Why hitting has declined

January 27, 2006

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."

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16 Responses to “Why hitting has declined”

  1. Carl Says:

    Euro hockey sucks and does not work. It is not impossible to play a physical brand of hockey even with the rules that are in place currently. Rockford and Danbury both play the body effectively and are doing quite well by playing this way. Each team consists of players that will hold opponents accountable if they do so much as look at a teammate wrong. Nobody on the current Komet roster strikes fear into anyone as we speak, and neither does their “Euro hockey” style of play. Just ask Adirondack how well Euro-hockey holds up come playoff time.

  2. David Says:

    Thank you Blake, I remember this article. One comment from Coach P, Why teach it if their heart and head is not into it. That tells me right there that they need to look for me guys that are willing to do it, rather than guys who are not willing. If you look at are club right now we have way to many guys that are not willing to play a physical style of game and our record has shown that. I would find a way to make it more common than not, and like coach Torch said the only thing a coach has over a player is ice time. I would start taking away ice time from those players who do not want to take the body.

  3. scoops Says:

    Something that falls back on our personnel, which I have said 10,000 times on this blog. But its so much easier for people to blame the coach for it.
    Any professional sport evolves over time. Whatever is successful in terms of championships is what will be adopted.

  4. scoops Says:

    IceHogs hockey: Its about heart, soul, and skill. And of course, the rabid dedication to the time-honored practice of beating the living heck out of other hockey teams night after night after night.

    Sounds like one team had a plan and followed through with it by bringing in the personnel. Looks to be pretty a successful one at that. Whats our plan?

  5. Blake Says:

    Our plan was to bring back 13 players from a team that won 50 games and reached the finals. Oh, and everyone also wanted a raise. The rookies obviously didn’t work out. Other than that they brought in Guy, Smith and Galbraith. That’s approximately 15 guys that should have been pretty good on paper. If they had not brought back all those guys, people would have screamed bloddy murder, too. Things change, life happens, and then you adjust.

  6. JR Says:

    You know, hockey without physical play is like nachos without cheese. After awhile it starts to become dry and boring. If I were’nt such a hockey junky I’d stop giving this sport my time and money. Oh well, I guess I’ll just hope that like outdated fashion physical hockey will make a resurgence one of these years…..And of course I’ll still be supporting the K’s.

  7. scoops Says:

    The plan for this year obviously hasn’t worked out like we all would of liked but there is still plenty of puck left to play and we’ll see what we do with it.
    It was probably an unfair question to ask at this point since we are concentrating on the season at hand.

  8. Blake Says:

    It will come back JR. Everything is cyclical. What’s the best way to beat a high-speed, swirling team? Blast them. The very best teams are a combination of both.

  9. Skate Says:

    If a coach wants a team that will hit and play a physical game, those are the type of guys he has to RECRUIT. It’s simple. You can take a Chaz Johnson or Robin Big Snake, guys that are WILLING to play a physical style and turn them into decent players. You cannot change guys like Hukalo (for one) and turn him into a physical hitter — he’s too small and it has never been in his game and never will be. It begins with the recruiting over the summer.

  10. carl Says:

    I agree totally with what Skate said. Puhalski likes his teams to play Euro hockey, and that is the way it is going to be as long as he is here as coach! He only recruits players that for the most part are finese and he (more likely management) throws in a token tought guy that he will usually cut half way through the season. Chef needs to go!!!

  11. This Buds 4 U Says:

    Good Article Blake, I am hoping that the Komets are getting ready to peak toward the playoffs.It seems like in the past,they were focused more on the regular season title,rather than the playoffs.
    The game of hockey is really simple,you forecheck the the other team and make them cough up the puck and you keep them away from the front of your net. You can not do that if you are in the penalty box.
    I just watched part of the UHL All Star game.They had Duhart miked and he was hilarious,never shut up but was having a blast “giving it” to his teamates. Oh well back to the season.
    The K’s are not the most talented,but the most talented doesn’t always win.
    With the fan support we have, we deserve to be the ABSOLUTLEY worst place to play on the road of any venue in the UHL….
    I cannot believe as a minor league hockey player in this league, that if the HOME team just scored a goal,and instead of singing OLE OLE, why cant we have 8000 people, spending their hard earned money,yelling U SUCK at top of their lungs. Oh how I miss the “old days”.
    I am sorry Blake,but it”aint the same”.
    OLE OLE OLE OL OL O O O God that sucks!!!!!
    HELLO its not just Hockey its KOMETS HOCKEY
    don’t give in to the casual fan,give the real fans WANT WE want!!!!First year in ten we have not renewed our season tickets,but
    Thank God we can watch them on the road. It is too bad the visitors fans can not watch Their team @ the ALLEN COUNTY WAR MEMORIAL COLISEUM,it reeks of arrogance on our owners behalf. They can blame it on the Coliseum mgmt,but we can only assume the visitors fans are getting screwed.
    I enjoy watching the broadcasts on the road.I enjoy listening to the other announcers,but can the fans of the UHL teams listen to the King of hockey broadcasting,while watching their team on the road,ABSOLUTLY NOT.
    I would apologize for my rambling, but you know, this league should be sponsered by,Vera Bradley,or maybe just the Komets. At least their Christmas jerseys would better.!!!BUD
    PS Smitty U DA MAN !!!

  12. dnlkomets Says:

    I have no idea what you just said Bud.

  13. Hit Somebody!!! Says:

    I find it interesting that our Captain came back from a wrist injury to play one of the most physical games of his career and even creamed Turner in a fight. Chaulk was quoted after the game that this team needs to play a physical style of game every night to be a good team. Kind of goes against what the old Chief is looking for. I’m glad Chaulk stepped up and played that way, as well as said it.

  14. blake Says:

    Hit Somebody, you are missing the message. Who do you think has been all over Chaulk to play like that?

  15. Hit Somebody!!! Says:

    Blake, I wasn’t saying that you weren’t wanting a physical style from the Komets and Chaulk. I’m just glad that he made his statement on and off the ice, finally. Maybe this is what the Komets needed to get over the hump. They need that type of play and effort every night. Not just every other game. For this team to be successful, they must play smart, but physical Hockey, to make up for what they lack in size and talent. I think they are going in the right direction. They sure are more fun to watch with all of the effort.

    Way off topic: Did you see that horrible effort that IU had today at Minnesota? That was really sad. Looked like no one wanted to play. What’s up with that? There is a coach that should be looking in the Help Wanted Ads.

  16. carl Says:

    That particular coach says only the home games are important and as long as they win at home that is good enough. Pretty funny that he and Chef both have sites up trying to get them fired.


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