shot opportunity for yourself. Constant movement is very important, but be careful not to look directly at your teammate and then skate towards him before you pass it. He’ll appreciate the extra second he gets with the puck if you are able to shift the box away from him. Any type of deception before you make your play on the power play will result in taking advantage of your man-advantage. Standing still is a good way to kill the penalty for the opposing team, and get an earful as a rookie from a legend. I never did end up scoring a powerplay goal in the NHL, but the advice has served me well in all of my other stops. Thanks “Mess”!

 

4. Goal-Line Stuff Play:

You may only get one chance every few games to come from the corner, along the goal line, and try for the “stuff play” or a deke skating directly across the goal line. Again here, you want to make your play to the net as fast as possible, but then spend as much time in the scoring area as possible. You’ll need good protection on your hands and wrists as you can bet at least one good-sized tomahawk across your hands or stick is coming as well. Unless you see a gaping hole on the short-side and are confident that you won’t need a second chance, the best play to make is to shoot soft on the far pad for your own rebound. A goalie will have a difficult time controlling the rebound of a soft shot from that close and you will be able to judge where the puck will bounce off his pad much easier. Also the defenceman won’t know that you aren’t going to deke, making you the only person in the arena looking for the soft puck rebound off of the pad. Be wary of the goalie’s stick being on the ice as he tries to block you from gaining the ice in front of him by going “paddle-down“, meaning a small hop as you fire the puck softly on the far pad may be needed so you don’t fall on your face. You may get a few whacks at the puck, and by shooting at the far pad rather than the close pad, your rebound will stay in the slot (unless you have scored or he has controlled the rebound) so that your approaching linemates may also get a chance at it. Players like Ryan Smyth made a career out of being able to get 2-3 whacks at their own rebounds and cash in “ugly goals” around the net. It takes skill and a willingness to take a slash or three while you are there, but a goal is a goal. Increase your odds.

 

5. Stick-Handling:

One of the very basic principles of hockey is learning to stickhandle effectively. The ability to stickhandle quickly while moving slowly gives you much more time. It is a skill than can be practiced with a puck on the ice or even a ball on the ground. How does Patrick Kane always seem to have so much time when he comes down the right wing (his off-wing) on a 2 on 1? He’s naturally great at timing his shot or pass to match the speed of the oncoming backchecker or the lunge of the defender, but moreso it’s the quick hands and small little leg lifts he does while he is slowing his speed (watch his shoot-out highlights and you will see it there as well). The defender and goalie are unable to read what he is about to do because of the speed of his hands and misdirection with his feet. “Is he shooting?” The leg lifts give the indication of a shot on the way, but most times it’s just to get the defenceman to lunge his stick in the shot lane so that he can pass. If the defenceman doesn’t bite on the subtle leg lifts then he’s that much closer to shoot to score or lay it off of the far pad for Artemi Panarin to knock home the rebound. The ability to slowly get closer to the net with quick stickhandling allows a teammate to turn into a shooting position or for you to survey the best place to shoot and “freeze” the goalie. You are able to take a longer look when deciding whether it’s best to shoot to score, pass it to a teammate or shoot for a rebound, while also allowing your trailing forwards a chance to catch up into the play. Practice it to become dangerous.

 

