Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

5 things I’m pretty sure I know about hockey

I’ve read two rulebooks and half the collective bargaining agreement and I still feel like a newbie watching the game for the first time. On the other hand, maybe that’s a good thing. But I did manage to learn a few things along the way. Like why hockey players like golf, how icing qualifies as a scoring opportunity and how exactly the New Jersey Devils got away with the Kovalchuk deal.

1. It’s not fair. Pick your reason, blame your player, coach, official, whatever, but nothing in any rulebook says the sport is fair. It might have something to do with this simple but crucial caveat to all rules in the book: they come surgically attached to the expression “in the judgment of the referee” or “in the opinion of the referee.” As was the case this weekend in Chilliwack, BC, where Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Brad Ross got called for interference whilst standing still and not so much as looking at the opponent. But if the game was fair, would we really want to watch it? I mean really, let’s face it, most games don’t really get interesting until some player or coach gets twerked because a ref didn’t call the opponent for a blatant offense. I myself find no greater entertainment in hockey than waiting for Guy Boucher to flip out and chew out a ref en Francais. The only thing better is watching Sidney Crosby drop the mitts.

2. It’s a business. I was most disappointed that this year was the first time I tuned into the trade deadline and I might as well have used the time to catch up on sleep. But it did make me realize that players are a commodity, and with rare exception everyone can be traded for the right price. In hockey we trust, all others pay cash: salary cap room, salary demands, no trade clauses and plain old bad luck all factor into whether a player or coach stays or goes and where they go. Money can also be your bargaining chip if you want off of a bad team, as was the case in the Kovalchuk deal. Atlanta could have mortgaged their entire team to the eyeballs to keep him, it wouldn’t have mattered. He wanted out and he got out and his checking account was the answer. As for the rest, forget how much you love the town you play/coach in or how long you’ve played alongside your teammates. Everyone is expendable in the name of the Stanley Cup, salary caps and good PR.

3. When it comes to injuries, hockey doesn’t discriminate. If the NHL’s poster boy can go down with a concussion for a indefinite period of time at the same time Evgeni Malkin gets sidelined with a knee injury, anyone can.

4. Hockey is a simple game governed by complicated rules. If it was that easy, icing would make sense, refs wouldn’t be needed, and goalies could just run amok on the ice making plays. Take for example, a seemingly innocent rule like interference. Sounds simple, right? Don’t interfere with a player who doesn’t have the puck. Think again. For example, this part of the interference rule might explain how Brad got nabbed for just standing there. Or not: a player is allowed the ice he is standing on (body position) and is not required to move in order to let an opponent proceed. A player may “block” the path of an opponent provided he is in front of his opponent and and moving in the same direction. Moving laterally and without establishing body position, then making contact with the non-puck carrier is not permitted and will be penalized as interference. A player is always entitled to use his body position to lengthen an opponent’s path to the puck, provided his stick is not utilized (to make himself “bigger” and therefore considerably lengthening the distance his opponent must travel to get where he is going); his free hand is not used and he does not take advantage of his body position to deliver an otherwise illegal check. Or it could have just been that pesky little “in the judgment of the referee” thing.

5. Thank you, Ryan Johansen. For so many things, but mostly for helping me understand why hockey players like golf so much. Two words: it’s outside. It’s kind of like hockey and it’s apparently relaxing. Why, I don’t know, because I don’t find dressing like the Norwegian Olympic curling team in front of other adults to be a stress-free endeavor. But if the Columbus’ Blue Jackets’ hottest prospect tells me so, then who am I to argue?

Moral of the story: Few people get the privilege of doing what they really love for a living. I mean what they really, truly love. For most people, what they love is a hobby, not a job.  Hockey players are lucky enough that their dream and their job is the same thing. They get to go the rink every day and they get paid to do it. Even if they get traded nine times and end up playing in the Euro leagues to end their careers, they get to play every day for as long as they can. Beats the alternative. The really good ones realize hockey is a job and they play and negotiate their way through the league accordingly. They stay out of trouble and on the society pages where they get photographed at silent auctions for their favorite charity. But what about the ones who end up in drunk tanks and mug shots and on a Twitter/social media “don’t” list? The NHL Draft Combine should include among its many tests a psychological test that helps the league make the distinction. For example: 

Around what does the known planetary system revolve?
a. The sun. 20 points.
b. Me. Negative 10 points.
c. Saturn. 1 point for knowing it’s not b.

Are you familiar with the word no, and the expression “life isn’t fair”?
a. Yes. Proceed to the next question.
b. No. Proceed no further. Good resources for understanding what these words and expressions mean are Webster’s dictionary and Google.

If yes, how did you respond to these expressions as a youngster?
a. I stuck my tongue out at my parents, turned tail and went to my room, closed the door, locked it and started playing with all my electronic gadgets that my parents bought me even though I never earned them with any semblance of mature, responsible behavior. Or, I just started a fight with whoever else told me that.
b. I learned that it is true, life isn’t fair but that doesn’t mean I can’t perservere in pursuit of my dreams. And no is just a motivator to work harder to get what I want.

If A - you will make an excellent NHL superstar one day. However, we strongly suggest that you retain an entrourage consisting of a publicist, agent and several managers until you retire to ensure that you make the most of the privilege that is playing in the NHL.
If B - who are you kidding? Pollyannas who think working hard is enough to get ahead in the NHL are fooling themselves. Restart this quiz from the beginning and be sure to think carefully about your answers. You only get one do-over, so use it wisely.


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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com