This winter, as in so many winters past, more than two million people will file into four arenas in the U.S. and two in Canada to watch the strange, violent sport of ice hockey as performed by the padded acrobats of the National Hockey League. Hockey is fast, hockey is harsh, hockey is cruel and comical; a game of sticks and stitches, bruises and pratfalls. The best hockey in the world is played in this six-team league, because the best skaters, the sharpest shooters, the quickest goalies, the toughest professionals that can be found man the rosters. Although the game idolizes its stars and superstars, Canadian city fathers naming streets after them in bursts of civic pride and youngsters north of the border dutifully drowning their flapjacks in the kind of corn syrup that is endorsed by one of their heroes, the spectator, by and large, goes to watch hockey for the game—the single performance that is presented in three 20-minute acts 210 different times a year. In his mind is the hope that maybe tonight, maybe right in front of him, there will be one of those fierce fights for which hockey is so famous. But the spectator is also attracted by the subtle skills hidden in hockey's violence. For an examination of both, turn the page.
There are three elements to scoring a goal. They are, simply, passing, shooting and eluding the defender. When all three are pieced together perfectly the applause in the arena rings loudest, and the sticks of the offense rise in a jubilant salute to the pass, to the skating, to the shot, to the team. When these elements are not in harmony, the attack dissipates. The force of a good attack is typified by the Power Shot of Montreal's Boom Boom Geoffrion (left), which is usually executed from 50 to 60 feet out. By throwing his full weight into the shot he causes it to lift off the ice and soar toward the net.
Detroit Red Wings' Gordie Howe quickly snaps off Skating Shot while moving in at top speed.
Toronto's Dickie Duff executes his Lob Shot by lifting the puck, hoping it will dribble past goalie.
Backhand Shot is sudden, precise, usually comes on rebound. Goalie cannot watch shooter's eyes.
New York's Andy Batngate is specialist with popular Slap Shot. Player stops dead, gets set and hits ice behind puck for force and lift. Disadvantages are lack of accuracy and surprise; goalie can prepare for shot.
Drop Pass is one of the most delicate maneuvers on the ice. It is not a backward pass, but one left, or dropped, by the leading man as he moves forward. He halts puck with his slick and skates on, leaving puck for trailing teammate to shoot or pass.
Confronted by defender, offensive man starts to outside, gives head-and-shoulders fake (above) to draw defensive man out and off balance. Cutting back (below), he then gels puck past defender.
Lob Pass is often used when a defender is between passer and his intended receiver. Puck is flipped over the defender's stick.
Swinging past defender, Montreal's Henri Richard displays one of best methods of getting closer to the opponents' cage. While controlling puck with stick in left hand, Richard fends off defenseman. "As you can see," he says, "I am leaning on the guy and holding him away with my right hand. The only thing I have to watch out for is the referee; if he sees that I am holding the guy's stick I will get a penalty. I don't use too much force to fend my opponent off. Generally, he will try to grab me or trip me, which is just fine because he gets a penalty called against him! The guy is pretty helpless. Puck control is no problem for me at this point because I am getting up speed and the puck stays close to my stick. Once I am completely past him, I put both my hands on my stick."
There are many naughty boys in the National Hockey League. Big, beefy, naughty boys whose function it is to stop the attack by using their sticks, their bodies, their everything. It is the defenseman's job to get between the puck carrier and the goal. He tries to drive the man away from the goal, throwing him off balance and upsetting his control. Because they try so hard, the defensemen often break the liberal rules of hockey; year in and year out they are near the top of the penalty lists. At the right, the defenseman (light shirt) is throwing his shoulder into the puck carrier along the boards, causing him to lose control of the puck. This is legal. But if the defender violently rides the man into the boards a penalty may be called against him.
Checking with the stick upsets the pattern of the opponents' attack and, ideally, turns what has been a defensive situation into the beginning of your own attack. When using the stick check to steal the puck, the defensive man may not slash (swing his stick at an opponent), spear (stab the opponent with the point of the stick blade while the stick is being carried with one hand or both hands) or trip deliberately (left). These result in penalties. The well-executed stick check is one which enables the defender to move in on the attacker and steal the puck cleanly so that it may lead to a quick break down the ice. There are four basic varieties of stick check used by the defense (below).
Deliberate trip using the blade of stick will bring two-minute penalty to tripper.
Stick Lift is accomplished by raising the opponent's slick, then stealing free puck.
Poke Check jars outside of opponent's stick to make him lose control of puck.
Hook Check demands that defenseman drop to one knee, swing stick flat on ice.
Sweep Check is made from long range while skating, with full length of the stick. Checker holds his stick at end, keeps it low and tries to get inside of the puck carrier's stick.
Blocking an attacking opponent's shot is one of the hardest functions of the defender, for it requires his full agility and concentration. In a sense, the defenseman is the handmaiden to the goalie, stopping shots and players from coming in unopposed to the goal. Of situations where a defenseman has to handle an attacker alone, Muzz Patrick, General Manager of the New York Rangers and once a superb defenseman himself, says, "The defenseman should back up slowly, look the puck carrier in the eyes and play the man. If the puck carrier shoots from the outside, the defenseman should not watch to see where the puck has gone. If the puck is in the net there is nothing he can do about it; if it isn't, he can prevent his man from picking up the rebound if he stays with him." In the cases illustrated, the defenseman is in front of the net, trying to stop the attacker from shooting on goal.
Dropping to one knee and putting the stick flat on ice, the defender has stopped forward progress of puck toward the goal.
Bad defensive maneuver finds man on ice on both knees. He lacks ability to move.