6. Offence From Defensive Zone Routes:

Connor McDavid is a rare species. I won’t say that he could get more scoring chances from beginning his shift in the defensive zone or off-side dots in his own end than he would in the offensive zone, but it’s not a crazy stretch. Any more room to maneuver is better for McDavid, increasing his odds against the defenders. The way that he is able to change gears and separate himself from defenders is unmatched and a huge advantage. His ability to win a face-off or knock a turned-over puck back to his defenceman and pick up speed while his D-men exchange the puck and look to pass to him is what makes him so special. His quick pivot upon his turn means that once he gets a pass from a defender with speed, none of his wingers can keep up to him, but by him backing up the opposing defencemen with his speed, he is able to stop and turn at any point (preferably the hash-mark level in the offensive zone). The point at which a defenceman stops to re-gap gives him a second or two to look and make a play to his approaching wingers. If a defenceman decides to step up on him and not let him gain the blue line, a soft chip to himself works the same, as the defender would be forced to take an interference penalty if McDavid has timed his “self-dump” early enough. Everyone has to skate as hard as they can just to attempt to stay in the same zone as him already, and when he stops up, the defensive team has to turn and identify their man in coverage. Any hesitation and it’s an offensive scoring chance. Playing centre gives you the ability to not have to contend with the boards while making your pivot to pick up speed, but wingers can help themselves by starting a rush lower in the defensive zone. If you are playing up high near the opposing defenceman when the puck turns over, chances are you will not be able to pick up a lot of speed to beat that defensemen to the net or be first on the puck should a dump-in occur. If you can learn to stay in the shooting lane while covering your opposing defenceman, but begin your route lower in the zone, this will give you the opportunity to create more speed and separation. Not having to start from a complete stop, but rather always keeping a subtle movement and then digging into the ice hard to begin your acceleration once the puck goes the other way will give you the extra “jump” to join a rush. Having the wingers cross in the neutral zone can also work to pick up some speed, but this may bring defenders closer to your centre, or teammate, that has the puck, creating confusion and unwanted traffic as he looks to make a decision with the puck.

 

7. The Shot-Pass:

Hockey has changed. We now see teams creating plays to get the puck on net that we haven’t seen in the past. Due to most players being more than willing to block a slapshot, teams are having to think of ways to get the puck to the net through as many as 6 or 7 bodies in or around the shot lane. Most teams now have a designated “bumper-area” player on the powerplay that will stand in the slot (creating a high screen as well) to be a release-valve for his teammates. His job is to be the eyes of each player should they have to face the boards to fish out a puck and once he gets a pass from them, to relay it to one of the other quadrants to his teammate, or shoot it himself if he has enough space. An even bigger job for this player is now to be a “shot-pass” option. By placing his stick just outside of the shot lane, he creates a target for his teammates to shoot at, with the intention of him redirecting the shot on goal. The slight amount of speed that a “high-tip” takes off of a shot disrupts the goalie’s timing as well. With a big wind-up or one-timer the goalie is set up to take a 90-100 mph shot. When the defencemen or half-wall forward actually shoots it at his “high-tip-option’s” stick for a shot-pass the goalie now has to deal with a 60-70 mph changeup. Just by the “bumper” area or net-front forward placing his stick on the ice outside of the shot lane, this now puts that thought in the mind of the goalie and defending team, giving the powerplay, or even-strength team in the offensive zone, another option. If you find yourself as the player in this spot on the powerplay, you want to be higher rather than lower (at or above the hash-marks) in order to be between the defencemen and forwards killing the penalty and try to have your stick blade almost in line with the far post, depending on which way you shoot (it may mean presenting the backhand of your stick blade). For an example, watch the Flyers’ powerplay and see the benefit of having both Brayden Schenn in the high slot and Wayne Simmonds around the net. Simmonds has a knack for freeing up his stick while also possessing a strong frame to play in front of the goalie and battle a defenceman in front of the net ,while Schenn is able to let Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere or Jakub Voracek see his stick blade in the high slot and aim for it. A shot-pass of off Schenn’s stick comes at the goalie slightly slower, giving Simmonds and the off-side player (Voracek or Giroux depending on who made the initial shot) a chance to get to the net in time for the rebound. A very beneficial new powerplay, or even-strength strategy. It takes practice but it is very effective and tough to defend.

 

8. 3rd Man High:

