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That's Gotta Hurt

With the crackdown on obstruction in the NHL, sacrificing the body to block a shot has become a defenseman's most effective--and risky--ploy

In an event asindecorous as it was inspirational, the Boston Bruins, on the morning of Nov.7, inducted their forwards into the Hall of Foam. The ritual was, in its way,moving: The forwards had to move themselves into shooting lanes and block pointshots from the defensemen, who were rifling foam-rubber pucks, not the usualvulcanized ones, to keep collateral damage to a minimum. Rookie Phil Kessel,whose swift rise to the NHL has been predicated on putting pucks in the net andnot putting himself in harm's way, slid around the zone like a tobogganing10-year-old after a snowfall. "The players had a blast," says coachDave Lewis. "Guys who probably would have broken ribs or gotten concussionslearned positioning, when to go down, how to go down, left side, rightside."

Once reserved forthe penalty kill, the playoffs or critical moments of meaningful regular-seasongames, shot blocking has shifted from last resort to first option. It is now acommunal responsibility, a nightly chore from which no one is excused."It's a fact of life," Tampa Bay Lightning center Brad Richards says."On our team, if you don't block shots, you don't play." To thedetriment of hockey--and the players who have been injured by truly taking onefor the team--the shot block, not the two-line stretch pass, has become themost common, and effective, tool in the postlockout NHL.

With the morestringent enforcement of the obstruction rules, the little tug with the stick,the sly hold and the physical confrontations in front of the net have beenrendered moot. Or illegal. While an element of the new shot blocking zeal isbetter protective equipment--"I do think that's made some guys morecourageous," Nashville Predators general manager David Poile says--mostblocks can be attributed to the defenders' lack of options. "You [keep]forwards from going to the net, and you're called for interference," saysBruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. "And once the forwards get there, they'rebasically screening your goalie. So now all that's left for you is throwingyourself in front of shots." With the postlockout NHL playing surfacereconfigured to add four additional feet to the attacking zones, many teams nowdefend by collapsing toward the net and then fanning back out in the shootinglanes. Because defenders clog the lanes more actively, Lewis instituted anotherdrill in which players shooting from the point intentionally miss the net andhis forwards troll for pucks that carom off the end boards.

The shot block isits own reward. This overt act of selflessness, putting yourself in the way ofa slap shot that might be traveling more than 90 mph, isn't formally celebratedby the league as much as, say, face-offs, but blocks will show up in eachteam's video session, a visual pat on the back from the last game that alsoreinforces expectations for the next. "You don't see guys signing hugecontracts because they block shots well," Edmonton Oilers left wing EthanMoreau says. "But we saw how valuable it was for us in the playoffs lastyear [when the Oilers reached Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals]. It was one ofthe keys to our success. If you block 20 shots a game, that's maybe two orthree good scoring chances [you prevent]. But it comes at a price. [Teams] havehad significant injuries from guys blocking shots."

Maybe shotblockers don't rank with race car drivers on the actuarial tables, but the actcan be as reckless as bump-drafting into a turn at Daytona. In January 2000Montreal Canadiens forward Trent McCleary, huge on moxie, small on technique,laid out and took a career-ending shot off the throat by Philadelphia Flyersdefenseman Chris Therien; McCleary survived only because doctors performed anemergency tracheotomy. While playing for the St. Louis Blues in the 1998playoffs, Anaheim Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger suffered what doctors said wasa heart attack when a puck shot by the Detroit Red Wings' Dmitri Mironov struckhim in the chest and caused his heart to skip a beat. Those were dramaticoccupational hazards. The standard shot blocking injury is the broken foot: Twomonths ago Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason broke his right footblocking a slapper by the Florida Panthers' Olli Jokinen and limped around thedefensive zone for the next minute because the Hurricanes were unable to clearthe puck on the penalty kill. Gleason's act of courage wasn't as extreme as thesad case of Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Nick Boynton, who sustained a fracturedleft foot on Nov. 9 and played five more games before having it X-rayed. (Hewound up missing the next 20.)

But the shotblock that has left the largest impression this season was on the left skate ofPronger. On Dec. 31, while leading NHL defensemen in scoring with 40 points in41 games, Pronger broke his left foot blocking a Mark Parrish shot. Without thestalwart Pronger (and injured No. 1 goalie Jean-Sébastien Gigu√®re), the Ducksbegan to unravel and went 2-5-1. The irony is that since his trade to Anaheimlast summer, Pronger had grown more circumspect about shot blocking than he hadbeen during his one season in Edmonton, a team that freely sacrificed the body,in part because of the scant faith it had in its goalies until Dwayne Rolosonarrived at the trade deadline. In Anaheim, however, the seasoned Gigu√®recreated a different dynamic. While he appreciates blocked shots, he doesn'twant teammates to extend themselves--especially if the misadventures of aninexperienced shot blocker create more screens or deflections than they doblocks. After defenseman Joe DiPenta blocked a shot with his head early in theseason, Gigu√®re told him, "I'd rather have a goal against than have youdead."

