Jack Blatherwick

Skillful defensemen are catalysts

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

“How do you identify those rare great defensemen? Once they touch the puck in the defensive zone, the next thing you know, we’re on the attack at the offensive blue line.” Glen Sonmor was on a roll, emphasizing this point to his Minnesota North Star coaching/scouting staff 30 years ago. His lifelong motto as a scout was, “I don’t care what he can’t do; I want to know what special things he can do that others can’t. If we’re any good as coaches, we should be able to develop the rest.”

Besides playing professionally, Sonmor has been a coach, general manager and scout for 50 years. His experience — like that of anyone who has coached — is that the most difficult skill for any team is breaking the puck out of the zone in a way that starts an effective offensive rush. It requires great rink sense, skill, courage and toughness — poise on the part of defensemen to initiate the breakout in the midst of tenacious forechecking.

Those few defensemen who can do it are the envy of opposing coaches at every level of hockey. Scott Niedermeyer, captain of the Canadian team, was a great example in the Olympics, and after watching the final game several times, it’s easy to argue that he was the MVP for the Gold Medal team.

The ability to step up across the goal line and make passes while moving north (toward the opposing goal) means that all forwards will be moving through the neutral zone at top speed. This creates a four-man rush that puts great pressure on the opponent, even if they’re in good position.

On the other hand, if a defenseman simply rings the puck around the boards from behind the net, the wing must wait for it to arrive at the same time as the physical assault from two opponents. If the wing is courageous, conscientious and skillful, he might be able to chip the puck into the neutral zone, where his two linemates will support and pick it up along the boards. The ensuing rush is impotent.

This is one reason we see so much dumping of the puck, rather than play-making. Most defensemen are simply not good enough to make breakout plays that enhance the attack. It’s actually just a matter of two or three strides, and a lot of skill, for the D to make the breakout pass after stepping up across the goal line.

The most common breakout play is a distant second-best. This is practiced thousands of times by most teams: the defenseman skates behind the net and before turning up ice, passes directly to the stick of the stationary wing at the half-board. The wing will probably not have to deal with the opposing D pinching down the boards and his next pass is easier than if the D had rung it around the boards, but the winger is stationary and will not get up in the rush quickly enough to contribute much to the attack. The result is a two-man rush against three opponents.

Niedermeyer makes every forward on his team a better player, because they receive passes while moving north at top speed. Of course, every winning team has defensemen who contribute other things: toughness in the corners or in front of the net, shot blocking, steady, smart defense — qualities that make it ugly for opposing forwards.

But the 2010 Olympic message to youth coaches is this: cultivate those Niedermeyer qualities in young defensemen. Look for your smartest, most skillful players who don’t score four goals a game, and make them into defensemen in Niedermeyer’s mold. Size is irrelevant in comparison to stickhandling skills, poise and rink sense.

All defensemen must compete to prevent goals like their very lives depend on it. They must anticipate dangerous situations, make good reads, cover effectively and stop rushes. They must be miserable to play against when competing for loose pucks. But, in addition, the greatest D are those with the rare special ability to make their forwards better. By the way they break out of the zone, they are the catalysts that championships are made of.


Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.




What makes a miracle a miracle?

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

We call it a miracle – those pyramids in Egypt – or the first step on the moon – or whenever an American team pulls off a major upset in Olympic hockey. I wonder if the participants really believe their work “defies all known laws of science?”

I traveled back 4,600 years to a typical day on the job, just to see what the Egyptian workers were saying about miracles. There were 20,000 or so, and some had permanently twisted anatomies, because they had been hauling rocks for most of the 80 years it took to complete the project.

There was some grumbling we can’t repeat when I asked if this should be called “a miracle.” They had heard those rumors, and one of the group of 40 carrying a large boulder gasped, “As if someone just waves a bleeping wand and…voila…a pyramid!” 

These were the ‘carriers.’ There were also the higher paid ‘carvers’ and, of course, the educated-elite site managers who used long tight ropes to make sure the slant was up to the Pharaoh’s expectations. No twisted bodies in this group. They weren’t even sweating.

Hundreds of bakers made sure others had food to keep up the pace; physicians attended the injured; and in case carriers were crushed beneath a boulder, there were undertakers to ensure that bones, found thousands of years later, would be properly attired.