Always keep your 3rd man high? It depends. I’ve seen teams place a forward as far as up in-between the two defencemen to confuse the other team, or the coach was possibly just that concerned about his forwards’ ability to backcheck. You want to be a safety valve for sure, but low enough that you can be an outlet to pass to and so that your shot is a scoring chance should it come to you. Two versus two with the opposing centre likely playing between you and the puck isn’t great odds to create an offensive zone scoring chance. The high forward in the offensive zone can be as low as possible with the thought that he has to be able to beat or at least match the speed of the forward he has covering him to a loose puck. Any change in clear possession should see him back out to at least above the hash marks, nearing the top of the circles. Just under the hash-marks should be a high enough point to stay as a 3rd man high, as the defenceman are hopefully staggered (not on the exact same level) and also moving slightly. As a high forward, the play is in front of you. You should be able to swoop in and out, keeping some speed and making the player defending you move and remain occupied so that he can’t just leave you and help his defencemen gang up on your teammates. The high forward also has to be able to keep enough speed to cover for a pinching defenceman. If you see a puck being moved up the wall and your D-man makes his way in, you’re now moving to react to a puck that may be chipped behind him, so keeping some speed is important. A system in which I like to go by with linemates is that when carrying the puck up the wall on a cycle, once the puck carrier gets to the top of the hashmarks, he is now the high forward. He can expect that his linemate, who was initially the high man, will be moving to the far post, so that if he doesn’t have a direct shot on the net, he can rim the puck around behind the net and then continue into the slot as the high forward. This creates offence, constant movement and a stern warning for the puck carrier along the wall to “make sure this puck either gets to the net, to my defenceman for a shot, or it ends up behind the net with enough speed to be a firm pass off of the far post. Don’t turn it over…I’m now our high forward.”  If all 3 forwards are on the same page in a cycle formation it can cause mayhem for opponents. If your top forward is hesitant, you will lose out on a chance to keep possession. You may not score each time, but tiring out defenders that have to chase you for a few long shifts in their own zone takes its toll over 60 minutes of a hockey game.

 

9. High Flip Pass:

Being a winger isn’t all that difficult. Stay on your side, for the most part, chip it in and chip it out (while trying to keep possession). Getting a well-timed breakout pass from either the defenceman or the centre is a bonus and it’s always nice to be able to come into the offensive zone wide and converge on the net for a scoring chance. There are also some points to the job that aren’t glamorous. Getting that half-speed rimmed pass from your defenceman and knowing that there is an opposing defenceman licking his chops to pinch down the wall and hit you, or getting a slow, wobbly pass somewhere in the vicinity of your stick and looking up to find everyone out of the zone already… This last one, however, is the perfect chance to use a flip pass. Unless you think you can still make a hard pass that won’t be a “suicide pass” for your linemates, a high flip is an effective choice. Imagine playing volleyball and going up for a spike. Now take away the net and put skates, sticks and pads on the players and they are allowed to hit you when you jump up to spike the ball. Still going up for the spike? Most defencemen will continue to back off and let the high flip fall unless it is right into their glove, rather than risk taking the hit or missing the puck completely. Even worse for the defenders is when the puck hits the ice, as who knows where it will bounce. Instead of putting your linemates at risk of looking for a pass that’s coming from directly behind them, you may cause them to lose speed, sure, but now any odd bounce can lead to an odd-man rush and it has given you a chance to catch up. Not a bad idea. Use the toe of your stick and flip it high so that it lands around the centre ice dot or just beyond, hopefully avoiding a hanging scoreboard. No need to risk a 2 minute minor for delay of game. Also, try your best to miss your opponent’s teeth….I’ve definitely seen that happen a few times.

 

10. Practice Habits:

Try your hardest, bear down on every pass, 110% effort 100% of the time, etc. We’ve all heard those habits (and have read the motivational posters) to live/play by. “You play how you practice.” Also true. So when your coach tells you “We’re starting with the horseshoe drill” and it’s possibly the ten-thousandth time that you’ve skated 200 feet to catch one pass and then another 200 to take one shot, work on something constructive on your own as well during the drill. Practice taking a peak over your shoulder before you receive the pass, hoping that you may mimic that in a game and it buys you an extra second of hesitation or saves you from a sprained shoulder courtesy of the oncoming defenceman. If you’re doing a 2 on 1 drill in practice and you are the puck carrier, work on “fast hands”, shooting off of the far pad for an easy rebound for your teammate, or work on getting as close to the middle of the ice when you take your shot, to improve your angle. If you are driving to the net in a drill, see if you can keep your speed but spend an extra second or two around the net before taking off to get back in line, getting into the habits of spending as much time in the scoring zone as possible while not coming to a complete stop. If the drill calls for a long pass, try making it a tight saucer pass a few times rather than along the ice each time, as you will need to alter the trajectory of your passes in every game. Finally, talk with your linemates and help teammates by being their eyes out there when they may not have a chance to glance up to read the play. I love getting a “heads up” or “you’ve got time” pointer from a linemate or even someone on the bench and rarely do I come home after a game without feeling as if I sang at a concert, as I can’t help but stand on the bench and try to help give a teammate an extra second on the ice. This starts in practice, and teammates and coaches notice the players that are vocal, trying to help each other out. Use the ice-time that’s allotted for your team for practice. Most coaches (if they are smart) will end a practice 10 minutes or so before the zamboni is due to come on, leaving you with a chance to work on some skills. If you’re exhausted when practice ends? Find the energy to shoot a few pucks when you feel worn out or pass a few to someone that wants to shoot some pucks. It’s always a bonus to know where your teammate’s favourite position between his feet to receive a one-timer pass is, as all are slightly different. Chances are the biggest goal you ever score will be late in the game when your mind is telling you you’re exhausted. Trick it into knowing that you always have a little bit left in the tank.

