Colorado Avalanche coach Bob Hartley kept a close eye on his
Rolex during the Stanley Cup finals last June. If the minutes
seemed like hours, it was not because he wasn't having a grand
time--which he was--but because he was playing his top three
defensemen to the point of exhaustion and was trying to secure
every moment of rest he could for Rob Blake, Raymond Bourque and
Adam Foote. Face-offs became filibusters as Colorado dawdled
before draws as if it were playing baseball. "Bob would call up
the lines on the bench and say, 'Wait, wait,'" says Avalanche
center Joe Sakic. "Then we'd wait for the linesman to come and
get us, and then we'd skate out real slow. Or Bob would tell me
to talk to the goalie, so I'd go out there, circle Patrick Roy,
and finally talk to him, which would force the linesman to yell
Hartley's four-corners face-off strategy was an effective if not
terribly creative exercise of hockey's notorious black arts. His
method wasn't nearly as daring as the one used last spring by
former New York Islanders coach Bill Stewart, who delayed a
German league playoff game by feigning a heart attack behind the
bench. Or even as daring as the stunt performed by Detroit Red
Wings goalie Chris Osgood on April 1, 1995, when he pulled one
of the greatest snow jobs in NHL history. As a steamy Reunion
Arena buzzed in anticipation of a penalty shot by the Dallas
Stars' Dave Gagner, Osgood skated from his crease to one of the
hash marks 20 feet in front of the net, pushing a pile of slush
with his stick, as unhurried as a pensioner clearing his
driveway. He deposited the slush, returned to the goal and
proceeded to the other hash mark with more slush. In front of
all those eyewitnesses, Osgood had built a pair of snowbanks,
the equivalent of sticking up a 7-Eleven while wearing a HELLO!
MY NAME IS...tag. In the NHL, in which boundaries are tested as
routinely as interstate speed limits, Osgood didn't break a
rule; he merely took the spirit of sportsmanship and kneed it in
the groin. The befuddled Gagner never got the shot away, the
puck dying in Osgood's man-made moguls.
The black arts in hockey--either blatant cheating or massaging
the rules, depending on your point of view--have been pushed
deeper underground since Osgood's twin peaks. NHL Miss Grundys
have cracked down on monkey business with new lines in the
face-off circles that deter players from stealing draws, with
tie-down jerseys that keep fighters from shedding their sweaters
to gain an advantage and with increased scrutiny of the size of
a goalie's equipment. Wary of league punishment, fighters no
longer grease their jerseys with Vaseline or silicone to keep an
opponent from getting a grip during a scrap. Skate-blade-dulling
screws no longer protrude from the floor around the visitors'
bench in Pittsburgh. On the surface it seems that righteousness
rules, but the black arts are still being practiced with
impunity by players savvy enough to test the limits. "The best
players always are on the edge of the rules," Minnesota Wild
assistant coach Mike Ramsey says. "[Defensemen like] Rob Blake,
Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, Chris Chelios--they'll hack and
slash and chop to the limit. Sometimes beyond."
When he was coach of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Craig
Hartsburg grew livid over the possibility that the Avalanche had
used improper means to catch his players using illegal sticks in
a December 1999 match at the Pepsi Center in Denver. After the
Avalanche successfully challenged the legality of the lumber
being wielded by Ducks Teemu Selanne and Dominic Roussel within
66 seconds (both players were assessed minor penalties because
their blades were either too wide or had a bigger curve than
allowed), Hartsburg contended Colorado must have pulled an
inside job because a door in the Avalanche's dressing room
connected to the visitors' room. "If we cheated with illegal
sticks," Hartsburg said, "somebody cheated and came in and
checked our sticks."
For all of Hartsburg's indignation, coaches routinely designate
a trainer or an equipment man to eyeball opponents' gear or
swipe and measure sticks broken during a rival team's morning
skate, information that might pay off when a power play is
desperately needed. Indeed, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn
says 300 players, more than 40% of those in the league, use
illegal sticks. There's a priceless moment in the 1998
documentary The New Ice Age--A Year in the Life of the NHL in
which Stars winger Brett Hull shouts down the bench at an
equipment man, "I need my legal stick. I need my legal stick."