Astronauts at the Apollo 11 landing site had basically the same response as the Egyptians. As Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the moon, I asked, “Do you call this a miracle?” 

“What? Get back out of sight quick, before TV picks you up! Now we have to do this scene all over again. Stand over there behind the ship. (pause) One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind. (pause) Ok, what were you talking about…miracle? A miracle defies all known laws of science. No way. This IS science. Thousands of intelligent people have been working as a team, 24/7 for this moment to happen. Don’t insult their efforts.”

“Sorry…maybe I’d better head back.  I think I’ll try the Olympic hockey team. They’ll be having their tryouts for the Games in Lake Placid in…uh…exactly 10 years.”  

“Well,” said Armstrong, “they have a tough test with those Soviets. Some have said it’s easier to land a man on the moon.”

July 1979, Colorado Springs: 90 of the best college hockey players are competing to make the Olympic team. Some, like John Harrington, knew the altitude (6,000 feet) would be a factor, so they moved out weeks in advance to accelerate their training.

“I’m leaving nothing to chance,” John said. “This is too important. I’ve been sprinting up hills, skating every hour available, lifting weights, shooting pucks and I’m in the best shape of my life. If someone beats me out, it’ll be a miracle.”

“Miracle? What are the chances of beating the Soviets?” I asked, but Harrington was already starting up Pike’s Peak and ignored the question. Most candidates came to tryouts in great shape. They knew that Coach Herb Brooks wanted speed on this team, and would test for it on the ice.

In the evening games, the evaluators were told to look for players who could compete at high speed because Brooks, having played with two Olympic teams and several national teams, knew the Soviets and Europeans played at a much faster tempo than college kids had ever seen.

When the team was picked, players were warned they’d be tested again on the ice, and that failing to prepare would mean they’d probably be cut when they returned for camp in a few weeks. This would be the major philosophy for the next seven months: Execute skills and make decisions at the highest possible tempo – repeat and repeat and repeat in practices of two hours or more – and, “You’d better not slow down…ever.”

There was much planning. Brooks’ over-riding philosophy was, “Always be better prepared than any of your athletes.” He noted that others had tried to beat the Soviets by simply emphasizing great defense. 

“You can’t be on defense all day against them,” he growled. “You’ll take penalties, and that’s it. Game over. You have to beat them at their own game – puck possession and speed. So how can you practice any other way? What good is a slow conditioning drill on-ice or off? We have to shock them when they realize that another team in the Olympics can operate at their pace.”

Sounds good, Herb, but I brought my recorder to some of your practices in the next months. Mark Pavelich was standing for a few seconds between shifts where his line flew up the ice and back – then up again – making decisions on the fly, trying to pass perfectly without hesitation, and doing this while skating faster than ever before. 

“Pav,” Brooks hollered. “You look like you’re portaging your canoe. Get your line moving.”

“He’s crazy,” Pavelich muttered under his breath. “It’ll be a miracle if we survive these practices for five more months.”  

That word “miracle” came up often in reference to surviving Brooks’ practices. I don’t recall anyone using it in reference to winning. That was more like “preparation.”

“[Dave] Silk,” Brooks shouted. “You’ve got million dollar legs and a nickel brain. But we’ll change that in a hurry. Everyone…start thinking out here. Your mind must be quicker than your feet.”

So it went – relentless repetition of skill, speed and decision making, stopping only for short timed rest intervals. The pace was never comfortable. Other teams had practiced at comfortable speeds, and when they played the Soviets, they were on edge the entire night. With the 1980 team, speed was one factor they could control by training.

Team skills, passing, shooting, filling open lanes and sprinting back on defense also improved week by week. “[Rob] McClanahan, you think you’re fast? Remember this: The puck moves faster when you pass it.  Get that puck up ice.”

Nagy, the good doctor was wearing his familiar frown, “It’ll be a miracle if they all survive. I don’t think Brooks can keep this up. We won’t have any players left.”

“Yeah; he’s crazy,” I responded – but not quietly enough.

“I heard that, Cardiac,” Brooks snapped. “You’re an ivory-tower scientist; not a coach. We have to beat teams like the Czechs and Swedes and Soviets. You can afford to theorize. We have to train athletes to execute at a tempo that will shock even those guys in red uniforms. If we don’t train with that intensity, we’ll be relying on miracles.”


Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.



Chuck-a-pucks and convertibles

Circus intermissions at the Olympics? Jack Blatherwick doesn’t think so.

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist


There’s a regular part of most hockey games that will be missing in the Winter Olympics. You won’t see it in the Stanley Cup playoffs, or any playoffs, for that matter – not at the Xcel Energy Center for the high school tournaments – not in the State Bantam or PeeWee Championships either.

We won’t see Chuck-A-Puck contests between periods. There will be no hackers trying to shoot a puck through a hole in the plywood 90 feet away. [Why is it the winning tickets always produce folks who don’t know which end of the stick to hold?] Nor will we be treated to five-minute Mite games in which half the kids are just starting to figure out which direction to skate by the time they are hustled off the ice.

There will be no convertibles in the Winter Olympics, driving around the ice to show off the car dealer’s kids. No screaming disc jockey telling us how much fun it is to watch convertibles. There is no circus between periods of an Olympic game – just the Zamboni and a lot of quiet.

You can tell a hockey writer is getting old when the best he can do is an appeal to stop the circus acts between periods. But, actually I have a more serious reason for writing than simply spoiling everyone’s fun.

Consider this: at a recent college hockey game (where they’re deprived of carnivals between periods) two Zambonis hustled around with great efficiency, leaving 11 full minutes for the water to freeze and produce a sheet of ice that was smooth as glass.

So what does 11 minutes mean? It must mean better ice and a faster, more skillful game or no doubt, we’d have a Super Bowl halftime show between periods of Stanley Cup games and the Olympics. Promoters can just imagine what Janet Jackson could do with the international stage. OK, stop imagining. With two intermissions, we could really put on a show at hockey’s biggest tournaments.

But we don’t.

We demand good ice for State Tournaments and the Olympics, and we realize that no one pays $700 to see pucks thrown on the ice. The NHL must think people pay $100 in the regular season to see Mites run around like ants, because they rejected my plea last spring on behalf of the Union of Former Zamboni Drivers (UFZD) who unanimously voted for better ice — all two of us.

You see, unfrozen, slushy ice not only ruins the skills of the game, but it’s dangerous for players. It is one major reason for the epidemic of groin/hip injuries. These often occur when a player extends fully, and at the end of the stride, steps into a small rut or crack — often so small he doesn’t feel it. The stretch-reflex automatically causes groin and hip flexor muscles to contract quickly against this sudden unexpected stretch, and bingo – a career-ending injury.

My letter to the NHL mentioned that Marion Gaborik and hundreds like him have had their careers compromised – perhaps by unfrozen cracks in the ice. But apparently, this was not as important as circus acts between periods.

Players do not often pull muscles when the ice is perfectly smooth; and of course, ice would be much better if the Zambonis began resurfacing immediately after the period ends. At the same time, a crew of maintenance people could jump out there with buckets of slush to repair the deepest ruts.

Then we’d all sit back quietly for 11 minutes and enjoy the physics of water turning to ice. If we turned down the lights a little and reduced the volume of canned music – just a few decibels – it would be a senior citizen’s idea of heaven. No entertainment – no electronic noise – just quiet conversation about the finer details of hockey games and ice-freezing spectacles.

 This is heaven, I say.  And it’s coming up this week in Vancouver and at rinks all over Minnesota as the girls start their battles – on perfect ice – to see who plays at the X in three weeks.


Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.





International respect grows at the Olympics

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

“It’s an honor to compete for my country.” 

In the early stages of the Olympics, this is heard dozens of times, as TV cameras zoom in on tear-streaked faces of athletes draped in the flag of their country. It’s good TV, this patriotism – and it is a genuine, heartfelt emotion. No doubt it adds to the competitiveness and certainly the pressure to perform. 

But as the two weeks progress; as athletes and coaches from around the world share the same dining room, the same weight room, entertainment centers and mail rooms — as you walk the same hallways and tunnels, you see the same people over and over again. 

You nod and mumble a greeting in a language they cannot understand. They greet you with a smile and a salute. But there are two more weeks, and eventually, you master a couple words of Russian, or Chinese, or Polish, and they do the same. You learn, “spaciba” or “tak” and you hope you use the right words at the right time.  

