SPORT

THE HIGH ART OF PLAYING HOCKEY

Hugh Hood January 1 1970
SPORT

THE HIGH ART OF PLAYING HOCKEY

Hugh Hood January 1 1970

ON A SUNDAY MORNING in June we arranged for some uninterrupted ice time at the Town of Mount Royal Arena. The idea was that I would watch Jean Béliveau closely as he worked through the different phases of skating and playmaking, from the vantage point of the ice. Gerry Patterson, Jean’s business adviser, came along too, and refereed for us. You don't get the same view of Jean, even from a seat at rinkside, that you do when you’re playing with him — it’s a totally different impression.

We weren’t wearing uniforms or equipment, just shirts and trousers, so it didn’t take much time to dress. Jean finished lacing his skates and stood up. He had to duck his head going through the dressing-room door. Jean is six-three, and the skates add about two inches to his height.

When I came out to the ice, Jean was already skating around in the style of a pleasure skater, somebody whom you might see at any city park on a winter afternoon skating for fun. It was plain how much he enjoys skating from the way he moved — everybody has seen a man like this at a neighborhood park, who simply loves skating for its own sake because he’s good at it and because it’s a tremendously pleasurable activity in itself. That’s an element that even a keen analyst of hockey might miss — the sheer physical pleasure of the basic activity involved. Some other sports require such intense, painful, concentrated effort (often because the physical movements involved aren't natural to the human body) that whatever pleasure results comes mainly from the competition. But hockey is built on a physical action that is a delight in itself, and you could tell this by watching Jean that morning in the TMR Arena. He skates in a way that tells you at once that he just damn’ well loves to skate, enjoys it, would do it as often as he could, even after 20 years of amateur and professional hockey.

At first he wasn’t making the hockey player’s moves. He was turning from back to front, stretching his legs out far, relaxing and pleasing himself and looking more like a figure skater than I’d ever seen him. I realized, watching him in those first minutes, that if he hadn’t been a hockey player he might have been the greatest of classical figure skaters. The whole rhythm and line of skating changes when you take away the hockey stick; plenty of hockey players lose their grace and balance without it. Jean simply looked, if anything, more stylish and graceful without the stick than with it.

I asked Jean to begin by taking slow warm-up strides. He was skating pretty upright, standing almost erect.

I said, “I thought you bent over a bit more, quite a lot more in fact.”

“Not at the beginning of my warm-up. Watch, here’s how you begin.”

He was taking rather short strides, kinking the legs slightly at the knee and moving from both the knee and the thigh, quite loosely, almost as if he were walking.

“If you come on to the ice,” he said, “and start moving your fastest immediately, you’re taking the risk of a muscle pull, in the groin or the calf. And you don’t want to put too much strain on your knees at the start of a workout. Knee trouble has hurt more good hockey players than almost anything else. I like to move around slowly, and pretty upright, at the beginning. As a matter of fact, during the first three or four days of training camp, I’m likely to get soreness in the lower part of my back from the bending forward that you have to do when you’re going full out.”

I said, “I think of your skating stride as one that keeps you bent well over, with your head and shoulders out in front of your torso.”

“I’ll bend. But you have to remember not to get over too far forward because it can begin to cut off your breathing. A skater who’s in a tight crouch will get winded much more quickly than somebody who’s more erect. So your first few minutes are like this, easy, not pushing too hard.”

“Where does the power in your stride come from, from those big muscle groups up the back of the leg?”

“The push comes from there, but there’s another element of your stride, a kicking or stepping action, from the knee. I think the power comes from your push, and the quickness from the knees and the muscles above the knees in front of the leg. I think the big muscle development on Yvan Cournoyer’s legs, just above the knees, is where he gets his quickness. The speed with which you can flex and unflex those knees, with that kicking action, is even more important than the strength of your push.”

He began to skate a little faster, and I began to feel myself struggling and sweating. “Okay, Jean,” I said, “let’s see you let it out a bit.”