A stick challenge is rarely made before the final minutes of a
match--if a coach is wrong, his club is assessed a delay of game
penalty--but Hartley gambled midway through the third period in
that game against Anaheim because Colorado trailed by two goals.
Says Detroit associate coach Dave Lewis, "Everybody knows to
switch [to a legal stick] with five minutes left. That's stupid."
Having grown up in the era of explosive offense, goalies have
sought comfort in the world of hockey fashion. Until 1998-99,
when the league dispatched former goalie Dave Dryden to police
goaltenders' equipment, many netminders sported leg pads three
inches wider than specifications permit (12 inches is the
current limit) and wore jerseys so amply cut they would have
been hanging on the Michelin Man. Goalies especially favored
extra cloth in the sleeves of their sweaters. If the jersey was
held tight by Velcro at the wrist, then when a goalie raised his
arm, the material draping from it would form a taut, triangular
web that could practically repel a puck and certainly would
allow a shooter to see less of the net.
"But they still don't measure the equipment when it's on you,"
former goalie Brian Hayward says. "A goalie could take pads that
measure 12 inches wide and pound them with a stick or step on
them and make them 13 1/2, even 14 inches. Until they start
measuring the pads on you, you can fiddle with the width. You
can also do things with the depth. You wear thicker leg
pads--there's no rule on thickness--and if you're turned
sideways, you take up more space."
A goaltender, as Osgood demonstrated, can take cold comfort in
snow--especially late in periods, when the ice deteriorates. If
it escapes the attention of officials and cruising forwards, a
nicely constructed mound at the goalpost can foil a pass through
the crease or a wraparound shot. One Eastern Conference
goaltender says he even builds piles inside the posts in the
hope they might stop a puck from trickling over the goal line.
In 17-plus NHL seasons Chelios, a Detroit defenseman, often has
been called wild. When Chelios chats up an official, he turns
into Oscar Wilde, a conversationalist of considerable wit if not
brevity. "He'll skate over, question a call, maybe ask how the
summer went," Lewis says. "For a guy with Chelios's style, he's
got a pretty good rapport with the refs."
Chelios isn't interested in chitchat as much as he is a rest.
The options for grinding the game to a halt are plentiful: a
goalie surreptitiously undoing straps on his pads; a phantom
injury; an intentionally broken stick; and sneaky coaches
tossing nickels and other coins onto the ice to delay a
face-off. ("You have to know what coins you're tossing," says a
former coach of a Canadian team. "The refs find Canadian coins
in a U.S. rink, they know you did it.")
There's also that old standby, the phony stick exchange. "You
skate over to the equipment guy, hand him your stick [as if it's
broken] and then tell him to give you the same stick back," says
Detroit winger Brendan Shanahan. "A classic."
Then there's this Coke classic, which helped Toronto in the
first round of the 1996 playoffs against the St. Louis Blues.
Back then television timeouts were called by a TV producer, not
regulated by the league. A Leafs assistant coach persuaded a
sympathetic telecaster to move his soft-drink cup to the edge of
the booth whenever the producer passed the word through the
announcer's earpiece that a TV timeout was imminent. The
Coke-on-the-ledge gambit tipped off the Toronto assistant in the
adjacent booth, who would walkie-talkie the information to the
bench. The Leafs had the luxury of putting their best line on
the ice knowing it soon would get a rest and be ready for
another shift following the timeout.
In the privacy of a deserted locker room, a veteran Eastern
Conference defenseman stands before a reporter, knees slightly
bent, choreographing the moves of the NHL miscreant with great
deliberation, as if he were teaching the cha-cha to a
particularly dense pupil. "See, you can get away with
cross-checking a guy, but you have to do it with one arm, almost
like a punch," he explains. His right hand flies out while his
left hand stays flush to his chest, the imaginary stick whacking
the imaginary forward at a 45-degree angle. "Extend both arms
and referees will get you, but this is in tight where they have
trouble seeing. It's like the butt end."
