This story ran in June, 2004, but David was asking the other day if I'd write something about Euro hockey. I think this qualifies.
The lost art of hitting and checking
Physical style of the past is disappearing as hockey evolves into more of a finesse game
Date: Wednesday, June 16, 2004
About 15 years ago, Komets coach Al Sims put his players on a quota system for body checks. Each of the team's more physical players had to get at least four hits per game.
"We didn't give a hit unless it was a hit, either," said Sims, now (then) the coach of Fort Worth in the Central Hockey League. "It wasn't given to a player for a rubout. We didn't want anybody on our team who would shy away from that stuff."
It wasn't uncommon for the Komets to total 80 hits in a game.
This year, the Komets probably averaged 15 hits per game, according to 22-year statistician Don Detter.
"I had enough fingers and toes to count the total for each team," Detter said. "It has evolved into bumping into somebody because there are so darn few."
The biggest gripe with today's game from most fans is the lack of physical play. There are several reasons for the general decline, including the neutral- zone trap, more European players, improved skills that allow players to move the puck faster and rules changes, but the biggest is probably a lack of education.
Current Komets coach Greg Puhalski said he wants his teams to hit, but a lot of today's players simply don't know how.
"In the last 10 years, there probably just hasn't been as much focus on body contact at the junior level; it's been more on skill development," Puhalski said. "I believe hockey is at its best when it's played at a physical level, and the Stanley Cup playoffs are a great example of that. A lot of these players have never experienced it. They are not aware of it and have never been through it."
So why can't coaches teach physical play and get players to hit more?
"If they aren't going to put their heart into it, then why practice it?" Puhalski said. "Then it just breeds laziness and poor habits."
As for coaches forcing their players to change their style of play, look at the turnover rate among coaches. If they want to have any job stability, they have to keep their players happy, and trying to teach something players don't want to learn makes for unhappy players.
"People evolve," Puhalski said. "It's not the army in here. There needs to be an understanding. I'm not the general ordering people around."
Reading that, most Komets fans are probably ready to use their own brand of physical play on Puhalski, but Sims agrees completely. The game and its players have changed.
"It's only effective when you get everybody to buy in," Sims said. "The most important thing is getting a group of veterans in the locker room you can trust and have them spread your message and make sure to hold guys responsible. It's a tough sell, and then you need success pretty quickly."
A coach has two options then. He can sit a player or he can move a player out of town, but it's tough to give away talent. It's also tough to sit a player when the owner or general manager starts talking about money.
"To me, ice time is the last resort you have with a player," said former Komets coach John Torchetti, who was the Florida Panthers' interim coach this season. "How much ice time a guy gets depends on how hard he works. You have to sell that to a team from Day 1. It's a mind-set, and you have to build it through your practice."
The evolution of the game's rules also has lessened the impact of consistent body checking. Players pound each other in front of both nets, but they don't hit as much at center ice.
"With special teams being so important, guys are afraid of taking penalties and it's hard to play that on-the-edge type of game," said St. Louis Blues forward and former Komet Eric Boguniecki. "You can't be reckless because referees are watching you and looking for it and coaches will bench you."
The NHL instituted obstruction rules 10 years ago hoping that would lead to more hitting, but the opposite happened. It led to less hitting, and the neutral-zone trap became common.
The safe play is to stay back, and hitting is taking a chance.
"Every player is bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be, so if you are going in for a hit, you better not miss because they can slip right past you and have an odd-man rush before you can recover," Torchetti said.
Now with coverage defenses the focus is on forcing a bad pass rather than knocking a guy off the puck. Most teams try to create turnovers in the neutral zone, not in the offensive zone.
"More than half of our hits used to be in the offensive zone," said former Komets player and coach and current Los Angeles Kings scout Robbie Laird. "The first guy pressures, and then the second guy comes and gets the hit on the pass.
"A lot of what they are teaching now is positional play and not getting caught in the neutral zone. That's not as exciting as the other way, but it is effective."
Another reason there's less hitting is expansion. There are more jobs, so the talent pool had to expand. When it expanded, more European players came to North America, and the international game has very little body checking. The top European players are good skaters adept at avoiding hits.
"Look at what wins right now - goaltending and defensive structure," said Laird, a big-time hitter during his career. "That negates the skill guys, and by playing that passive style it takes away from the aggressiveness and hitting."
Playing an aggressive style also takes a toll on a team in terms of injuries. With the increase in size and speed in players, it's nearly impossible to play that style over a five-month regular season.
"The pace is in the NHL is unbelievable," Boguniecki said. "Trying to play that style every night is very hard on the body. There are times when people who do play that get away from it simply because your body doesn't allow you to play like that."
Boguniecki thinks the art of body checking might come back more if the NHL is able to shrink its schedule, a move that is being considered.
What's strange is that while hitting is scarce during the regular season, it always increases dramatically during the playoffs, when the games mean more.
"Look, I know we'd like to see more of it, and we've communicated that to our players," Puhalski said. "More than that, I'd like to see it be more of a league-wide thing where it's done the right way. It makes the game much more exciting."