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Brain Trust
Michael Farber
October 08, 2001
The biggest stars usually have elevated hockey intelligence a trait that more and more teams are looking for in players
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October 08, 2001

Brain Trust

The biggest stars usually have elevated hockey intelligence a trait that more and more teams are looking for in players

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Mercifully the C that Joe Sakic wears on his Colorado Avalanche sweater stands for captain, not for the grades he pulled in high school. His outstanding NHL achievements of 457 goals and two Stanley Cups eclipse his records at Burnaby (B.C.) North and Swift Current Comprehensive schools, but then Sakic, a student of the game, wasn't a game student. His reading on Avalanche charters is no more taxing than a Sidney Sheldon potboiler, but his ability to process the kaleidoscope of a play, to adjust to the whirling geometry of the offensive zone, to assess instantaneously the location and abilities of each player on the ice and to know where to go and the right time to arrive is the hockey equivalent of speed-reading Proust. Sakic can no more articulate this gift than Haley Joel Osment—"I just see things," Sakic says—but his staggering hockey IQ defines him as neatly as the rapid release on his wrist shot.

There's no correlation between being book smart and having an elevated intelligence on the ice—"Some people can be smart in the rink and dumb in life, and a lot of us are out there," St. Louis Blues defenseman Chris Pronger says with a booming laugh—but the best players are almost always the brightest in hockey terms as well. The sport has a randomness, an element of oops, as players stickhandle on a 200-by-85-foot frozen surface while being knocked around by surly opponents. Nonetheless, smart players lend a measure of order to this chaotic universe.

The best minds include legends like the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux, whose one-on-one ability and industrial-strength shot have always obscured a rare intelligence, and pluggers like Washington Capitals left wing Steve Konowalchuk, who has middling skills but survives in the NHL because he's hockey's version of a nerd. Just as some brainiacs do the The New York Times crossword puzzle in short order, hockey's smart players dope out the game on the fly. "Top guys compute in an instant what other players might figure out if you gave them a minute," says New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer. "Of course, you don't have a minute to make a play."

The NHL's tolerance of fighting, coupled with the occasional stick-whacking act of lunacy, has given it a reputation as the nonthinking man's league ( Don Rickles still insults people by calling them hockey pucks), but on-ice IQ has never been as fashionable as it is today. "Games are won and lost on one play, unlike before, when it usually would be a series of mistakes," says Edmonton Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe. "The way the game has evolved—with more preparation, better coaching, styles that make every team look like a carbon copy of every other, more set plays and more accountability on defense—you can't get down by two goals and expect to come back. That's why you need smart players, guys who won't make that killer mistake."

"If you're big and strong and can skate, but you don't have brains, you're screwed," Calgary Flames general manager Craig Button says. "You have to think your way through the challenges you're presented with. You have to exploit vulnerability, but you can't if you don't know what it is you're trying to exploit. Thinking encompasses seeing, reading, anticipating the play and understanding strengths, yours and the opponents. I'm not saying this as a knock, but [ New York Islanders defenseman] Kevin Haller can skate, he's big, he's competitive. What prevents him from being a top-notch player is his hockey sense."

There's a checklist of traits associated with the hockey dullard. One rule of thumb, from Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman, is that players who frequently go offsides are the dumbest on their teams. Other numskulls are forwards who take foolish penalties in the offensive zone; players who, on two-on-one breaks, miss their shots to the far side (allowing long rebounds and the defensive team to break out quickly in transition); defensemen who give up sound positioning to chase a hit that might get them on the highlight shows; and shooters who pick the same spot on net time after time.

Nuance is a mark of grand intellects like Lemieux, who floats on the periphery of a play until he senses a scoring chance, or Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who deprives forwards of scoring opportunities by almost always being in the right position. Detroit center Steve Yzerman is a master at cutting off passing lanes when he doesn't have the puck and exploiting those openings when he does.

The difference between dean's list and summer school is not 70 IQ points but 242 goals. Brett Hull, who signed as a free agent with Detroit, and Stephane Richer, a reclamation project in Pittsburgh after sitting out last season, are both right wings from the 1984 draft class. Richer, selected 88 spots ahead of Hull, is bigger, faster and has a harder shot, but he has never read the play at the same level of sophistication as the roguish Hull, who finds the seams to set up his feared one-timer. Hull has 649 goals and will go to the Hall of Fame; Richer has 407 and is destined to be a first-ballot whatever-happened-to...? guy.

"Look at Paul Kariya," Detroit left wing Brendan Shanahan says of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks winger. "If you lined up all the [ Anaheim] players at the blue line and had them take slap shots, there wouldn't be much of a difference among them. If they all raced, there would probably be guys on the team who could keep up with Kariya. But it's not where to go on the ice or even how fast—it's when to go."

Kariya is the rare player who is conspicuously hockey bright, an empiricist who conducts most of his experiments in the laboratory of the neutral zone. A feint here. A burst of speed there. Kariya's game metamorphoses with the situation, like the seemingly harmless one-on-two rush he made last season against the Vancouver Canucks. With both teams on a change, Kariya slowly carried the puck into the offensive zone until Oleg Tverdovsky, trailing the play by 100 feet after hopping off the Anaheim bench, neared the blue line. Kariya then hit Tverdovsky with a tape-to-tape, no-look pass as he entered the zone, leading to a scoring opportunity. " Kariya's thinking about not only who's on the ice but also about who's coming on," Canucks general manager Brian Burke says. "He even knows when the defense is changing. Watching that play, you'd have sworn he had eyes in the back of his head."

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