His top hand now slides six inches down the shaft of the
imaginary stick. "A guy tries to get by, your hand goes down,
and you have a few inches of butt end you can either stick under
his armpit or get tangled in his sweater. That stops him.
Usually it's in the corner, where there are lots of bodies. It's
impossible to spot."
"For a defenseman it's all timing," says Ramsey, the Wild
assistant and 18-year NHL veteran. "Everybody expects you to
hold. The key is to know when to let go. To give the little tug
that disrupts the timing of the play but goes unnoticed."
The 1996-97 implementation of the so-called Rob Ray rule--which
handicaps players like Rob Ray, the Buffalo Sabres' enforcer
who, when a fight began, could shed his top faster than Brandi
Chastain--has darkened most cruiserweights' careers.
Unencumbered by bulky sweaters (and more important, by not
giving Goliaths anything to grab during fisticuffs), smaller
fighters often could successfully duke it out with bigger men.
Now, with tied-down jerseys, these fighters are reduced to
notching or otherwise roughing up the plastic of their helmets,
stunts that can leave an indelible reminder on a puncher's
knuckles but smack of tawdriness.
Ray, however, says fighters still have at least one trick up
their sleeves: Elbow pads. "If you know you're going to fight,
leave your elbow pads on the bench," Ray says. "That leaves you
a lot freer. Refs are always checking the sweater to make sure
it's tied down so you can't slip your arm out of it and punch.
But they aren't looking to see if you've got elbow pads."
Even with the lines, drawn in 1996-97, that oblige centers to
stand square in the circles, injured Calgary center Jeff Shantz
says, "face-offs are won and lost mostly by whoever cheats the
best." Because the visiting player must put his blade on the ice
first, a dawdling home-team center can take time to discuss the
draw--or the weather--with teammates positioned around the
circle. This tends either to freeze or agitate the other center.
"When the home guy delays, you know the linesman will drop the
puck quickly when that guy finally gets in, because he wants to
get the game going," says Minnesota general manager Doug
Risebrough, an NHL center for 13 seasons. "As the home center
you're coming in with motion. That'll win a lot of draws."
The Line Change
The NHL plays five-on-five hockey except a) when penalties
intervene, b) in overtime and c) when Dallas is changing penalty
killers on the fly. The Stars might be shorthanded, but at times
it looks as if they have at least six skaters on the ice,
mocking not only the five-foot rule--a player isn't permitted on
the ice until a teammate coming out of the game is within five
feet of the bench--but also the man advantage. "That's nothing
more than a combination of alert, veteran players and good
coaching," Lewis says. "Say we're coming out of our zone, and
one of their penalty killers is chasing over the blue line.
Maybe we beat that guy, but then he hustles toward the bench and
another guy jumps on from the other end. You think you have a
three-on-two developing, but that kills it. They're coming in
one door and going out the other."
One final story: During the 1999 Western Conference finals,
Colorado was greeted in the visitors' dressing room at Joe Louis
Arena by the pungent smell of fresh paint. Although Detroit
management insisted the ill-timed paint job (not to mention the
accompanying noxious fumes) was part of routine building
maintenance, Avalanche suspicions about the spring cleaning
settled on Red Wings master artist and coach Scotty Bowman. So
don't despair, all you jersey-tuggers, stick-switchers, face-off
swindlers and heart-attack fakers. Even in this seemingly dim
age, the black arts come in a rainbow of Sherwin-Williams colors.
FOUR COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH
Coaches routinely designate someone to eyeball opponents' gear
in hopes that the inside info will pay off with a crucial power
A goalie can easily construct a mound of ice around the goal
which can foil a pass through the crease or a wraparound shot.
"You have to know what coins you're tossing," says a former
Canadian team coach. "The refs find Canadian coins in a U.S.
rink, they know you did it."