He was gone. Like that!

I was now skating as fast as I could, and the gap between us widened and widened until Jean was moving at least twice as fast as I was. It was as though he’d pressed a switch or turned a key. He just moved his whole rib cage slightly forward and down, leaned a bit, and left me. What this change reminded me of most was the shifting action in an automatic transmission — there’s a faint whir and bump and then you’re in a new speed range. As Jean moved from the relaxed warm-up skating into something approximating game speed (approximating it, that is; at no time was he extending himself) there was a qualitative change in his motion — the difference between the professional and the amateur of modest ability. This is a real difference, not just one of degree.

When we’d done about five minutes of warm-up, he began to show me some of the other aspects of his skating style. He swung around to skating backward, then to the front again, then backward. I noticed that whenever he turned around he did it with his weight on his left foot.

“Do you always do that?”

“I do it instinctively when I’m not in a game. And I think that I’d turn from forward to backward on the left foot in a game. But to move from backward to forward in a game — you’ve got to be able to do that on either foot. If you’re trying to forecheck in front of the net, and the puck-carrier comes out to your right, you’ve got to be able to turn to that side, instinct or no instinct. I imagine that everybody feels more comfortable to one side or other. I’m not giving away any secrets when I tell you that I swing around more easily with my weight to the left.”

“Would that make any difference in actual play?”

“I think it may make some difference. It’s easier to pick some players’ weaknesses than it is others, and naturally you’ll try to exploit them where you can. But you can’t keep a book on the players in hockey to the same extent you can in baseball, where the pitcher and catcher can confer and set up a whole sequence of pitches to try to take advantage of a batter’s faults. Sometimes when I’m coming in on a defenseman I’ll remember that he’s weak to the outside and try to go there; but that might be impossible because of the position of my wings.

“That turnaround to skating backward is pretty important, right?”

“Yes, a defenseman has to be able to do it without thinking about it. He’ll find himself in a game skating backward as fast as he can move, without remembering how he got into that position or when.”

Jean began to move backward, crossing one foot behind the other in a rapid turn, and then switching to the defenseman’s style, moving the hips from side to side in a crouch, and this was when I found out how much superior his backward skating was to my forward movement. He seemed to be aware of the precise dimensions of the rink, and to feel no need to look behind him to see where he was going.

He said, “I know where I am from what’s in front of me. You get a sense after a while of how much space you’ve got to move in. And you know where the other players are supposed to be. You can move backward pretty freely in a game.”

“And you do that when you’re fore-checking?”

“Only occasionally. But a defenseman will skate backward almost as much as forward in a game, and it’s much more important to him than to a centre or a wing.”

Watching him move like that, going around back to front at high speed and talking to me at the same time, began to make me feel slightly dizzy. I said, “Show me the right way to stop.”

He sent up a shower of ice with his skates, doing something I'd never noticed before. Most ordinary skaters, braking while moving forward, will turn their knees to right or left, and brake with the blades of their skates parallel, so that their skates exert an equal braking force. The natural result of this is a dead stop, and a second motion is required to begin skating again. Jean doesn’t do this. When he stops, the rear foot, almost always the left foot, exerts the braking force. He rocks the blade of the skate from toe to heel, almost like a dance step, with the forward foot barely scraping on the ice. Doing it this way, he finishes up as though he were still in motion — poised with his weight in balance ready to swing off on to a new course. He doesn’t seem to try to jam on his brakes, but rather to swing to a stop, so that the stop is only a minute pause before a new action begins. The rocking action of the rear skate lifts his weight, as though he were making an almost invisible jump from a springboard, at the end of the manoeuvre. This is because the actual game is played in that way — no time should elapse between a stop and a new start; they should flow right into each other.

