Have you ever been cornered and asked, “So, what do you do?” Or maybe, “What’s your major?” Sometimes, it can be tough be explain. Everyone thinks they know what a pro athlete does. But do we really know? We asked Nashville Predators winger James Neal to explain his job without any cliches.
So I’m the guy who’s supposed to put the little rubber puck into the back of the net. Pretty simple. The only thing is, there’s a 6’5” monster wearing pillows standing in my way — and for some reason the dude can do full splits on skates. It’s insane. When I came into the league, I was just like every other kid: “Uh yeah, you know, uh, just go out there and fire it hard and heavy, top-shelf.”
I’ll always remember my first day at training camp with the Dallas Stars. I skate out onto the ice and we’re all shooting around, getting loose. I’m seeing monsters like Jason Arnott, Bill Guerin, Mike Modano. Marty Turco is in net. It took literally one shot for me to realize that this was a whole different level of hockey. Arnott shot one from the top of the circle and got it past Marty. I tried to do the same thing. I went high glove, and Marty didn’t even have to flinch. The puck went right into his glove. I tried again — same thing. Then Modano comes down — bang. He scores five hole from the top of the circle.
I had to be in the middle of the circles between the hash marks to score on Marty. These guys were scoring from the top of the circles and from bad angles. They weren’t just shooting harder or more accurately than me. In the NHL, everybody shoots it hard. They were doing things before the puck even came off their stick to mess with Marty. I told myself after that first practice that I had to become a better shooter or I wouldn’t make it in the league. Since then, I’ve played in hundreds of NHL games and talked to a ton of different goalies. The real secret to scoring goals is all about the release.
Things are pretty chaotic during an NHL game, but at the end of the day, most scoring chances come down to this: There’s a player who just got the puck on his stick — either from receiving a pass or getting a rebound or creating a turnover. Most of the time, the puck didn’t come to him clean. The ice might be bad. The puck might be flipped on its side. The defenseman might have pushed him and he’s on one leg. Maybe his body isn’t even turned toward the net. There’s a very good chance that he only has a vague idea of where the goalie is positioned. There’s no time to look down, settle the puck, look back up, find an open pocket and rip it. That’s Junior hockey stuff. He has a half-second to make a decision and get it off.
On the other side, you have a goalie who is probably off-balance and scrambling to face the shooter. He’s also got some decisions to make. He sees the puck in the guy’s feet and he’s thinking, Where is he looking? How are his knees bent? Where are his shoulders positioned? Is he going to shoot it or pass it? Damn, he’s shooting. I gotta jump out to the top of the crease and close down his angle.
This all happens really quickly. But when the shooter collects the puck and it’s on his blade, it’s like The Matrix. If you’ve played this game long enough, time slows down. In that moment, the goalie is trying to push out as hard as he can to the top of the crease to swallow up all the open space.
This is a goal that sticks out in my mind from last season, when I scored a hat trick against Chicago. With how good their defensemen are, you never have much space against them, so you have to score a lot of goals like this.
I found a nice seam in the defense, but I knew Seabrook was going to jump out on me when I got the pass, so I swung my hips around and pulled the puck behind me. If I take a half-second to put the puck out in front of me, Seabrook is going to have a chance to poke it. It creates an illusion for the goalie, because my body is on one side of Seabrook and I’m releasing the puck on the other side of him. Goalies hate that kind of screen.
One thing to notice is that I’m a left-handed shot playing the right wing here. That might seem like a small thing, but it’s actually a huge deal. I started my career as a left winger, so I was always receiving passes with the puck outside my body, away from the net. If you’re a playmaker, you might prefer this. I didn’t know how big of a difference this made until I got traded to Pittsburgh. Dan Bylsma walked in the first day and asked, “Hey, do you think you could play right wing?”
I’m like, “Uh, well I’ve never played it before, so I’m not sure?”
He says, “Okay great, you’re playing right wing.”
Once I got used to it, I really elevated my game, because whenever I shot the puck on my forehand, the release point was closer to the net. I was a threat at all times, especially on one-timers. I ended up scoring 40 goals the next season. So whenever a guy switches wings, it has a lot of implications for how he plays. (Thanks, Dan. You were one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.)
This goal against Chicago is exactly why I use a “whippy” stick. Growing up, I used a stiff stick. This allows you a little bit more control with passing and stickhandling, but isn’t as good for shooting. When I switched to a whippier stick, it allowed me to bend the stick when I push down on it and get a lot of torque on my shot — even when I’m off-balance.
Think of it like a diving board. The more springy the diving board is, the higher you go, right? The same thing happens to a puck when it’s on a whippier stick. It’s like a slingshot effect.
