Before my rookie year in the NHL, my dad made me a Wayne Gretzky highlight tape to study. I have no idea how he did it. This was 1985. We didn’t have computers. When you wanted to make a highlight tape, you physically had to make a tape. My dad was an engineer, so he was able to stitch together a bunch of Gretzky highlights onto a Betamax tape.
Remember beta tape? If you’re too young, just think of your parents’ wedding videos.
You’re probably thinking, That’s impressive. A four-minute Gretzky video like the ones I watch on YouTube? That’s pretty cool of your dad.
Well, it wasn’t four minutes long. It was four hours long.
My dad didn’t just want me to see the goals. He wanted me to learn from all the little nuances in Gretzky’s game that made him so brilliant — especially how he manipulated space and passed the puck.
That summer, I probably watched that tape 50 times to try to figure out what Gretz was doing differently than everyone else. For the first month and a half — I’m telling you right now — I could not figure out what I was watching. I thought, What am I missing? How does he get the pass through that gap? Very slowly, I started to pick it up.
With Gretz, the magic was all about how he manipulated his opponent through misdirection. Wayne’s footwork when he was handling the puck at a standstill was just as impressive as when he was skating full-speed down the wing. This is why it’s funny to me that all you hear about in the NHL today is the need for speed, size and strength. Fans who want more scoring talk about how to fix things. Bigger rinks? Smaller goalie equipment?
I think the solution is a lot simpler. We can still learn from Wayne today. The game is about skill and smarts.
Don’t get me wrong, the sport has evolved since the ’80s, when I was watching Wayne through the tracking fuzz. There’s more knowledge about proper conditioning and diet, and composite sticks have made a huge difference — especially with the velocity of shots.
But if the league is dead set on increasing scoring, I don’t think making the rinks bigger is going to solve anything. In fact, if I had to choose, I’d make them smaller if it wouldn’t lead to more contact-related injuries.
The reason is simple. There’s always going to be a ton of guys who can skate, especially with the emphasis now on training and athleticism. But there’s not enough of a premium on players with the brains or the hands to be real playmakers.
Personally, the best year I had in my entire career was in the old Boston Garden, which was tiny. If you look at Olympic hockey games, at least between the top teams, scoring is tight despite the bigger surface. More room doesn’t necessarily lead to more goals.
Why? For one thing, everyone can skate now. Even the defensemen can fly.
But the issue is a little more complicated than just speed. It goes back to Gretz on the Beta tape. After watching him for hours, I realized that he was pulling defenders toward him. He wanted them in close. He would slow the pace down and attract defenders to him, pulling them out of position and freeing up his teammates.
Gretzky was the king of misdirection. This might seem like an odd comparison, but he reminds me of Messi in soccer. Messi is good in space. But he’s incredible when he’s surrounded by defenders.
If you look at most half-wall guys in the NHL today, they’re not necessarily the best skaters, but they’ve got great hands and make the right plays. Jaromir Jagr is on pace for 64 points this season at age 44. How is that even possible? It’s because Jagr is a classic half-wall guy. He purposely cuts the ice in half and makes defenders come to him, just like Gretzky used to do.
I would rather a guy like Joe Thornton get the puck 75 times a game in close quarters versus skating with it. Claude Giroux? I want him to have the puck 75 times a night. He has the ability to stickhandle in a phone booth. I want him to. And I want a smaller rink so he gets the opportunity.
Making the rink bigger won’t necessarily lead to more scoring because you still have to penetrate. There’s a small but very important difference between possession and penetration. For example: If you look at a five-on-three power play, there’s seems to be a ton of open ice, but it’s still hard to score because the defending team brings their guys in tighter around the goal to close the shooting lanes. The ice could be 10 feet or 1,000 feet wide. It doesn’t matter. What matters is how your skill players manipulate the defenders in that tiny box.
Let’s think about this: Chicago has no problem scoring. Dallas has no problem scoring. Washington has no problem scoring. Why is that? It’s because they’re letting their skill players do what they do best instead of forcing them into a system.
Think about it. We’ve got a guy in Chicago that’s five-foot-nine, 160 pounds, who recently had a 26-game point streak. Why? Because Patrick Kane is an incredibly skilled player, and he also has a coach that doesn’t try to interfere with his game.