“It all comes from that rear foot,” Jean said, “and the forward foot is like a rudder or a wing, a guide more than anything else. Often you don’t come to a full stop between whistles. Most of the time you have to go in a new direction at once. So you move right through your stop and push up and off. Doing what you do is a good exercise, stopping completely and starting up again. I don’t do it during the pre-game warm-up, but in practice I’ll do plenty of stops and starts for my wind; they really take it out of you. Another exercise that I use all the time is to skate around the rink at the warm-up pace, then when I come to the blue line I’ll go as hard as I can to the next blue line, then slow down and make my turn, then go hard from blue line to blue line. That simulates game conditions very closely. You’re changing speeds without thinking about it during a game, and you need to be able to shift gears, so to speak, without having to think about it. Any change in speed should come as a surprise to your check, so you have to be able to change without giving any sign that you’re going to do it. I think the Rocket had the best change of pace I’ve ever seen. You’d think he’d be going all out, when all at once he’d burst over that blue line so fast you wouldn’t believe it was the same man. It’s something you simply have to be able to do without having to think about it.”

That’s perhaps the really remarkable thing about Jean’s style; it’s completely natural and apparently unconscious; he’ll make adjustments in his pace and balance and the way he holds his body, constantly, as the demands of the situation dictate, without strain or effort. And he can do things that you have to see close up to believe, amazing feats of dexterity. Watching from the stands, you might think taking a face-off a pretty simple operation, where even a mediocre player might have an almost equal chance against Jean. It isn't so.

We took eight or 10 face-offs together, with Gerry Patterson dropping the puck. As the centres come up to the point of the face-off, their sticks are about at the centre of the red spot on the ice, with the tip of the stick as close to the edge of the spot as possible. You can’t put the blade of the stick into the red area till the puck drops. A top centre moves that stick blade in there like a knife blade — snick, snick, in, out — and it's hard to believe how fast Jean’s stick moves. When that puck hits the ice, his blade comes in, zip, zip, and the puck is 20 feet away, just where he wants it. Taking these face-offs with him, I was astounded — it's the only word — at the speed of this movement, and 1 could understand how Yvan (Cournoyer could score a crucial goal against the Rangers six seconds after a face-off outside the New York blue line.

Jean’s stick action at the face-off is difficult to describe. When I watched it happen, the comparison that immediately occurred to me was the motion of a small snake's tongue — so fast you can barely see it. That’s the way Jean moves his stick; he must have wrists of incredible strength and sensitivity because he doesn't just get the puck, he can put it precisely where he wants it. I watched as hard as I could, trying to win one faceoff, and I could not see any movement in his stick blade that would move the puck behind him. But that’s where it went.

The movement of his wrists and the blade of the stick is simply too fast to see. We took one after another, and Jean would call his shot: “Left wing. To the point. In front of the net. Shot on net." And he put the puck exactly where he called it every time. Not within a foot of where he intended; exactly where he intended, just like a billiards champion. The delicacy of the wrist and arm motion must be quite a lot like that used in handling a cue, infinitely accurate.

We would move into position and I’d be concentrating just as hard as I could on moving my stick as the puck fell. The puck would drop and I’d move my stick as fast as I could, and it wouldn’t be any use. The puck would be at the blue line where the point man would pick it up. Gerry and Jean would be grinning at me.

It was the same with the passing game. A little exercise that players will use in a practice or before a house-league or minor-league game is to stand maybe 10 feet apart and start passing the puck back and forth from one to another, gradually moving back so that the distance increases; the object is to make the pass as flat along the ice and as crisp, sharp, as possible. You try to get that good wrist action going for you so that the puck has some zap on it, and you try to put it right on the other guy's blade. You can practise receiving the puck as it comes back to you, cradling it carefully by inclining your stick blade over it as it comes in. The trick is to ease that puck back on to your blade with no hops or ricochets that might cause you to lose control. Standing more or less still like that, you can pass pretty precisely — better than you might in a game. It’s fun to do and it's very good for the wrists.

