The word smacks of action: a bolt of adrenaline, a dash to freedom, an all-out flight from hot pursuit. Breakaway! In the blink of an eye a crack opens, and in a few frantic seconds the moment will have passed. In between is hockey's pith, a mano-a-mano high-speed showdown featuring skill and a battle of wits. The breakaway, simply, is the most exciting play in sports.
Well, it's not really a play. It's an electrifying and unpredictable turn of events. Unlike a punt return for a touchdown or a game-winning home run, a breakaway can't be anticipated. Coaches can't devise breakaways on a chalkboard, like Hail Marys. Breakaways are like comets, arriving out of nowhere, and they can either bedazzle or be duds. A team can go eight games without one, grinding out every scoring chance, and then get two breakaways in a shift without changing tactics. A flash of individual brilliance? A bone-headed breakdown? It could be either, or both.
Coaches despise breakaways, since they represent the triumph of anarchy over order. A defensive scheme hasn't just failed; it's melted like butter on a grill. "I hate them," Colorado Avalanche coach Bob Hartley says of the play that can shift a game's momentum. As a case in point he cites a match last January when his most accomplished breakaway artist, center Joe Sakic, hit the post against the Edmonton Oilers' Tommy Salo in a tie game: " Edmonton went right up the ice and scored. That breakaway took two points from us."
A goalie who stops a breakaway feels invincible. A forward who fails to convert one knows it's probably not going to be his night. "You miss on a breakaway, and you can't think of anything else for a long time," says Calgary Flames forward Jarome Iginla.
Wayne Gretzky, the greatest scorer in the history of the game, was notoriously weak on breakaways for reasons no one, least of all he, can explain. Many people believed that the Great One thought too much on his way in. "You don't want to overthink," says Sakic. "It's more reacting to what the goalie gives you."
Hockey manuals don't contain chapters on how to score on breakaways, and coaches, beyond sometimes holding drills at the end of practice, rarely teach breakaway moves. "We ask them to try their usual offensive tricks," says Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn. "Their shakes and bakes, or whatever they have. More important, we want them looking up and carrying the puck properly—off to the side—so they can get a shot off. Guys who carry the puck out in front of them have little success."
That opinion isn't shared by Brian Sutter, a former NHL coach who scored 303 goals during his 12-year playing career. "You have to keep the puck in front of you," he says. "If you have it to the side, you have to pull it all the way across to go to the backhand, so you're telling the goalie what you're going to do."
Speed is the most crucial element to getting breakaways, which is why outstanding skaters like the Florida Panthers' Pavel Bure and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' Teemu Selanne are breakaway threats every time they're on the ice. One step and a crisp pass, and they're gone, free from the hook, the hold or the sweep check from behind that can neutralize slower men.
Fine stickhandlers such as Anaheim's Paul Kariya and the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr can sometimes spring themselves on breakaways using eel-like jukes that leave a defenseman feeling like a turnstile at the cineplex. But in this era of big, mobile defenders with tentacle-like arms, those one-on-one fakeouts have become rare. More often it's a broken play that leads to a breakaway—the bad bounce, the poor line change, the blocked shot at the point.
"It's still the superstars who get them," says former Boston Bruins star center Derek Sanderson, who played 13 NHL seasons and was one of the best breakaway scorers of his day. "People think it's lucky, but it's an art. You have to read the play. The puck's bouncing along the blue line, and chances are the defenseman's not going to control it. Tip it off the boards, and you're on your way. Hitters—guys like Jeremy Roenick or Keith Tkachuk—get a lot of breakaways. The defenseman sees them coming, and he's not paying 100 percent attention to the puck."