 

~Thanks for reading. All the best in and outside of hockey.

Jeff Ulmer

Hockey DB – Jeff Ulmer

Elite Prospects – Jeff Ulmer

JU


jeffulmer44@gmail.com

Teammates

Jeff Ulmer

18 years (so far). Hundreds of former teammates. All different personalities. Some are funny, some are serious. Some are quirky, others are as straight as an arrow. Some have left a permanent impression on me. I will feature a few ex-teammates in a short package of stories of past experiences that I hope will help others to see the different personalities and characters that I, and most certainly others, have come across through the game of hockey. Throughout the game of hockey, there are some people that once having met them, you will not forget them. There will be a few from North America and a few from playing overseas. This is the first instalment. Enjoy. 

 

Adam Graves

I met Adam Graves as a baby-faced rookie coming to Training Camp with the New York Rangers in the fall of 2001. I had finished my season with the Canadian National Team (in the final season that there was an actual team) and joined the Houston Aeros in the last year of the IHL for the stretch drive and playoffs the year before. I played well enough throughout my time there that Ron Low (Houston’s coach) decided that when he was named the head coach of the New York Rangers the next season, they should take a chance on me. I signed a two-year contract as a free agent and I showed up to training camp in Vermont the following season.

I had a great training camp. I came to camp in shape, aced my bike and fitness tests and even scored twice in the final “blue and white” scrimmage on the last day. I played in 7 of the 9 exhibition games (I had to miss one with a deep cut on my hand as I lost a glove and Mike York’s skate nearly cut the tendon in the back of my outer right hand) but was sent down on the last day as a last cut. The coaches were impressed and I left disheartened but knew that I had given it my best and if I did well in Hartford of the AHL I would be back. A few of the veterans gave me some congratulations on a good camp and wished me well, one of whom was Adam Graves.

3 plus months of the season have gone by in Hartford. I have played fairly well, and the first 40 games have gone quickly. I pay attention to the Rangers and watch the games when I can, knowing that an injury or coach’s decision could mean I get a phone call. The team Super Bowl party goes as planned…lots of snacks, even more beer, and even some wrestling matches. I decide it’s a good idea to try to wrestle Chris “Animal” Kenady. Nursing a hangover and a stiff neck made the Monday road trip after practice all the way to Norfolk, Virginia the next day feel even longer. About halfway through the trip I got a tap on the shoulder saying “Paddock wants to talk to you at the front of the bus.” I make my way up to the front of the bus and our head coach John Paddock says “You got called up. You will play against the Canadiens tomorrow night in New York.

Nervous. Scared. Intimidated. Neck feeling better (thankfully). I enter Madison Square Garden like any 23 year old from Saskatchewan would, through the wrong door. Luckily one of the Rangers sees me and to my surprise, recognizes me. “Hey Jeff, congratulations on getting the call-up.” All I can think is, “Adam Graves remembers my name??” I walk into the elevator for the 5-floor ride to ice level with Adam and he says “give me your hockey bag, I’ll help you.” I had a small personal bag and my sticks so he figured he would take the heaviest bag for the rookie. I’m not sure if it was his 15th year in the NHL, or thereabouts, but my first morning of being an NHLer started that way. Little did I know I would start the game on the right wing with Adam Graves and Mark Messier that night. Standing on the blue line during the singing of the anthems, staring at the Montreal Canadiens on the opposite blue line, next to those two in Madison Square Garden is a moment I won’t forget.