In a few days, the greetings are longer. Two words become four or five. You stop and shake hands or hold the door. Throughout the dining room you see attempts to communicate, because it seems everyone has the same purpose – to show respect.

Some athletes finish their competition early and start to exchange their most colorful clothing, the elaborate coats and hats worn during the Opening Ceremony. This starts a mass exchange of parkas and hats and flags – and by the end of competition, most people end up wearing at least some clothes from foreign countries.

My favorite possession is the bright red Soviet flag with hammer and sickle. The politicians of that era might have had their own Cold War, but I guarantee the Russian people loved Americans.

Finally, in every Closing Ceremony – Winter or Summer – athletes walk arm in arm with their greatest rivals, wearing the opponent’s clothing – the colors of their country. Patriotism is replaced by international respect and friendship.

As a hockey player, I certainly was never good enough to be an Olympian, so I was deeply honored to be a coach and attend the Winter Games in Calgary and Norway. The opportunity to walk the hallways and greet foreign athletes, to see that they all share what Herb Brooks expressed to the American team at the start of the Games in 2002: “You have already won. There is no greater honor in sports than to be an Olympian.”

Competing for your country is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime honor. However, perhaps because I was not an Olympic athlete, my greatest reward was to see so many people trying so hard to communicate respect and friendship with athletes from other countries. 

Do not miss the Closing Ceremony, because the Olympic Games are, by that time, a celebration of international respect. The competition is history. Opponents are now friends, even if their nations happen to be at war. Red, white and blue is mixed with green and gold, black, yellow and purple. 

Just as the colorful Olympic rings are interlocked on flags around the stadium, the athletes in Vancouver will march out with interlocked arms as they do in all Winter and Summer Games. It renews a glimmer of hope that respect will spread far from the sports arena and there will be lasting world peace.


Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.



Learning movement by observation

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

There’s nothing new in the knowledge that children learn much of their movement, behavior and language by copying older children and adults. What has been added recently is a greater understanding of what takes place in the brain to make this possible when the adult is not making any attempt to teach, and the child is not making a conscious effort to learn.

Neuroscientists have known for several decades that when a person skates — or throws a ball or moves fingers, eyes, tongue, etc. — that neurons in a certain well-identified area of the brain (in the motor cortex) are active. The cortex of the brain (uppermost conscious region) initiates most movement, but most of the control takes place in lower areas of the brain and spinal cord. 

However, because the cortex monitors the progress, cortical neurons are active throughout all movement. Very specific regions are associated with each different movement, so it is easy to “map” which areas are associated with the fingers, or legs, eyes, tongue, etc.

The important new knowledge for coaches — discovered by computerized imaging of brain activity — is that regions of the cortex which are active when an athlete skates, for example, are also active if the athlete sits quietly and watches someone else skate! Amazing. 

Certain neurons have been found — “mirror neurons” — that apparently activate this system of brain mimicking, and scientists believe this is an important part of the process by which children learn movement without consciously analyzing it. This is more appropriately called learning by feel rather than thought.

Watching someone else skate is a very important supplement to skating practice — much more significant than if someone were to tell the learner the gory details of skating mechanics. The movement patterns are actually felt when the learner watches, making it more likely these same patterns can be mimicked during practice.

Mirror neurons are also important in developing the ability to anticipate what others on the ice are about to do, perhaps the most important skill in hockey. When a baseball player observes another starting to throw — even in the initial stages, the familiarity of the throwing motion is actually felt by the observer — not just seen — and the player’s brain knows the rest of the throwing program. In this way, an athlete actually feels what an opponent is about to do.

This research leaped forward by accident when a monkey was sitting quietly in a lab after physiologists monitored brain activity associated with arm movements as the monkey picked up peanuts to eat. Then, when a grad student made the same motion, picking up something and bringing it to his mouth, the brain of the monkey was active in the same region as before, even though the monkey had made no movement at all. 

Since that time it has been learned that humans have a much more active “mirror system” than other primates. This is one reason humans have a greater ability to learn from each other — thus the more rapid growth of language, knowledge and culture.

Computer and imaging technologies yet to be discovered will continue to uncover concepts related to motor learning. Therefore, knowledge in these fields is growing at an exponential rate, and coaches should race along with it to find effective ways to teach.


Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.