Goals are so rare in the playoffs; teams can go for periods at a stretch without scoring one. You begin to think: the ice is so clogged up with giant defensemen, hockey sticks, linesmen, goalie pads, goalie helmets, bodies of fallen men with broken legs from blocking shots . . . how is anyone ever going to score? It’s going to go on like this forever, 0-0, am I even going to have time to get up and go to the bathroom? You start looking around the room for something to piss into, if it comes to that.
At times like this I console myself with the thought that scoring, actually, is pretty easy. If there were no opposing players and an empty net, an NHL forward would be able to score a goal from just about any spot on the ice. It is in fact the ease of scoring, not its difficulty, that has caused the hockey gods to populate the ice with the hockey player’s opponents, who are trying to keep him from doing something that is, as we’ve demonstrated, pretty easy. Interestingly, the other team thinks the same thing. They think, If only these guys weren’t in the way, it would be so easy to score. So, rashly, they mount an attack, the defensemen come down to help out, the forwards neglect to rotate to the point, and that’s when you get an odd-man rush. Every time.
Last year, the playoffs were all about the “system”—as in who had bought into it, who was willing to live and die by it—and by “system” was usually meant “blocking shots.” Which team would block the most shots? The answer was John Tortorella’s New York Rangers. They blocked shots with their feet, their stomachs, their faces, their wives. Rangers players would literally pull small children from the stands and hold them in front of Capitals defensemen, daring them to shoot. In this way they won two series and reached the Eastern Conference finals.
There they encountered the New Jersey Devils, who had an even better system—a suffocating forecheck. They chased the Rangers into their zone, harassed them, and were always there, at the blue line, when the Rangers tried to clear the puck along the boards. This system was superior to shot-blocking because, taking place as it did in the offensive end, it could lead to goals.
In the Finals, the Devils ran into the Los Angeles Kings, who had no system but were big, fast, and strong, and steamrolled the Devils to win the championship.
This year is different. This year, in the words of Stalin, “cadres decide everything.” Show me your cadres, I will show you your playoff results. But don’t just show me two or three cadres, show me five or six. Or eight. If in years past it was all about “fourth-line guys,” “shot-blocking guys,” guys with the hearts of lions, this year is superstars and playmakers: Toews and Kane and Hossa and Keith on the Blackhawks; Crosby and Malkin and Letang on the Penguins; Carter, Richards, Kopitar on the Kings; Marchand, Bergeron, Krejci, Lucic, Chara for the Bruins. You’ll notice the Bruins’ list is the longest.
The regular season this year was just half its usual length. Players did not have an opportunity, during the grueling eighty-two-game schedule, to die. Because this is what happens to players. The season is too long and they die. Not this year. Still alive, the better players have had their moment in these playoffs.
What does a hockey game consist of? It consists of plays. How many really good plays do you need to add up to a goal? Two at the least, possibly three or four. Mediocre players won’t make those plays by definition. Even at this level, mediocre players are just trying to advance the puck–if they’re on defense, they will try to bang the puck off the glass to get it out of the zone; on offense, having crossed the red line, they will dump the puck into the zone and then chase it. There is no shame in this; most players do it. But some players can do more.
Yet there is only so much more they can do. How much better than other players is Sidney Crosby, the best player in the world? The answer is: not that much. Maybe 10 percent better. He is the greatest player on the planet, yet he can’t simply go out and do whatever he wants.
What is 10 percent? It’s hard to measure and it’s not reflected in salaries—the best players in the league, and Brad Richards, make about twenty times as much as the worst, and three or four times the average. But simply on the ice, in terms of effectiveness, the difference has its limits. Over the course of a season, it’s a lot; a lot of points, a lot of goals. But over the course of a shift, a period, a game—not very much.
Ten percent. At a certain level, on certain rinks as he was coming up, Sidney Crosby was probably twice, three times, ten times as good as the next best guy. But then they gathered together all the best players. Crosby was still, incredibly, better. But only ten percent better.
It’s true of anything. Who is the best writer in America? Let’s say it’s Toni Morrison. How much better a writer is Toni Morrison than, say, Don DeLillo. Not much better! Ten percent? Maybe less. If you had to choose one, to draft a writer for your all-time writers’ team, maybe you choose Morrison. But you don’t always have to choose. And some people will always prefer DeLillo, just as some people prefer the bigger, faster Evgeniy Malkin to Crosby, or as some people once preferred the stronger, meaner Alex Ovechkin. Some people might even prefer Jonathan Toews, for his work ethic, his quiet ferocity, the fact that he never looks, out on the ice, like he’s going to cry.