Jean's passes were beautiful — it’s the only word — in their precision and their extraordinary force. It was their force that really got me. Ordinarily, when you get one of these warm-up passes from one of your friends, it'll come quickly all right, but you don't feel it all the way up the handle of your stick and right up your arms into your shoulders. With Béliveau passes, you do. He’d be standing there, 20 feet away, plenty of light in the building, nobody getting in our way, and nevertheless I couldn't spot what he was doing that was so different from what I'm used to. He was doing something, though, because the puck was coming to me with the same minute accuracy as on the face-offs. I never had to move my blade; it was as though the puck were magnetized by my blade. Once or twice I'd swear that I moved my stick after Jean put the puck in motion and — I don't understand how exactly — the puck still landed right where it should on the stick blade, a little toward the tip. Then I had a sudden wave of understanding. Just like he's done with so many real hockey players, he was making me look and feel good. I suddenly understood why Dick Duff says that everybody wants to play with Jean. Jean was making it possible for me to execute this simple play properly.

We tried making pass plays while we were in motion. When Yvan Cournoyer is executing this play, Jean knows that he'll have his stick where it’s supposed to be, that he won’t suddenly jerk his head to one side to keep his balance, or change course slightly. He can, therefore, lay that pass in there exactly. With an amateur of no particular skill taking the pass, he can’t he sure that his wing will be in the right spot. And yet the puck was always well within my reach, in a spot where I could have completed the play if I'd been properly co-ordinated. I huffed and puffed. ‘‘Wait till I get my breath. Okay, let's have that again."

This time I made the mistake of sweeping my stick hack to pick it up behind me. Instead, it passed well out of reach and banged into the corner.

“You don’t need to reach back for it," Jean said. “If you've got your head twisted around as you stab at the puck, you're going to get knocked down, because you won't be looking for the defenseman. You have to trust the man who's making the pass to get it well up there, so the puck is where you can see it and the defense at the same time.

“It isn't an easy play,” he said. “When it's done right it looks easy; the winger seems to put his stick on the puck without breaking stride and without changing the design of the play. He and the puck are moving very fast, and they’ve got to come together just exactly right. In the NHL you can't be close with your passes; you've got to be dead on. The first time you tried it, the puck was in front of you, and you picked it up off the boards. In a game, you couldn't do that, because it wouldn't be there; the defenseman would have moved it out to his centre. Unless the pass is accurate, and the wing knows how to receive it, it'll turn into a loose puck and possession will change hands.”

I was feeling winded, so I said, “Let's take a break, and then I’ll play defense on you.”

We ran through one-on-one defensive play next. I got into position, first at left, then at right defense, and he rushed the puck on me. I think that, next to those bewildering face-offs, the chance to watch Jean rush the puck was the most enlightening thing we did.

I used to think of fakes as a recognizably distinct series of moves — a drop of the shoulder, a feint in one direction or another, a look to right or left, a deke with the stick — separate and distinguishable movements. When Jean makes a series of fakes, they come so fast that they blur together, and you just don’t know where the puck is. The whole series is so smooth it's incredible. I'd heard of defensemen “getting tangled in their skates” but never thought it was more than a metaphor. It isn’t a metaphor; it’s exactly what happened to me every time he rushed the puck on me. Just like during the face-offs. I’d be watching him come toward me as keenly as I could and then the funny business would start. As nearly as I can figure it, he'd do six or eight different things in under two seconds, and then he’d be behind me.

It seemed to me that I'd have time to think one thing — go left, say, or go right — and by the time I'd started to do it I'd know that I was going the wrong way, try to reverse myself, and find one leg going left and the other right. That’s when I began to get the feeling of getting tangled in my skates.

The first time it happened, I said to myself, “I should have tried a pokecheck." So the next time I held my stick in the left hand and shoved it way out to my left, at the same time getting down as low as I could, trying to cover as wide an area as possible. He put the puck between my legs that time.

“If you do that with your stick,” he said, “there's nothing to prevent me from moving the puck through there. And I know you’re not going to hit me. Another thing: you're backing much too far in. You’re screening your goalie. What you want to try to do is make the play as close to the defensive blue line as possible. Everybody knows that, I think, but sometimes it’s hard to do."