Honestly, the feel of my stick is everything. I get a little bit OCD about my sticks before the game. It has to be just the way I want it or I won’t feel comfortable on the ice. The second I pick up a stick from the rack and I put it down, I can tell if it’s right or not. The feel of the flex is the most important thing. Also, the curve of the blade and the way that it’s taped. Everything matters. When I tape my stick, I use thick white tape and I wrap it from heel to toe. I leave a little bit of the toe untaped, because that’s where I usually release my shot from.
It’s not just the feel of it, it’s the visual, too.
Visual points are very important to a shooter. Typically, you’re looking down at your stick when you shoot the puck. The way the puck sits on your blade and how it looks to you is a very big thing, as strange as that may sound. That’s why guys are very particular about using white or black tape. If I had to play with black tape on my blade, I’d freak out. It’s kind of like what would happen if you came into the office and they switched your computer keyboard for another one. You’d just be uncomfortable, you know? You wouldn’t have any flow.
I get a little bit OCD about my sticks before the game.
Obviously, you’re not always going to have the element of surprise like on that Chicago goal. Sometimes you’re in a one-on-one situation with a defenseman, which means the goalies have the advantage. It’s really a one-on-two. When the best goalies have time to get to the top of their crease, you’re already screwed. Our goalie, Pekka Rinne, is 6’5”. When he’s able to get into position on you, it looks like there’s absolutely no open space. You’re just looking into a massive blue-and-yellow blur.
So if your angle is closed down by the goalie, what can you do? You gotta change the angle.
My favorite way to do this in a one-on-one situation is called a toe-drag. I’ll hold the puck as far outside my body as possible, then pull it into my feet before snapping the shot off. This kills two birds with one stone, because not only does it change the release point for the goalie, it also keeps your shot from being deflected by the defenseman.
When I played in Pittsburgh, Paul Martin was insanely good at deflecting shots. If we were in practice and I tried to get a wrister off without changing the angle, Paulie would send everything up into the rafters. Deflections don’t get a lot of attention by fans, but they can really piss off a shooter and get him off his game — almost more than taking a big hit. When you’re up against guys with good sticks, you have to create space for your release with deception. This goal against Ottawa sticks out in my mind.
Erik Karlsson is one of the best skaters in the league. There’s no way I’m going to dangle it around him. In his mind, he knows this, too. So I flex down on my blade and raise my eyes up, which hints that I’m shooting a wrister. To the average person, it might look like Karlsson is trying to steal the puck off me and he just mistimed it. But if you look closely, you’ll see that he’s not trying to poke-check me — he has his blade elevated up like a ramp in front of mine. This is the classic “stick on puck” technique that sends your shot up to the cotton candy guy.
Fortunately, I was able to drag the puck behind me with the toe of my stick (untaped!). Now I’m in a really dangerous position, because you have to think about it from the perspective of Ottawa’s goalie. A half-second before, my body position was outside of Karlsson. So I really only have one option: Shoot it to the short side. There’s no way I’m getting it across to his glove side. That’s an impossible angle. But as soon as I drag the puck and it gets around Karlsson, all of a sudden the release point is in the middle of the ice. I’m able to roof it over his glove. Watch it again and notice where the puck is when I fake the shot and where it is when I actually release it. That’s a huge difference. That’s like shooting a foul shot instead of shooting a three-pointer.
Flower would make a save and you would hear him laughing and chirping at the guy in his French-Canadian accent.
Obviously, there’s a lot more stuff that goes into my job than just my release. So much of scoring goals is confidence. If you shoot a puck and you don’t believe it’s going in, it’s not going in, buddy. I’d say the toughest part about being a goal-scoring winger is that when you go through a slump, it’s pretty brutal. Hockey is really unique in that respect. You could be having the worst game ever, but if a shot deflects in off your shin guard, your whole mood changes. You get instant confidence. When you’re in a drought, it feels like there’s a forcefield over the net.
When this happens, the goalies who know how to chirp really start messing with you. Marc-Andre Fleury was amazing at this when I was in Pittsburgh. When he was in the zone, he would be having so much fun. Flower would make a save and you would hear him laughing and chirping at the guy in his French-Canadian accent. He’d do commentary for his own saves.
Confidence really is everything.
I’ll tell you one more thing you might not know about my job: You cannot, under any circumstances, tap your stick on the ice to call for a pass, no matter how open you are. I did this once during my first year in Dallas. Brad Richards was my linemate. The guy is one of the best teammates I ever had. Brad was coming down on a rush with the puck and I found some space. I thought I was open, so I started banging my stick on the ice like we were playing street hockey.
When we got back to the bench, he looked over at me and shook his head. Instantly, I realized: Oh, man. Conn Smythe. Stanley Cup. Brad Richards. I think I messed up.
He goes, “Kid, if you ever bang your stick on the ice again, you’ll never get another pass from me.”
Thanks, bud. I still think I’m always open, I just don’t tap my stick anymore.