Brain Trust The biggest stars usually have elevated hockey intelligence, a trait that more and more teams are looking for in players

Oct. 08, 2001
Oct. 08, 2001

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Oct. 8, 2001

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Brain Trust The biggest stars usually have elevated hockey intelligence, a trait that more and more teams are looking for in players

Mercifully the C that Joe Sakic wears on his Colorado Avalanche
sweater stands for captain, not for the grades he pulled in high
school. His outstanding NHL achievements of 457 goals and two
Stanley Cups eclipse his records at Burnaby (B.C.) North and
Swift Current Comprehensive schools, but then Sakic, a student
of the game, wasn't a game student. His reading on Avalanche
charters is no more taxing than a Sidney Sheldon potboiler, but
his ability to process the kaleidoscope of a play, to adjust to
the whirling geometry of the offensive zone, to assess
instantaneously the location and abilities of each player on the
ice and to know where to go and the right time to arrive is the
hockey equivalent of speed-reading Proust. Sakic can no more
articulate this gift than Haley Joel Osment--"I just see
things," Sakic says--but his staggering hockey IQ defines him as
neatly as the rapid release on his wrist shot.

This is an article from the Oct. 8, 2001 issue Original Layout

There's no correlation between being book smart and having an
elevated intelligence on the ice--"Some people can be smart in the
rink and dumb in life, and a lot of us are out there," St. Louis
Blues defenseman Chris Pronger says with a booming laugh--but the
best players are almost always the brightest in hockey terms as
well. The sport has a randomness, an element of oops, as players
stickhandle on a 200-by-85-foot frozen surface while being
knocked around by surly opponents. Nonetheless, smart players
lend a measure of order to this chaotic universe.

The best minds include legends like the Pittsburgh Penguins'
Mario Lemieux, whose one-on-one ability and industrial-strength
shot have always obscured a rare intelligence, and pluggers like
Washington Capitals left wing Steve Konowalchuk, who has middling
skills but survives in the NHL because he's hockey's version of a
nerd. Just as some brainiacs do the The New York Times crossword
puzzle in short order, hockey's smart players dope out the game
on the fly. "Top guys compute in an instant what other players
might figure out if you gave them a minute," says New Jersey
Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer. "Of course, you don't have a
minute to make a play."

The NHL's tolerance of fighting, coupled with the occasional
stick-whacking act of lunacy, has given it a reputation as the
nonthinking man's league (Don Rickles still insults people by
calling them hockey pucks), but on-ice IQ has never been as
fashionable as it is today. "Games are won and lost on one play,
unlike before, when it usually would be a series of mistakes,"
says Edmonton Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe. "The way the
game has evolved--with more preparation, better coaching, styles
that make every team look like a carbon copy of every other, more
set plays and more accountability on defense--you can't get down
by two goals and expect to come back. That's why you need smart
players, guys who won't make that killer mistake."

"If you're big and strong and can skate, but you don't have
brains, you're screwed," Calgary Flames general manager Craig
Button says. "You have to think your way through the challenges
you're presented with. You have to exploit vulnerability, but you
can't if you don't know what it is you're trying to exploit.
Thinking encompasses seeing, reading, anticipating the play and
understanding strengths, yours and the opponents. I'm not saying
this as a knock, but [New York Islanders defenseman] Kevin Haller
can skate, he's big, he's competitive. What prevents him from
being a top-notch player is his hockey sense."

There's a checklist of traits associated with the hockey dullard.
One rule of thumb, from Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman, is
that players who frequently go offsides are the dumbest on their
teams. Other numskulls are forwards who take foolish penalties in
the offensive zone; players who, on two-on-one breaks, miss their
shots to the far side (allowing long rebounds and the defensive
team to break out quickly in transition); defensemen who give up
sound positioning to chase a hit that might get them on the
highlight shows; and shooters who pick the same spot on net time
after time.

Nuance is a mark of grand intellects like Lemieux, who floats on
the periphery of a play until he senses a scoring chance, or Red
Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who deprives forwards of
scoring opportunities by almost always being in the right
position. Detroit center Steve Yzerman is a master at cutting off
passing lanes when he doesn't have the puck and exploiting those
openings when he does.

The difference between dean's list and summer school is not 70 IQ
points but 242 goals. Brett Hull, who signed as a free agent with
Detroit, and Stephane Richer, a reclamation project in Pittsburgh
after sitting out last season, are both right wings from the 1984
draft class. Richer, selected 88 spots ahead of Hull, is bigger,
faster and has a harder shot, but he has never read the play at
the same level of sophistication as the roguish Hull, who finds
the seams to set up his feared one-timer. Hull has 649 goals and
will go to the Hall of Fame; Richer has 407 and is destined to be
a first-ballot whatever-happened-to...? guy.