The confluence oflighter skates, whippier composite sticks and the new shot blocking ethos hassent some players and NHL equipment managers scurrying for cover--a foot cover.Pronger now wears them. And Coyotes equipment manager Stan Wilson, who receiveda carbon-fiber-and-Kevlar mold from a sled-hockey player, is now developing aversion for his team. Phoenix forward Dave Scatchard, an excellent shotblocker, attaches one with Velcro over the tongue of each skate like spats.Such measures, though, are rare. "A lot of players would rather take theirchances than go for added protection," says Coyotes G.M. Mike Barnett."They don't want anything they think will compromise their quickness."A few weeks on crutches, of course, can really slow a player.

There is acertain degree of serendipity in staying healthy--Colorado Avalanche defensemanKarlis Skrastins, who last week broke the record for consecutive games by adefenseman, ranks third in the league in blocked shots (151)--but propertechnique is a more reliable safeguard. Although historically many shotblocking specialists earned their reputations by laying out (former Montrealcenter and current coach Guy Carbonneau basically spent the late 1980s andearly '90s horizontal), the trend is for players to stay on their feet or, ifnecessary, to go down on one knee, which permits a more rapid recovery."You get a guy who's gifted like [Detroit's Nicklas] Lidstrom or [Dallas'sSergei] Zubov, and as soon as you lay out, they'll go around you," Oilersdefenseman Jason Smith says. "There's a chance they'll shoot it in yourface, too."

"There are alot of defensemen who think they want to block shots, but they reallydon't," Canadiens defenseman Craig Rivet says. "They just pretend to bein front of shots..... Guys at this level should know where to be, what angleto take. They don't [take it] because the reality is, when the puck hits you,it's going to hurt." This is no block party, just a dirty job that hasbecome part of the NHL landscape even if it is a four-letter word. Ouch.



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CRAIG LUDWIG'S Tricks of the Trade

WHEN ASKED ABOUT former NHL defenseman Craig Ludwig'sshin pads, current members of the shot blocking fraternity estimated them ateight, nine, even 18 inches wide. Ludwig (above), who leveraged the art of shotblocking into a 17-year career, then retired after winning the 1999 Stanley Cupwith the Dallas Stars, says he's never measured the pads that he first wore asa freshman at North Dakota in '79. Over the years, whenever a pad cracked, theplaster molding and duct tape used for repairs made the pad larger. Here areLudwig's five shot blocking tips.

1 Commit to the process. "Either you want to oryou don't," says Ludwig. "I'm asked to teach kids to block shots. Youknow those drills with tennis balls [that are used in place of pucks]? If a kidis afraid of a tennis ball, shot blocking isn't for him."

2 Protect yourself. A player must know where to puthis head when he lays his body out to block a shot. "Most shooters areafraid of putting the puck wide," Ludwig says. "They'll go for themiddle of the net. You adjust and get your face out of the way."

3 Close the gap. "If you go toward the puck, youchange the trajectory [of the shot]," says Ludwig. "If you're four feetaway, a shooter can probably lift it over you. If you slide out to three feet,you might [block] it or force him to shoot higher."

4 Know your opponents' shooting tendencies. "Someguys shoot along the ice, some skate down the wall and hammer it," he says."Knowing what they like to do helps with your angles. Ray Bourque ... I hadno clue where he was going to shoot it."

5 Recognize the proper time to block a shot. If ashooter is at a sharp angle to the goaltender, Ludwig says, "why go down?Goalies are so good now, they don't need it. You're probably creating more of aproblem because of the risk of a deflection."

After Ducks defenseman Joe DiPienta blocked a shotWITH HIS HEAD, Giguère told him, "I'd rather have a goal against than haveyou dead."


Photograph by David E. Klutho

TAKING HIS LUMPS St. Louis defenseman Jay McKee (74) led the league last season--as a Sabre--with 241 blocked shots.





IN THE LINE OF FIRE Jay Bouwmeester (4) used a safer shot blocking technique than Jed Ortmeyer, who went horizontal to stop the puck.



[See caption above.]