Hockey is the fastest team sport in the world and, to me, the most difficult of all games to play and watch. Performing on skates, the player must move with his head up at all times to avoid body checks and errant sticks and still manage to control a little black puck at the end of his own stick. He must keep his balance—and his composure, too—despite severe body contact, and he must handle passes that are directed into his skates or pads or body without breaking his skating stride.
And what about the goaltenders, those lonely men who guard the cages at opposite ends of the hockey rink and who receive all the blame for a loss but rarely get the credit for a win? They know that at any minute a Bobby Hull or a Gordie Howe, a Stan Mikita or a Jean Beliveau might skate in all alone and slap that hard, cold disk at them from 20 or 25 feet away at speeds of 100 mph and better. It is the speed and continuous movement of players and puck that make the spectator's job a demanding one. He is rewarded for alertness and concentration, penalized for inattention and mental laziness.
With expansion, probably a million people are being exposed to major league hockey for the first time and thus are being given the opportunity to become expert major league fans. I think they are in for a treat. The new clubs all have some players who are so anxious to prove themselves that they are quite capable of giving a superhuman effort against the established teams. It is true that the expansion teams do not yet have any superstars, but collectively their players should show the teamwork that makes good, exciting hockey.
Before I go to the techniques of the game, I would like to make one appeal to all fans: do not throw anything onto the ice. Many promising hockey careers have been ruined or imperiled because a thoughtless spectator has thrown a penny or a bottle cap or a pin, and in the heat of action a player has skated over it, lost his balance and slammed uncontrollably into the boards. Rod Gilbert, the fine right wing of the New York Rangers, has had two back operations already because of injuries he suffered in just such an accident, and it is amazing that he plays today as well as he does.
The first rule for watching a hockey game is to keep your eyes on the puck. If you don't you will miss 90% of the action. You don't go to a baseball game to watch the right fielder all day, and you don't go to a hockey game to watch the sparring and shoving that may be going on some distance from the flow of the play.
Get to know the players and something about why they are used in certain combinations. Each club is limited to 18 men and consists of two goalies and usually five or six defensemen and 10 or 11 forwards. Coaches normally rotate two defense pairs, who play about half the game, and three forward lines, which generally take four turns on the ice during each 20-minute period. Barring an injury, the goaltender plays the entire game.
On defense I always try to pair a good body-checker with a sound, steady player; for example, Ted Harris, a heavy hitter, with J. C. Tremblay, a clever defenseman who rarely makes a mistake. The Tremblay type of defense-man—Harry Howell of New York, Allan Stanley of Toronto, Pierre Pilote of Chicago—never leaves his goaltender unprotected. Last year for a while I teamed Jacques Laperriere with Tremblay, but this did not work out because for some reason Laperriere stopped hitting. When you have two defensemen who don't hit, opposing forwards are able to dig in close to the goal and get set for an easy score. Chicago had the perfect combination when Pierre Pilote, very solid and very smart, teamed with big Elmer Vasko, and for years Toronto did well with old Allan Stanley, who knows all the little tricks, and Bobby Baun, a tough body-checker.
The ideal forward line consists of a playmaking center who also can score, a good goal scorer on one wing and a strong defensive forward on the other. Perhaps the best combination now playing is Chicago's Scooter Line, with Stan Mikita, always one of the best goal scorers, at center, Kenny Wharram, a tremendous scorer, at right wing and Doug Mohns, a converted defenseman and one of the strongest, fastest skaters in the league, at left wing.
Basically, the center's job is to maneuver the puck so as to set up scoring chances either by feeding passes to his wings or making his own scoring opportunities. If he also is a 30-goal scorer and plays a sound checking game then you have a superplayer. Jean Beliveau of the Canadiens does all these things exceptionally well, and that is why he has been an All-Star so many times. So do Norm Ullman of Detroit, Dave Keon of Toronto and Henri Richard of the Canadiens. Ullman also has a great fighting heart. I don't mean he is especially rough, just that he is always battling you for the puck.
Wings should skate their lanes and not go roaming about the ice. I don't want my right wing, for example, to cross over onto the left side of the rink when we are attacking the goal. And I don't want both wings to get caught penetrating too deeply into the attacking zone, because if we suddenly lose the puck then the other team will have a distinct manpower advantage as they skate down on our goal.
The goalie is the heart of any team, and each one has his own particular style. The younger ones tend to rely on quick reflexes, while veterans like Johnny Bower, Gump Worsley, Terry Sawchuk and Glenn Hall are more scientific. When they skate out from the net to cut down a shooter's angle they know from experience just how far to go to block off the biggest portion of the goal.