Crouching low with one knee on ice, defender moves to stop shot by using body.
Defenseman may try to hinder offensive man's advance by illegally holding stick.
New York Rangers' Lou Fontinato is in good position for any defensive play. He can stick-check, body-check, drop to block shot, move forward or backward, depending on way attack moves.
There are many people who go to hockey games merely to see the strange valor of the goalie being constantly tested by the sniping of the enemy. No job on the ice is more important; no job demands a finer set of reflexes or a more durable system of nerves. In the NHL, appropriately, each goalie wears uniform No. 1. The goalie has the job, 60 minutes a game, 70 times a season, of stopping a hard rubber disc one inch thick and three inches in diameter from entering a cage four feet high and six feet wide. He must also be able to clear the puck to his teammates to start a counterattack. He defends his goal with his stick, his feet, his hands, his mitt, his body, his head, his face.
Maze of slicks and bodies in front of net typifies confusion which goalie faces. Toronto's Johnny Bower must peer through turmoil to find puck and anticipate shot. Will it come high or low, fast or slow?
Pronged skates worn only by goal tenders stop puck from skipping through blades.
Puck control is one of prime attributes of a good goalie. "Double exposure" shows Detroit's Terry Sawchuk diving on puck, causing action to stop for faceoff, and catching high shot, which he then clears.
Goalie gels assistance from defenseman who rides attacking player away from net.
Sweep from behind is trick that goalie must be alert for. Maurice Richard made his 600th goal by swinging around net, tucking the puck between goalie and post.
Constant strain of goal tending is a familiar story to Montreal's Jacques Plante, the league's outstanding goalie for the past four years. "I have to watch the puck every second of the game," he says. "And I have to worry about my defensemen. When there is a breakthrough they are under my command. I tell them what to do—go left, go right—and then I have the responsibility for what happens. Here (below) I am watching an attack around the back of the net. I press my left leg against the post to make sure there is no space that will let a rebound through when the shooter shoots the inevitable backhand. My weight is on my right leg, and my stick—I am very good with my stick—defends my front and right side. I slide straight across the goal always."
Lone shooter drives in on net. Goalie must not anticipate but wait shooter's move.
Continually moving, Plante takes lateral back-and-forth course to protect the net.
There is a definite purpose for nearly every movement on a hockey rink, and the only reason this is not always apparent to the observer is that in any game which relies as much as hockey does on the speed of its participants there is always confusion and even, upon occasion, what appears to be absolute chaos. But in the environment of action—the 10 skaters racing back and forth, banging into each other, whacking the puck; the two goalies flinging themselves up and down in their frantic efforts to protect their nets—in this region of instantaneous reflex, the movements of all the players make sense. There is a precise method in all the madness, but a precision so fine that the slightest slip or error upsets the scheme. A stick check that slows a puck-carrying forward muddies the offensive pattern; a feint by another puck-carrying forward inveigles a defenseman into moving a foot too far a second too soon. The wild skills of this race horse chess game reach their climax at the goal: the puck goes in, or the puck doesn't. Here, on these two pages, are four examples of precise play at the goalmouth: three times the attacking team achieves its purpose; once the defenders do. Note how each move fits into a clear pattern. Study the frozen, timeless action captured by the artist, and learn a little more about the subtleties camouflaged by the violence.
Adroit defenseman (above right) herds the puck carrier off to the side, away from the goal. The other defenseman is busy shunting another attacker away from the easy-shot area near the net. Both the defensemen are making the goalie's job easier by cutting down the shooting chances of the offense (see diagram). The farther to one side or the other that a defender can force a puck carrier, the smaller is the shooter's angle of attack and the less chance there is for a successful shot at the goal. Often, too, the shooter is forced into a wild shot or pass that can be intercepted.
Pass pattern used by the Canadiens takes advantage of the fact that the defense is one man short because of a penalty. Montreal's Bob Turner (11), who could attempt a long shot (upper diagram) through the defensemen, instead passes (lower diagram) to Henri Richard (left, partially obscured), thus drawing the attention of the defensemen toward Richard. Henri feints, then passes the puck to Marcel Bonin (18) in front of the goal, who shoots toward the unguarded part of the net. Dickie Moore (12) is in position to pounce on a rebound if Bonin's shot is blocked.
Screen shot is shown as it was so perfectly executed by the Montreal Canadiens in a Stanley Cup playoff game against the Toronto Maple Leafs last spring. In drawing A the Canadiens' Ralph Backstrom (6) leaves a well-timed drop pass for Ab McDonald (15), who is moving in from the side. Already the Toronto defenseman has gone to one knee in front of the cage (B), and the second defense-man, skating in from the right, is far behind the play and too late to stop it. Backstrom stays in the line of vision of Goalie Johnny Bower, who is thus screened from seeing the puck. McDonald fires his shot (c) to Bower's left side, where half the net was unprotected.
Finesse play by Montreal's Maurice Richard against the New York Rangers was a case of maneuvering the defense out of position and then exploiting the situation. In drawing A, Richard has the puck in front of the cage, but with a defenseman and the goalie ready and watching. Richard nudges the puck along with his skate and stick in an effort to tempt the defenseman into coming forward to try to get the puck. The defenseman moves, and Richard sends a quick pass through the defender's legs to Dickie Moore at the edge of the crease (B). Ranger Goalie Worsley had also committed himself toward Richard and had gone to the ice when Maurice passed to Moore. By the time Moore gets the puck (C) Worsley is hopelessly out of position, and Moore merely shovels the puck past him into the goal.
THIRTY ONE ILLUSTRATIONS