Even in the heat of an NHL game, no matter the period or score, T.J. Oshie typically reacts the same way if a teammate absolutely eats it on the ice with no one else around. First, the Washington Capitals winger laughs from the bench. Falling down is hockey’s most humbling error, and therefore its funniest when committed by supposedly professional skaters. “Then,” says Oshie, “you turn to the assistant coach and go, ‘Make sure you clip that.’”
No need to ask. The evidence is always saved. Often it returns during future film sessions for the defending Stanley Cup champs, tacked onto the end like a post-credit blooper, absent only some banana peel sound effects. Other times it is stashed away for a special occasion, such as the tire-blower’s birthday. And you can bet that it will come up in the team text chain, whether looped via GIF or simply referenced through a torrent of those laughing-crying emojis. “And if it doesn’t, I make sure I get a clip and send it, to show the boys how hard I fell,” Oshie says.
See, kids? Everyone crashes. Or spills. Or stumbles and tumbles, toe-picks and trips. “I fall all the time,” shrugs Connor McDavid, none other than the world’s best player. From quiet backyard ponds to expertly manicured arenas, the game still calls for razor blades on frozen water. Ice is the great equalizer, in other words. Then again, feeling self-conscious among the holiday crowd at Rockefeller Center is miles apart from catching a rut in front of 20,000 fans—and two benches.
“Swear word,” says Ducks defenseman Josh Manson, when asked for his initial thoughts upon going head-over-hockey skates. “I’m like, ‘Oh, that sucks. Okay, who else saw it?’ Then, ‘Okay, someone else saw it, who’s the first to say something embarrassing or make fun of me?’”
“First thing’s first, own it,” Nashville center Ryan Johansen says. “And you laugh at yourself. Then you look at your boys and laugh harder, because they’re laughing at you.”
What is the wider sports world equivalent? Airballing a free throw? Whiffing on a tee shot? Airmailing a routine grounder into the fourth row? Most NHL players were skating before they entered kindergarten. It is the most fundamental element yet impossible to master, not to mention dependent on everything from humidity to the effectiveness of the ice crew’s shovels. “It’s something that we’ve all been doing for a long, long time,” says Canucks forward Tyler Motte, musing on the subject after a recent morning skate, at which he did not fall. “During the game, guys cut you a little bit more slack. Unless it’s over a line with no one around you.
“The big one, I think, is in warmups.”
Ah, yes. Warmups. Those dizzying 17 (or so) minutes offer a hailstorm of hazards. Stay vigilant for loose pucks. Try not to smash anyone else. As a rookie in ‘06-07, Calgary goalie Mike Smith remembers “flying across freshly scraped ice on my belly with everyone watching,” so pumped up for an NHL opportunity that he promptly toe-picked. “They’re not the high points of your career, obviously,” Smith says. “But there are so many variables that go on with skating in general. You can always blame your skates or the trainers or something like that.”
These chirps are never serious—few people work harder than NHL equipment managers—but support staffers make for easy … well … fall guys. “If you see someone fall, it’s almost a guarantee that someone goes, ‘Cass, are you sharpening the skates today?’” says Rangers forward Chris Kreider, referring to equipment manager Acacio Marques. “It’s fun, as long as no one gets hurt.”
Of course, hockey has never been faster. And with speed comes the danger of falling—or worse. Two seasons ago, Panthers forward Nick Bjugstad tried to turn around the net, crashed instead, and suffered a broken wrist. Last December, Canucks center Bo Horvat lost his balance against the wall, caught an edge, and missed six weeks with a fractured right ankle. “But yeah, you can laugh about it now, because it was such a stupid injury,” Horvat says. “There’s so many dips and turns in the game that guys hit ruts and it’s inevitable. Nothing that guys can do to control it.”
And so, unless the spill results in a trip to the emergency room or a crooked number on the scoreboard, they laugh like the rest of us. One YouTube video treats viewers to a six-minute montage of broken skates, blown edges and helpless players crawling back toward the bench on all fours. Several others feature compilations of the best goals scored while falling down. Several years ago, SportsCenter concluded an episode with its selection of the “Top 10 In-Game Falls,” capped off by Devin Setoguchi toppling down on a shootout attempt (atop this story).
Everyone has a story. Dallas blueliner John Klingberg still receives ribbing about the time he was skating backwards for a puck and rammed into the goalpost. Rangers winger Mats Zuccarello still jokes about tripping during a goal celebration and faceplanting into a teammate’s backside. Kings forward Tyler Toffoli remembers nosediving against Arizona last season.
“Literally it felt like the whole building stopped as I was sliding halfway through the zone,” Toffoli says. “It’s good because we have other guys on our team like [Dustin Brown], [Jake Muzzin] and Dion [Phaneuf] who are known for a couple toe-picks more than once in a while, so they took the pressure off. One of them probably fell later that game.”
For his part, Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin doesn’t care about embarrassing himself in front of fans. But he particularly fears tripping on the right side of the Hurricanes defensive zone, during the first and third periods of home games. Why? “It’s right in front of where my wife sits,” Slavin says. “Every time I fall, she looks at me and she’ll just laugh at me.”
Which brings us to Scott Hartnell. Or, as former Nashville coach Barry Trotz once dubbed him, Bull Hartnell. (Hockey rinks substituted for china shops.) Now recently retired after nearly 1,250 NHL games, Hartnell was an especially fearless but reckless skater back then, always dishing out hits and mucking around the corners, hacking and whacking near the net … and consequently falling down. Simply put, he is an expert on the subject.
"Sometimes you just fall down, tripping over your own feet, or trying to get going fast," Hartnell says. "Sometimes ice is a factor. A lot of times you fall down just battling in the corner. Sometimes it’s a toe-pick. Sometimes somebody does trip you. There’s so many different ways to do it, but you’ve got to be graceful doing it. I think I’ve had a couple really bad ones. I’m pretty sure you could find them on YouTube.”
Several years later, Hartnell was playing in Philadelphia when he noticed a fan always holding the same sign during warmups, displaying the slogan HARTNELL DOWN and a three-digit number that increased each game. After dispatching a team trainer to play detective, Hartnell discovered that the fan was counting his tumbles. Being a self-aware hockey player, Hartnell laughed.
Next thing he knew, Hartnell was selling HARTNELL DOWN T-shirts through his foundation of the same name, organizing golf tournaments, writing a children’s book, and accompanying busloads of underprivileged youths from Philadelphia and Columbus to summer hockey camp in Minnesota. Along the way, Hartnell offers these kids some advice: If they get knocked down, no matter whether it’s in the classroom or at the rink, they should stand up, dust themselves off, and try harder next time.
Of course, Hartnell says, “There’s nothing wrong with ending up on your tooshie when you score a goal. Those are always nice ones.”