There are goalies who scramble all over the ice and at times leave their net unguarded. There are goalies who flop to the ice and are sometimes a little late getting back up, like Sawchuk of Los Angeles and Worsley of my own team used to do. There are goalies who play down on their knees and maybe stay there too long, like Roger Crozier of the Red Wings. And there are goalies like Eddie Giacomin of the Rangers who rely mostly on a very fast glove hand, and Denis DeJordy of the Black Hawks, who can flop, kneel and rove all in the same game. I like my goalies to stay close to the net, although they must move out at times to cut the shooter's angle or go behind the goal once in a while to stop a loose puck for one of the defensemen. Goalies are paid to guard the net, and if there is anything I hate it is seeing a puck roll into a net left unguarded by a wandering goaltender. Goalies do a hundred good things every game, but occasionally they offset all of it by being caught out of place just one time.
The most important job of a coach is to keep his goaltender happy at all times. Bawl him out and he may be thinking about the bawling out instead of the game. A coach must have the goaltender on his side.
You will get more out of the game if you recognize and appreciate the men who play more roles than one. Take the "policeman." Every team has one or more to protect the smaller players from undue physical punishment. You do not have to be an old fan to spot Teddy Green of Boston, Reggie Fleming and Vic Hadfield of New York or John Ferguson and Ted Harris of the Canadiens. I have a fast but light center named Ralph Backstrom. It is tempting for other teams to rack him up, but if that happens they know Ferguson is going to deal out some rugged body checks to the guys bothering Ralph.
Some policemen, like Ferguson, Hadfield, Green and Fleming, never back away from fights, while others, such as Harris and Orland Kurtenbach of the Rangers, mind their own business until trouble actually breaks out someplace on the ice. Fights in hockey, though, generally are the result of something that happened two or three games before. It is sometimes said that hockey fights are faked. They aren't, but since it is hard to get set for a punch on ice skates, usually little damage is done.
Then there are the penalty killers. We lost both of ours—Jimmy Roberts and Jean Guy Talbot—in the expansion draft, and that certainly will hurt us this season. Penalty killers are players with good defensive qualities who try to break up the other team's attack—harass the puck carriers, interrupt the opponent's momentum, steal the puck, if possible, and play keep away with it—to "kill" the time when their own club is short-handed due to a penalty.
Penalties are inescapable, I guess, but I think many of them are completely unnecessary. These are the ones most frequently called:
HOLDING. This generally is a stupid penalty to take. Grabbing an opponent momentarily will rarely get you a penalty, but doing it obviously and for any length of time will not go unpunished. Doug Harvey, who was the best defense-man in the league for a dozen years when he played for the Canadiens, was a master at tying up a player without making a big spectacle of it.
TRIPPING. A real judgment penalty, usually called only when the trip is flagrant and/or intentional. Tripping is more apt to be called when the play is in the attacking zone than out at center ice, where the action is not as crucial.
HOOKING. A dangerous act in which the curved part of the hockey stick is hooked into the body or the arms of another player.
SLASHING. Hitting with the stick, usually in a fit of temper and in retaliation. Half the time the stick does not even make contact, but there was "intent to injure" and so a penalty.
INTERFERENCE. Hindering a man not in possession of the puck. Another stupid maneuver, gaining nothing for the offender. And a player easily can get hurt, not expecting to be hit. Interference is often permitted close into the net, though, where defensemen and attacking players try to occupy the same piece of ice.
CHARGING. Also stupid. Called when a player makes a body check that is not a normal outgrowth of the action but one that requires three or four deliberate strides toward the victim.
SPEARING. The most vicious of all transgressions. As the term implies, darting the blade of the stick at an opponent. This can cause serious injury, and now there is an automatic $25 fine and a five-minute penalty.
ELBOWING. Generally called only on the bigger players who are trying to maneuver around and—maybe inadvertently, maybe intentionally—hit another player with a padded elbow.
HIGH-STICKING. Carrying the stick above shoulder level.
CROSS-CHECKING. Holding your stick at each end and ramming it at a player.
There are scores of hockey rules, but two of them are far and away the most important in controlling the shape of the action. The first of these says you can pass the puck across only one line at a time, meaning the blue lines that set off the attacking zones and the center red line. Violate this rule and you risk losing control of the puck in the face-off that will be called.
The second major rule says you can not enter the attacking zone—that area beyond the blue line nearest the opposing goaltender—until the puck has crossed that line. A skater, however, may straddle the blue line, but as soon as both of his skates go past it the puck must be in the attacking zone also or a face-off is called.