“There’s one other thing I’d like to try on defense,” I said. “You know that play where you lean on the defenseman, and control the puck with your right hand as you go around him?”

The photographs of this particular play are famous; they always show Jean leaning over at an angle to his left, with his left arm crooked by his chest, with the other arm stretched way out so that the puck is out of the defenseman’s area altogether. When you see the photograph, the action is still. I'd always wondered what it looked like to the defenseman in the middle of the play.

He started to come at me, and I got hypnotized. I knew what he was going to do, and considered making a move. But on skates Jean stands six-five, and seeing somebody that tall and heavy bearing down on you and preparing to lean on you is disconcerting. I suddenly remembered I had a wife and children, and thought to myself, “You’d better get out of the way before you get killed.” He came by me just as he does in the pictures, down low to his left, and you can bet I wasn't doing anything to get in his way. I couldn’t have got near that puck with a bulldozer. The idea of that much weight at that speed was the thing that persuaded me.

“I can see how you'd have a lot of success with that one,” I said.

Jean said, “It's my best move,” and chuckled.

We finished with some shooting exercises, working in turn on each of the three fundamental shots: the slapshot

from a distance, the wrist shot from closer in, and the backhand.

Jean began with his slapshot. Of the different shots, the slapshot is probably the most misunderstood by young players, who usually try for power at the expense of accuracy.

“It’s no good at all if you can't put it on the net,” Jean kept saying. “Plenty of players will get the blade up above their heads on the backswing, and then move it through the puck as hard as they can, like driving a golf ball or swinging for home runs. Now even in golf or baseball a shorter and more controlled swing will give you greater accuracy, and you aren't on skates. It stands to reason that if you’re moving fast on ice when you swing you’ll need all the accuracy you can get. Otherwise, your shot will be banging off the boards, 10 feet from the net — which just means a loose puck and possession for the defending team. What you want to do with a slapshot is to combine power and accuracy.”

He shot several times with pinpoint accuracy, calling the target each time: “Upper-left corner, upper-right corner, left side low, right side low.” He could put it anywhere he liked, and his backswing was very short. The blade of the stick was coming back maybe three feet, just about even with his hips, no higher. I spotted something else. The blade of his stick wasn’t sweeping through the puck completely uncontrolled. As the blade came down to the ice, the lower edge right on the ice surface. just before the point of impact. Jean made a slight adjustment to the angle of the blade, like a golfer who is trying to get under the ball in a trap. There was the slightest little wiggle in there, just enough to put some additional control on the puck. This movement didn't slow up the stick's motion at all. but it was perceptible — it was getting the face of the stick blade more “open."

“Maybe I'm taking something off the power of the shot when I do that,” Jean said, “but you have to remember that I’m not taking slapshots from the blue line or beyond it. I'm usually shooting from 30 feet away or less. The defenseman who’s blasting away from the point may be hoping for a deflection more than anything else. He just wants to be around the net, hoping that the man in front will get his stick on it. Plenty of goals are scored like that. But when I shoot, I'm usually in pretty good scoring position, and I'm shooting to score, not looking for a deflection. Not many people have noticed that little adjustment I put in there. I do it instinctively, I think, in an attempt to put a little hook on the puck — to make the shot a bit lively, not just a dead straight line.”

“Do you do that on all the different shots?”

“With the wrist shot everybody does it, I believe. There isn’t the same blasting action on the wrist motion, and you’re much more conscious of the way the puck lies on your blade. When I take a slapshot, that stick waggle has to come unconsciously or not at all. But with the wrists moving, I can feel a much greater degree of control over the puck. The wrist shot is the most important shot, I think, and the one young players should concentrate on.”

“When I go out to the rink on winter afternoons,” I said, “all I see is kids banging slapshots off the boards.”