Captain Serious and Skinny Kane
If you were on Patrick Kane’s team, the Chicago Blackhawks, you might find yourself often stifling an urge to punch him. Kane has natural blond highlights in his hair, red lips, a straight nose–he’s very pretty. And thin. The most shocking thing about his drunken debauch in Wisconsin last summer, chronicled exhaustively on the internet, were the photos of him in a T-shirt. This man played at the top level of one of the most violent sports on the planet? He’s about five-eleven; he can’t weigh more than 170 pounds. And he’s lazy. Hockey players, like all professional athletes, used to go home during the summers and get jobs in construction, rink maintenance, whatever, to supplement their meager salaries. Drafted straight out of high school, entering the NHL and winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2009, Kane’s never worked a day in his life. When he gets the puck, he plays with it. He circles around the offensive zone with it, waiting for someone to make a mistake. He doesn’t pass very much, and why would he? No one can do with the puck what Kane can do. He’s a jerk.
Jonathan Toews is known as Captain Serious. Watching him play is a pleasure. Like Kane, he is diminutive, undersized, but unlike Kane, he is always digging in the corners, digging and digging, and eventually emerging, more often than not, with the puck. And he is a playmaker, always looking, once he has the puck, for someone to give it to. Like Pavel Datsyuk, he is everything that is good about the sport.
In the second overtime of Game 5 against the Kings, Toews came in on a two-on-one with Kane, with a back-checker gaining ground on Kane as they went. Toews was on the left, coming down the wing, and Kane was to his right, coming down the center. Both are left-hand shots, so while this boded well for Toews, in terms of either shooting or passing, it didn’t bode particularly well for Kane, if he were to crash toward the net and try to catch a pass on his backhand and, in the same motion more or less, release a shot. Toews’s best option, in that circumstance, would be to shoot—most likely high, stick-side, opposite the side toward which Kane would be crashing, and toward which, perhaps unconsciously, the goaltender Jonathan Quick would be leaning.
But Kane did not crash the net. Instead he hung back, and Toews, deprived of his potential decoy, had no choice but to pass him the puck. He passed it perfectly, to the exact right spot, at the exact right speed, and Kane, from a good distance, simply buried it. Quick may have been able to get across but Kane’s shot was just too fast and accurate. Very few people in the world could have done it; cadres decide everything. And the Blackhawks were in the finals.
There have always been two Gopniks. One was the erudite, entertaining, sensitive historian of the bourgeoisie. The other was an actual bourgeois, who liked to talk about his sunken living room. He was a little like the Patrick Kane of the literary world. If you had a 19th-century liberal you wanted reviewed, Gopnik was your man. If you needed help putting up drywall, he might not be your first choice.
But it turns out there is a third Gopnik: hockey Gopnik. Did you not know that Gopnik writes about hockey? He does. He’s from Montreal, and he did a series of historico-philosophical lectures about it a few years ago, and now periodically he’ll write something on the New Yorker website. In these we see the emergence of, in certain ways, the most conventional of the Gopniks, exemplifying a pitfall for a certain kind of intellectual: the temptation of policy, the wish to legislate and become, not just a philosopher, but a philosopher-king. Gopnik wants to be the philosopher-king of hockey. He does not come to describe hockey; he comes to reform it.
But hockey is not the prison system. If at the sight of that standard (too-small) white surface, the flashing lights of cameras bouncing off it; the sound of skates digging into ice and the puck hitting sticks; if with the flow of Doc Emrick’s fantastically varied verbs to describe the many routes and peregrinations of the puck through the rink—if your heart does not rise to meet all this, then you do not like hockey, no matter how many rules they changed.
Tell me: would your Hazlitt have written this way?
But, I will not lie. Like Gopnik, I too had a childhood. I grew up in Boston; the Bruins were my team. They were a working class, Scotch-Irish team, with guys named O’Reilly, Milbury, Crowder, O’Connell, McNab, MacTavish—and the occasional exotic like Gordie Kluzak and Butch Goring. I suppose “Borque” is a French-Canadian name, but that was it. Harry Sinden was the coach. Of course most of these guys were from Saskatchewan or Ontario, but they could have been from Brighton, and Milbury actually was.
Now the team is named things like Marchand, Bergeron, Seguin. Does one pronounce the n at the end? Chara and Krejci—is that Czechoslovak? Lucic—Croatian? The coach is named Claude Julien! The goalie is a Finn named Tuukka Rask.
What can I say, the world is changing. Next thing you know there’ll be a French-Canadian Senator from Massachusetts, a Finnish Mayor of Boston, and Germans coming in to fix the Ted Williams Tunnel so that pieces of it stop falling on people. I guess that wouldn’t be so bad.
Let’s play hockey.