This is hockey's most elementary rule and the one most frequently violated, causing fans and coaches to cringe when a scoring threat is killed because a player has preceded the puck over the line. You should be aware, however, that at times teams risk the offside call in order to attempt split-second coordination of an attacking play. We want our Canadiens to be going at top speed when they approach the blue line, and if for some reason the player handling the puck is checked or otherwise delayed by the defense, then quite frequently a wingman will cross the blue line too soon and be off side.
The best way to avoid offsides is to execute the kind of maneuver we call headmanning the puck. We always try to move the puck up to the player who is closest to the attacking zone—the headman—at the same time passing over only one line at a time.
If the attack fails in the opponent's zone, the forwards, if they are good ones, employ the defensive tactics known as forechecking and backchecking. Scoring is hard but glamorous work. Dogging the other team's forwards is hard and unglamorous but crucial work. Forechecking is the word for what you try to do to get the puck when it is still in the other team's zone; backchecking means your forwards are shadowing their opposite numbers when they have gotten the puck moving toward your end.
Forechecking is the art of forcing the enemy into an error before he can get a play going. Normally a defenseman will have the puck. Your lead man—usually the center—goes after him, attempting by means of checking him or poking at the puck to make him lose control of it. If the lead man is on the side of the net to his right, his right wing acts as a "trailer," attempting to intercept the puck when it comes out; if on the left side, his left wing is the trailer.
Bobby Pulford of the Maple Leafs, Phil Goyette of the Rangers and Norm Ullman are outstanding forecheckers, and so is Dave Keon of the Maple Leafs. They do all right as backcheckers, too.
Scoring is a more popular art. It can begin with a face-off in the attacking zone, where you set up with one wing ready to take the draw and slap it past the goalie, who probably will be somewhat screened by his defense. It can be a breakaway, with one player skating in against the goalie. Breakaway goals are exciting but not as easy to score as you might imagine, because the skater has too much time to think about how to beat a goalie. I have seen plenty of good breakaway chances lost by players who were so busy faking the goalie that they outsmarted themselves and at times never even got off a decent shot.
On a breakaway, if the player is approaching the goalie head-on, I want him him to shoot for either corner from about 15 feet out. If he approaches from the wing, however, he has two alternatives, provided he cradles the puck on his stick along his side and not in front of him. He can 1) shoot on the goal or 2) fake a shot, pull the puck in front of the goalie and then slide it into the net. Dave Keon, Jean Beliveau, Stan Mikita, Kenny Wharram, Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe are almost certain to score on breakaways, because they know how to handle the puck with their stick. You can't attempt to fake a goalie when you come at him head-on, because you have only about one-third of the net to shoot at by the time you have completed your fake. However, moving in off the wing, you can fake the goalie down, skate in front and have almost the whole expanse of net in which to shoot the puck.
The two-on-one also gives you a nice edge, with forwards moving in on only one defenseman. Watch for the move that forces the defenseman to commit himself—either by passing to your teammate or by a good fake.
Your team will get a big lift if it can score consistently on the power play, where you enjoy a one- or even two-man advantage because of a penalty to the other club. The object is to move the puck around and get one man free in front of the goal, then hit him with a pass and hope he can score.
I was the best coach in the world back in the 1950s when we had the power-play combination of Beliveau, Rocket Richard and Dickie Moore or Bert Olmstead up front, and Bernie Geoffrion and Doug Harvey on the points at the blue line. One night, before the rule was put through terminating the remainder of a two-minute penalty after the attacking team scores a goal, we were losing to Boston 2-0 late in the third period. The Bruins got a penalty, we scored three power-play goals in about one minute and eventually we won the game 4-2. The new rule came in soon afterward.
On the power play you like to have an outstanding shooter and puck handler working back at the blue line, and in most cases it is not a defenseman. The Boston power play, however, revolves around 19-year-old Bobby Orr, a defenseman who is mostly offensive-minded anyway. And on the power play you like to have a little guy good at tip-ins buzzing around the net, like Camille Henry, who is attempting a comeback with the Rangers this year.
There is no certain way to score, but the best shots you can take at the goalie are: 1) low on his glove side, about six inches off the ice, and 2) high to his stick side, just under the crossbar of the goalpost. I do not have anything against slap shots, provided the players do not lift the stick too high. The higher you take back the stick, the more time it takes to shoot and the more time it gives a defenseman and a goaltender to get ready. And with a short backswing on a slap shot you get much better accuracy and a much better chance to catch the goal-tender before he has had time to get set.
The keenest eyes and the best concentrators in the house will not always know exactly who scores a goal because many shots that start a good distance away are tipped in amid a tangle at the goal mouth. Don't worry. I've learned in a long life in hockey that all goals are good ones, especially your own team's.