“It’s an impressive sound,” Jean said, “and I guess it shows off your strength, but you won’t score with it as much as with the wrists. That banging noise tells the story. When the puck goes in the net, you don't hear any banging.”

He started flicking wrist shots from around 25 feet out. Actually, I shouldn’t say he was flicking his wrists, because he doesn’t use a flipping, lifting motion; that would put too much loft on the puck and reduce its speed and liveliness. Like a good golfer or baseball player, he seems to roll his wrists to impart power. The flicking action is too jerky and hesitant to result in either accuracy or smooth power.

"For a left-hand shot like me,” he said, “the left hand, the hand farther down the stick, is the power hand, and the right is the control hand. When you roll your wrists, you shouldn't jerk the stick and lift the blade, or you may top the shot. And if you dig too far under the puck it may simply flip into the air. It's a pretty delicate adjustment, and you only learn to make it after long practice. As far as shooting goes, the best advice I can give is to practise the smooth, even wrist shot more than anything else; it's the shot that will get more results than any other.

“It isn't a looping shot,” Jean said, “and it has to come fast. The backhand, that's different. Most of the time when you're shooting from the backhand, you'll be off balance and in a hurry, usually because you’ve gone to the backhand to evade somebody who’s checking you closely. And the whole physical action of the shot is reversed. Instead of that lower-down power hand pushing the stick, it’s pulling it or sweeping it. It's practically impossible to get the same power on a backhand shot as on a forehand, and nobody uses it by choice. It’s a strategic move, and it has to be more of a sweep or a flick than anything else. Even at that you can get something on it if you work at it. It needs as much control as you can manage. I think the most important thing with the backhand is not to lift it too much. A really fine backhand, like Red Berenson’s, can look almost like a forehand, and it’s usually a short sweep of the blade, not a flick.

“One special kind of backhand comes when you’ve had to come in very close to get the goalie to move and you’ve gone by him. If you’ve got the reach, you can go to your backhand and nudge the puck to the open side. There, of course, it’s more like putting than anything else; you don’t want to whack at the puck, a little tap will do it. Whack at it in a hurry and you may bounce it against the goalpost. In as close as that you want complete accuracy. You just show the goalie the puck on your forehand and. when he moves, you draw it back to you, go to the backhand and go to the open side.”

I've seen Jean do exactly that hundreds of times in games, when it looked so relaxed and easy that I figured that I could do it myself. After this Sunday-morning session my eyes were opened, and I knew that the play as he described it required infinite precision and delicacy and I thought again of the snake's tongue, flicking in and out so fast that the eye couldn’t follow it.

Jean was getting his skates off. “I wear a half-size larger on the left foot.” He held out his skates for me to examine. Sure enough, the left was a nine, and the right an eight-and-a-half.

“Let’s see your feet,” I said, and I looked at them closely. The left foot wasn’t so much bigger than the right as more developed muscularly — the difference between a part of your body that you use a lot and one that you use less. “Ell bet that’s because your left foot is doing so much more of the work in your skating. After all, you stop on the left foot, most of the time you take your shot off the left foot, and you turn around to that side much more than to the right. I'll bet you’re putting the weight on the left foot 80 percent of the time.”

There was no doubt of it: the difference in the muscle development was obvious.

He looked at his feet with a grin. “I guess there isn’t much to be done about it.”

The 20 years of stopping, turning, putting weight into the shot, have left their mark physically after all. That small discovery somehow seemed to me to mean something important about Jean and his career. Here’s a man whose style in his life and his work is just about perfect, who does what he’s meant to do with utter grace in a way that makes physical strain and the necessity of endurance seem invisible. And yet he, too. has paid for his style and grace; the 20 years of effort have left their mark on him, even on Béliveau.

That pleasant informal workout on the ice was one of the most unusual occasions of my life, because of the even decency and friendliness of its tone — it was a “happening” in the very best sense. Jean does things so well — it sounds extravagant to say this but it’s true all the same — that other people do things well, too. He makes you look good.