"Look at Paul Kariya," Detroit left wing Brendan Shanahan says of
the Anaheim Mighty Ducks winger. "If you lined up all the
[Anaheim] players at the blue line and had them take slap shots,
there wouldn't be much of a difference among them. If they all
raced, there would probably be guys on the team who could keep up
with Kariya. But it's not where to go on the ice or even how
fast--it's when to go."

Kariya is the rare player who is conspicuously hockey bright, an
empiricist who conducts most of his experiments in the
laboratory of the neutral zone. A feint here. A burst of speed
there. Kariya's game metamorphoses with the situation, like the
seemingly harmless one-on-two rush he made last season against
the Vancouver Canucks. With both teams on a change, Kariya
slowly carried the puck into the offensive zone until Oleg
Tverdovsky, trailing the play by 100 feet after hopping off the
Anaheim bench, neared the blue line. Kariya then hit Tverdovsky
with a tape-to-tape, no-look pass as he entered the zone,
leading to a scoring opportunity. "Kariya's thinking about not
only who's on the ice but also about who's coming on," Canucks
general manager Brian Burke says. "He even knows when the
defense is changing. Watching that play, you'd have sworn he had
eyes in the back of his head."

Every NHL player works out in the off-season, but Kariya trains
in a hockey-smart way. He works on weaknesses, targeting specific
parts of his game and his body. He did it even before he turned
pro. He was a superior passer but a mediocre shooter as a teen,
in part because he deferred to the older boys he played with. To
address the deficiency, Kariya obtained a highlight video of
Hull's 86-goal season in 1990-91, studying his positioning and
stick angle.

During the 1994 world championships, Shanahan, Kariya's linemate,
told him that backcheckers tend to overhustle in their haste to
get into the play; the forward who comes to a quick stop can get
off his shot while the backcheckers zoom past like Wile E. Coyote
on rocket-fueled Acme roller skates. "There's hard backchecking,
and there's smart backchecking," Shanahan says. "Most guys put
their heads down and go hard. The principle is that if the
backcheckers go fast, you go slow. If they go slow, you go fast.
The only problem is, when we play Anaheim and I'm entering the
zone late expecting to be open, Paul's right there on me,
waiting. Every time. Drives me nuts."

Kariya is persistent. To regain some of the explosiveness he lost
to a foot injury last season, Kariya spent part of the summer
Rollerblading uphill while wearing a weighted vest. He also
worked on his shot again. For every 100 he would take on his
natural left-handed side, he would shoot an equal number on his

As Team Canada skated at its first Olympic orientation practice
last month, Colorado goalie Patrick Roy sidled up to Kariya and
said, "I hear you've been working on your backhand this summer."
Roy had been gathering intelligence, a surefire sign of
intelligence. "A lot of people think I talk a lot, but I also
listen a lot," Roy says. "I have scouts everywhere in the league,
people who play for different teams whom I respect. I ask them
what's going on."

In June, Roy earned an unprecedented third Conn Smythe Trophy as
postseason MVP, but in Game 4 of the finals he committed a gaffe
that might have had Bucknerian repercussions. He coughed up the
puck behind the net with 12 minutes left and gave the Devils the
tying goal in a game New Jersey would go on to win, evening the
series. The mistake underscored the arrogance of a goaltender who
at times should be tethered to the crossbar.

Roy's attention to his angles is meticulous, as is his attention
to the position of his glove. After studying the Buffalo Sabres'
Dominik Hasek a few years ago, Roy abandoned the classic goalie
pose, in which the tip of the glove is pointing down, and rotated
it about 30 degrees to an angle that he says is better suited to
catching a rising puck. "Sometimes you'll hear a fan say, 'Oh,
man, he should have had that one,'" says Roy, who holds the
league records for regular-season (484) and playoff (137) wins.
"Then there are the times when fans say, 'He never had a chance.'
I'd rather have somebody tell me I should have stopped one than
have someone say I didn't have a chance, because, if I didn't
have a chance, it means I was out of position."

"A lot of goalies are just playing the game, not thinking the
game," Devils netminder Martin Brodeur says. "It's about reading
the play, controlling rebounds, managing the game. If you're
smart, you know when to freeze the puck. At home or on the road
there's a big difference. On the road, if you're not matching up
well [on the fly] against the other team, you need a face-off so
you can bring in players you need to defend against guys like
Lemieux or [Washington's Jaromir] Jagr. The smart goalie decides
where the puck is going at all times, moving it to the correct
players or holding on to it for the draw."

When he can, goalie Curtis Joseph of the Toronto Maple Leafs even
tries to dictate the location of the face-offs. For example, if
he knows that Leafs captain Mats Sundin is due on the ice next,
Joseph will subtly shift a puck he freezes in the middle of the
crease to the right, putting the ensuing face-off in the circle
to his right. The quick thinking permits Sundin, a right-handed
shot, to backhand the draw into the corner and out of danger.