As an outsider now, I’m not trying to alienate coaches, but I think we have to figure out a balance between letting the skill players play, and fitting everyone into a system. There’s a lot of players who aren’t 6-foot-3 monsters who can be great if given some freedom.
That’s one of my quests right now, to educate coaches to let players’ talents come out. The problem starts when players are young. Coaches want to win games, I get it. But they should still have a responsibility to develop the skill of a 15-year-old kid. Coaches are not necessarily thinking about honing the stick skills of an undersized player. Unless you’re an obvious talent like Kane, you’re probably taught to dump-and-chase and clog shooting lanes.
If that kid makes it to the NHL, is he going to know how to use his body positioning to work the half-wall? Is he going to know how to stickhandle in a phone booth? Will he have any vision?
Every team has a goalie coach, right? And the goalie coaches work on every little tiny nuance with his goalies.
NFL teams have a coach at every position. They’ve got a quarterbacks coach, an offensive line coach, a wide receivers coach.
You’ve got four centers on an NHL team, and they probably make $20 million a season combined. So I think you will see NHL teams start to use more coaches as the complexity of the game continues to evolve.
Nobody bats an eye when Tom Brady has a QB coach, a nutritionist and a separate skills trainer. Why shouldn’t Sidney Crosby — or for that matter, a third line NHL player — have the same type of specialized team helping him get better?
Right now, most NHL teams have a goalie coach, a strength coach and three assistants, and that’s it. Yes, it’s a long and tough season, so you can’t always work on skills, but with so many position-specific players, it makes sense to specialize training.
A lot of the drills I use with NHL players are the very same things I used to do with Brett Hull when we played together in St. Louis. And yeah, no matter what you’ve heard, Hully is actually one of the smartest hockey minds in the game.
When I first met Brett, we instantly had chemistry on and off the ice. We did everything together. We traveled together and roomed together on the road. He was the goal-scorer, I was the passer.
Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, two guys I coached in Washington, actually remind me a lot of Hully and myself. Ovechkin’s the loud, outgoing superstar and Backy’s the quiet passer, a set-up artist. Their personalities match mine and Hully’s.
So those things that Brett and I used to work on, I’m trying to impart some of that wisdom to players today.
For example, one of the most underrated skills in the NHL is a player’s ability to pick up pucks coming around the boards. Think of how many times this happens during a game. The defenseman collects the puck behind the net, gets rushed, and has to rim it around to his winger. The problem is, the puck is round. It flutters around at crazy angles. Sometimes it takes a bounce. This is the stuff that’s hard to see on TV, but that players have to deal with 20 or 30 times a game. Players who can control that bouncing puck in stride improve their team’s breakout execution tenfold.
Everybody in the game focuses on pace all the time, but here’s the reality — half the game is fast, and half is standing still. Sure, there are times when you’re going to be backchecking and it’s very fast-paced, but what about when there’s 10 guys in the offensive zone standing still? That’s where Jagr is fantastic, the Sedins are fantastic and Backstrom is fantastic.
One of the things I took from watching that four-hour Gretzky tape was how important it was to pass the puck flat. Growing up today, saucering the puck is cool, but being able to pass it flat is essential. If you can pass the puck along the ice with accuracy — both forehand and backhand — you will learn to see the holes between a guy’s feet or under his stick. The flatter you can make a pass, the faster it will be, which will make things easier for the shooter, who can now play the puck clean, without a bounce.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think hockey is in a great place right now, especially at the top end. When players in the league today have their skills developed and are allowed to express themselves, you get guys who can wow you like Backstrom.
Watch his misdirection here. Look at his feet. Look at the head-fake. Look at the flat pass across. Look how he freezes two defenders.
That’s a little bit of Gretzky’s magic right there.
I’ve actually never gotten a chance to tell Wayne about that tape — I’ve truthfully not had too many quiet moments with him. Obviously, I got a chance to play against him, but he was more like an idol to me back then.
My goal now is to bring that knowledge to next generation of hockey players. We have a lot of incredible tools and technology in the game today, which I embrace completely. But when you’re teaching young players what makes Gretzky or Hull or Jagr great, you don’t need top-of-the-line weight machines or iPads. You can see the magic of their games on a fuzzy Beta tape. Or just go to YouTube.