Playing in New York means dealing with New York traffic. The players that lived outside of Midtown Manhattan would bring a personal bag in the morning of the home games and then check into the hotel across the street from MSG, where they would have lunch after pre-game skate and then catch a few hours of sleep before donning a suit to walk across the street to the game. My roommate for most of the home games in which I spent with the Rangers (likely only 12 of the 21 that I played in) was Adam Graves.

Each and every hockey player has different routines on a game day. Whether it’s watch a few hours of TV and sleep for 30 minutes or read for 30 minutes and sleep for 2-3 hours, we are all unique. I would have been 100% content doing whatever it was that didn’t disturb my veteran roommate. Instead, Adam would hand me the remote and say “go ahead and watch TV or do whatever you would normally do, I’ll just watch what you decide to watch and then doze off.” Of course as soon as I sensed he would be ready to fall asleep I would switch off the TV…but not the typical veteran telling the rookie what schedule the room would be on.

The walk to the dressing room through Madison Square Garden is a unique one. The size of the arena and the large hallways, bright lights and people spilling out onto the street from Penn Station all add to the atmosphere and grandeur surrounding MSG. Adam had a familiar route, and a few times I would tag along and walk with him. To my surprise (not now, but at the time) he would say hello and smile to each of the working staff that he saw at the arena that day. A few fans that knew his route would catch up to him to wish him luck and say hi. Some he would greet them by name and ask how their day was going. He didn’t have large headphones on while walking past them as a 50-goal NHL star in his own World, so focused on his upcoming game. For some, that is acceptable and their prerogative. Rather, he took the time to make eye contact and give a genuine greeting to those he passed, whether it be a ticket taker, a super-fan or a hallway sweeper. Did he have to? No. Did he do it because he knew that someone would see him and write about it? Definitely not.

Later in the season my parents flew into New York to see us play a few home games. During their weekend in New York, the team had an event that they were lucky enough to attend. They were able to meet the other players on the Rangers and also interact with some of the Ranger greats from the earlier eras, something that my Dad really enjoyed. As we were leaving the event, my parents said that they met a lot of great guys. One thing I remember them saying was that they had a chance to speak with Adam Graves. He wasn’t in a rush and had, in fact, come up to them to introduce himself. He made sure to tell them how proud they should be of their son and to welcome them to New York. All of this for a rookie who, if a few breaks hadn’t gone my way, likely would have never set foot in MSG.

Adam may or may not remember playing a few games with me, as his career was a great one filled with top achievements. I know that his #9 hangs in the rafters of Madison Square Garden, as well it should. I also know that although he was an excellent hockey player, tough and skilled, he is a better person. He routinely played the game “the right way”, but I couldn’t say that I distinctly remember him for his on-ice heroics. But these few short stories that I have shared as examples of his character have stayed in the back of my mind since that first morning of being an NHLer in January of 2001 and I have tried to emulate those things, still now, in my 18th season of professional hockey in 2017.

I’d like to someday thank Adam in person, but I know he would rather I leave a mark on other young players over my career. I hope that I have, if even in a small way, and will continue to try to do so. We can be hockey players as long as our bodies allow us to do so, but we are people our whole lives.

 

~Thanks for reading. I will post another article on an ex-teammate in the near future. All the best in and outside of hockey.

Jeff Ulmer

Hockey DB – Jeff Ulmer

Elite Prospects – Jeff Ulmer

JU


jeffulmer44@gmail.com

10 Tips From Hockey’s Most Traveled Player.

JU Hockey

10 Tips From Hockey’s Most Traveled Player. 

Having played in every top league in the World and having been coached by over 30 professional coaches along the way, taking personal experiences and conversations with some bright minds in hockey, I’ve decided to write down some good tips for coaches (and players) to help with how hockey has evolved and where it is headed. By keeping some of these tips in mind it will help you as a coach/player to break some old habits and have you/your players think quicker/smarter in important situations. By no means is it a Hockey Bible, but as the years go by and the game slows down a bit in my mind, these are some things that have helped me along the way and I hope they can help others.

As I have played my career as a forward, I will have mostly tips for centremen/wingers but include a few for defensemen as well. Here is the first instalment of my 10 Tips.