Positioning is the primary indicator of a defenseman's hockey
IQ. Often the best blueliners, like Lidstrom or Teppo Numminen
of the Phoenix Coyotes, are so sound they're barely noticed. A
secondary but almost as telling measure is the outlet pass, a
multiple-choice test of the player's decision-making prowess.
"Every defenseman, from first pair to third, has to make that
pass, and nobody makes it better than Pronger," says Avalanche
defenseman Rob Blake.

The 6'6" Pronger, who has the certitude of a cop and the reach of
a boardinghouse diner, is another of the accursed players whose
size and skills are so manifest that his smarts haven't received
sufficient credit. The Canucks' Burke, the general manager in
Hartford when Pronger was drafted, says Pronger "reads the ice as
well as any defenseman in the modern era." Invariably Pronger
makes not only a good first pass but also the best first pass,
the one that creates the most open ice. His and fellow defenseman
Al MacInnis's ability to push the puck smartly makes St. Louis a
formidable team in transition.

As Pronger moves the puck, he runs through a mental checklist of
passing options, depending on the time and space available to
him. Option 1 is the rare rinkwide bomb to a forward who's
stretching the defense. Option 2, which is the primary pass for
Pronger but one fraught with danger for almost everyone else, is
the hard pass under coverage to a winger on the opposite side of
the rink. Option 3 is throwing it back to the other defenseman,
which is usually too static for his tastes. Options 4 and 5 are
banging the puck off the boards or glass, generally safe plays.
"Pronger can kill any forechecking scheme with that pass he makes
to the offside winger," Blake says of Option 2. "That's dangerous
unless you know you can make it, and he makes it every game. He
beats two or three guys with that pass, and away the Blues go."

Pronger keeps a mental book on all the first- and second-line
forwards he sees, watching the highlights every night to see not
the scores but the scorers' moves. "You see a play and say, O.K.,
that's the move he's going to try because it worked," Pronger
says. "Then you get in the same spot with him, the guy tries to
put it through your stick and shoot, and you shut it down. You
just have to read it."

The modern player doesn't have to know Tolstoy to thrive in the
NHL, but there is required reading: breakouts, two-on-ones,
neutral-zone traps. For those who can't handle anything more
complex than Hockey for Dummies, school's out.

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN EDER/LIDSTROM PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO SI's All-Smarts Team (left to right) G Patrick Roy, Avalanche D Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Wings F Joe Sakic, Avalanche F Mario Lemieux, Penguins F Paul Kariya, Mighty Ducks D Chris Pronger, BluesCOLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO Right place, right time Sakic, who says, "I just see things" on the ice, often puts himself in position to score.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Quick thinker Pronger runs through a mental checklist of options before making outlet passes.COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO Aiming high Roy, the alltime leader in victories, has his own network of scouts who give him reports on other teams' players.

Intelligence Report
Here is SI's second-team All-Smarts squad, plus the five coaches
and general managers who have the best hockey brains.


F Igor Larionov, Red Wings
Has excellent on-ice vision and knows how to hit players in
stride with passes

F Doug Weight, Blues
Knows when and how to deliver a big bodycheck; creates plenty of
scoring chances off face-offs

F Steve Yzerman, Red Wings
Top penalty killer and defender; finds seams in defensive zone
that help him score

D Chris Chelios, Red Wings
Has a book on most opponents; knows how to open shooting lanes
by using his mobility

D Al MacInnis, Blues
Doesn't try to do too much; uses his stick
intelligently--excellent pokechecker and passer

G Martin Brodeur, Devils
Precise at cutting down angles; knows when to leave the net to
play the puck


1. Scotty Bowman, Red Wings
Best bench coach in NHL history; knows how to get star players
to do things his way

2. Jacques Lemaire, Wild
Runs structured practices, helping players understand
fundamentals; uses simple game plans

3. Ken Hitchcock, Stars
Taskmaster who knows hockey inside out; sends messages to his
players through the media

4. Joel Quenneville, Blues
Can still be one of the boys and not lose his players' respect;
stresses up-tempo game

5. Dave King, Blue Jackets
An innovator and teacher; one of the best at making adjustments
during a match


1. Lou Lamoriello, Devils
Not afraid to make tough decisions; always looks to hit a home
run when making a trade

2. Pierre Lacroix, Avalanche
Loves swinging big deals; a slick operator who makes others feel
as if they got equal value

3. Kevin Lowe, Oilers
Works for a cash-poor club but usually signs players fast or
trades them for more than market value

4. Craig Patrick, Penguins
Does business quietly and relies on a small inner circle; gets
the most from limited budget

5. Bob Gainey, Stars
Delegates authority very well; excellent at finding talent on
the ice and in the front office

"If you're big and strong and can skate, but you don't have
brains, you're screwed," says Button.