1. Face-offs:

Rarely does a linesman or referee drop the puck correctly. For the most part as a centre, you can eliminate the half of the face-off furthest from the referee. Concentrate on your footing being strong, your bottom hand low and strong and getting the jump on your opponent. Watch the bottom of the referee’s hand (instead of the puck) and time your swipe from there. His wrist will twitch as he rises it in the dropping motion. Almost all centres are stronger on their backhand, including myself, so I try to win both sides on my backhand. (A tip passed on from Adam Oates at one point that I had heard and stuck with me). On your forehand side you may need to ask the linesman (politely) to move his foot, if he can, so your foot closest to him has enough leverage to support your weight on the drop.

2. Board-Play: 

As a winger, or a centre playing behind the net in the defensive/offensive zone, or even a defenceman trying to shield the puck from a forechecking forward, it is important to be far enough from the boards that you can still turn either way. Obviously you have to be aware of who is coming to hit you or take the puck from you, but creating space between yourself and the boards allows you to protect the puck more efficiently. A good example is when a defenceman rims the puck behind the opposing net to a forward. Catching the puck with one hand while using your other arm to ward off the defenceman while staying off of the wall enables you to gain an extra second to look where teammates or opponents are and decide your play. Sidney Crosby is the best example of this. Being slightly bow-legged and being able to turn his skates almost 90 degrees while remaining at nearly full speed and low to the ice also makes him almost impossible (unfair) to defend. Stick length (forwards usually will have slightly shorter sticks) enables forwards to do this more effectively as they are able to stickhandle in front of themselves facing the boards, or protect the puck with their stick not reaching outside of the width of their leg-span. (A stick-length tip that Theo Fleury mentioned to me that has stuck with me for 17 years). One definite exception to the stick-length rule is Mats Zuccarello. I had the chance to play with him in Sweden and still have no idea how he is able to control his stick so well with it being taller than he is…Having a wide base will obviously make you more difficult to knock off the puck, so as the puck is coming around the wall, or upon receiving a pass, create a wide base to make yourself difficult to push off of the puck. If you are against the boards with your feet close together, you are an easy target. On the same team that had Zuccarello (and Victor Hedman) in Sweden, playing 3 on 3 against Peter Forsberg (he joined us in a comeback attempt for a month or so) made me appreciate having a lower base (Forsberg was built like a bull) and made me cut a bit off of the length off of my stick. He helped with advice to use as short of a stick that I could still shoot as hard with, and anything he said I was eager to try. Truly a great guy and an unbelievable talent. Even on one foot in his comeback attempt.

3. Odd-Man Rushes:

As a forward, my eyes light up on a 2 on 1 or even sometimes on a clear 3 on 2. A defenceman that stays just outside the line of the post (slightly farther away from the puck carrier) and doesn’t allow a pass while sliding with his stick extended once he is at the hash-marks has played the 2 on 1 rush effectively. He has eliminated “beware of the back-door pass” from the goalie’s mind and allowed him to focus solely on the shooter. However, most odd-man rushes aren’t from a stopped position as they are in practice and most defenceman aren’t Nicklas Lidstrom. The puck carrier should be wary of the defenceman’s stick and time their pass or shot with the point at which he knows the defenceman will make his lunge for the puck. Being able to get as close to the middle of the ice as possible is a huge factor. This brings “backhand deke” into the goalie’s head as well as improving the odds to score on a shot without the pass. Most younger players will not match their speed with the backchecker (very important so as not to make it easy for the defenceman) and will skate themselves into a corner to just get a shot on goal. “Get to the middle” is a good thought to have on a 2 on 1, and if that brings the defenceman’s stick to you earlier, then make an early pass. Most goalies won’t be perfectly set to face the shooter on a hard, early pass.

4. Puck Receiving:

How you receive a pass, unless it’s into an open net without a defender nearby, will be the difference between getting a quality shot away or having it blocked. On an odd-man rush it is beneficial to be on your shooting foot (my right foot as I am a right-shooter) when you receive the pass. This is more-so for players not playing their off-wings. By receiving a puck while your weight is on your shooting foot eliminates the split-second of having to shift your weight to get enough velocity on the shot to score. If on a rush on your off-wing, the ability to one-time the puck is even better. Timing your turn into a one-timer position by noting the speed of the backchecker is crucial. Hockey in 2017 is so fast and players switch sides so much now, so learning a quick release from both sides is important. It used to be that wingers would prefer to play their off-wing side because they wanted the one-timer upon zone entry, but in my experience it is easier defensively on your strong-side wing and 50% of the time I cross the ice in the neutral zone anyways. Being prepared to receive a pass and get it away as fast as possible on the right foot is something that no coaches teach, but shot timing is as important as shot location.

5. One-Timing:

Goalie equipment is huge. Goalies are big and athletic. To score on a slapshot from anywhere outside the top of the circles without a teammate standing in front of the goalie is tough to do. The ability to one-time a pass gives the shooter an edge by getting the shot off sooner and harder. Using a stiffer stick (most forwards use about an 85 flex while defenceman are generally a bit stiffer, up to 110 on a standard Easton stick) helps with a one-timer’s velocity, but one-timing with a wristshot is done easier with a whippier flex. It’s personal preference and a player just has to experiment. A good thought for a shooter is to “get through quickly”, meaning make your weight transfer early and have your weight on the front side even before you shoot. This increases leverage and allows you to get the most velocity. I like to favour the toe of my blade rather than the heel upon contact and (as in golf with the grass) hit the ice first, before the puck. The ability to shoot while looking at the target is tough to do, so if you have a mental snapshot of where the players were in front of the net as the pass came, you may want to shoot for a teammate’s stick blade or aim for the goalie’s pad at the side where your teammates were to create a rebound opportunity for them. If on the powerplay, or from a spot that you are trying to score, I like to judge where I will shoot with the speed of the pass. If it is a hard pass I will shoot short-side and if it is a softer pass I will shoot back to the side that the pass came from. This comes from experience in knowing that most goalies are able to track a softer pass much easier, and when playing at a high level they are able to guess where players will tend to shoot. If I am closer to the net and trying to score, then it’s just picking a corner and letting it rip. “Get through early” and hope it hits the water bottle up in the air that was resting in the top shelf…

6. Shrink The Zone: 

Playing in North America versus playing on a European or Olympic-sized ice surface is a huge difference. In the NHL, players can step off of the half-wall on the powerplay, take two strides and create a scoring opportunity. In Europe, due to the extra width of the ice surface, that is an easy save for the goalie, a whistle and probably a line change. Not ideal when on the powerplay. By playing mostly defence on a powerplay, I have been able to see a huge difference also in a shot from the blue line versus a shot from closer to the top of the circles. In North America a shot from the blue line with a few bodies sprinkled around the net can create a scoring chance or a direct goal. In European hockey, the player either has to one-time a pass or do his best to shrink the zone and shoot from closer in. Rarely goals are scored from above the face-off dots, along the boards. It’s just too far from the net. Those positions are for defenceman to give the forwards a passing outlet or for a defenceman to look for a “shot-pass”, meaning shooting with the intention of a forward redirecting the puck to the net. On the powerplay, it is crucial for a shooter at the top of the zone to get as close to the middle (or at least in line with the face-off dot at which side he is on) and inch as close to the top of the circles as possible without being close enough to the penalty killer that his stick will be in the shooting radius. By being closer to the middle, you bring more traffic that the goalie has to deal with. Unless you’re Alex Ovechkin and everyone knows your spot on the other side of the dot and you can score anyway… His curve is built for a one-timer, with the toe helping him get the puck up quickly. Not so much for passing, but with a shot like that, I think the Capitals would rather him shoot. In a conversation with Peter Bondra (at an NHL Alumni event), he mentioned that Ovie just has a knack for one-timing any pass and the Caps’ power play is set up perfectly with the correct-shooting personnel. Their goal is to create a shot within the first 10 seconds and then set up from there. A good idea. Shrinking the zone is not as important in the NHL but for European hockey it is key.

7. Possession Dumps: 

Dump it in!” Coaches (especially North Americans) love to preach it. It got me benched when playing in Russia…but a dump-in for possession is a very effective play. Teaching players to keep the puck away from the opposing goalie, or at least make him skate into a corner to get it (no Trapezoid rule in Europe) is a great way to keep possession. A hard rim on the glass will eventually come to your winger but even better is a cross corner dump to his forehand or a soft dump to a centre, or even yourself, with speed. Watching the Sedin brothers mastery at cycles and even dump-ins is an example. Rarely will they ever have to give up possession, unless it’s after a shot attempt. Always knowing which way your teammates shoot and angling your dump-ins and cycles in the offensive (or defensive) zone to be received on the forehand is a tough but important part of hockey. Daniel and Henrik are obviously very skilled and experienced, but also their calmness with the puck is evident. Being able to retrieve a teammate’s dump-in or even your own dump-in can result in the difference between a few minutes of zone time in your team’s end or the opponent’s. Possibly just as important as a good dump-in is a well-timed dump-in. Knowing when your teammates are about to hit the blue line at full speed and keeping the play onside is important. This comes with experience, but having the inner clock in your head going and knowing when a teammate will arrive at either the blue line or to retrieve your dump-in, as well as the “hockey-moxie” to place a dump on his forehand is important.

8. Scoring Chances:

Hockey has changed. My favourite spots to shoot have had to change with it. Gone are the days of the hard-shooting right-handed winger scoring low on the blocker side from down the wing, like Rick Vaive (a great guy to listen to talk about goal scoring) or Mike Gartner. Butterfly goalies, and athletic butterfly goalies, that study the opposing shooters’ habits have become the norm. To be a goal scorer you have to think like a goalie and alter your shots accordingly. I used to never shoot high on the blocker side. Now, almost half of my shots are probably directed there and I have had success with it. Short-side has become the best place to shoot. Goalie equipment is just too big and the goalie’s legs/pads are too long to hit the far side with regularity. If it’s open I will shoot there, or if I am too far out to score and have a teammate driving the net for a rebound, but generally I am shooting where the goalie is. If he thinks I will shoot there, then I’m not about to make a goalie look brilliant. Most goalies have their weight placed on the short side, against the post. So as he flinches for a shot, he is usually thinking the shooter will shoot for the open side and as he reaches his mammoth equipment over, it has to be absolutely labeled to score a goal. More and more we are seeing the top snipers score on the short-side…check out Patrick Laine’s highlights from this NHL season. For a left-handed example it’s Evgeny Malkin.

9. Change The Angle:

Ever wonder why most players that shoot in a shoot-out are right-handed? Most goalies catch with their left hand, thus giving us right-handers an advantage in the ability to “change the angle” of a goalie to the blocker side. Lefties also can do it effectively and then shoot blocker side but it is just so much easier as a right-handed player. A goalie’s glove-hand will move up faster than his blocker-hand (try it yourself in the air). Changing the shooting angle means pulling the toe of your blade in while in your shooting motion, towards yourself and firing a snapshot. It makes the goalie readjust, as well as a defender’s stick miss your stick in its shooting motion on his attempt to block the shot, giving you a slight advantage, which may be the difference. It is a perfect play on a 1 on 1 on a defender and also on a breakaway or shoot-out attempt. By pulling the toe of your stick in you have given yourself a fraction more to shoot at on the blocker side that the goalie hadn’t factored in. Ovechkin, Laine, James Neal and Mike Cammalleri are a few examples of who does this effectively. Add in a short stick and the ability to shoot from the span between his legs without a defender being able to poke the puck away and you can see why smaller players like Cammalleri score so many goals. Joe Sakic was probably the best at changing the angle and shooting from between his feet with a quick release, before Ovechkin and the others. This shooting motion can easily be taught and is the most effective shot for a quick release that is harder than an ordinary wrist shot.

10. Constant Movement:

When playing on the wing, there is nothing worse than having to cover a mobile defenceman in the defensive zone that never stops moving. You can have the best shot in the league but if you stand on the blue line and stare at the puck, you make it easy on the winger that is covering you. Always being on your edges, giving you the bounce in your step to go either way, and even small movements will allow you to shoot harder, catch a pass on either side of you and jump down into the play or across the blue line. The defenceman that can be mobile and confuse the winger by bringing him up farther to the blue line is giving his forwards more room to create offence lower in the offensive zone as well. Hockey in 2017 sees the short-side winger sink into the slot to help out more on defence. If he does this then have the defenceman be ready to one-time a puck, shrink the zone and even switch sides with his partner. Truly a winger’s nightmare.

~Thanks for reading. I will post another 10 tips to think about in the near future. All the best in and outside of hockey.

Jeff Ulmer

Hockey DB – Jeff Ulmer

Elite Prospects – Jeff Ulmer

JU


jeffulmer44@gmail.com