Colorado avalanche coach Bob Hartley kept a close eye on his Rolex during the Stanley Cup finals last June. If the minutes seemed like hours, it was not because he wasn't having a grand time—which he was—but because he was playing his top three defensemen to the point of exhaustion and was trying to secure every moment of rest he could for Rob Blake, Raymond Bourque and Adam Foote. Face-offs became filibusters as Colorado dawdled before draws as if it were playing baseball. "Bob would call up the lines on the bench and say, 'Wait, wait,' " says Avalanche center Joe Sakic. "Then we'd wait for the linesman to come and get us, and then we'd skate out real slow. Or Bob would tell me to talk to the goalie, so I'd go out there, circle Patrick Roy, and finally talk to him, which would force the linesman to yell at me."
Hartley's four-corners face-off strategy was an effective if not terribly creative exercise of hockey's notorious black arts. His method wasn't nearly as daring as the one used last spring by former New York Islanders coach Bill Stewart, who delayed a German league playoff game by feigning a heart attack behind the bench. Or even as daring as the stunt performed by Detroit Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood on April 1, 1995, when he pulled one of the greatest snow jobs in NHL history. As a steamy Reunion Arena buzzed in anticipation of a penalty shot by the Dallas Stars' Dave Gagner, Osgood skated from his crease to one of the hash marks 20 feet in front of the net, pushing a pile of slush with his stick, as unhurried as a pensioner clearing his driveway. He deposited the slush, returned to the goal and proceeded to the other hash mark with more slush. In front of all those eyewitnesses, Osgood had built a pair of snowbanks, the equivalent of sticking up a 7-Eleven while wearing a HELLO! MY NAME IS...tag. In the NHL, in which boundaries are tested as routinely as interstate speed limits, Osgood didn't break a rule; he merely took the spirit of sportsmanship and kneed it in the groin. The befuddled Gagner never got the shot away, the puck dying in Osgood's man-made moguls.
The black arts in hockey—either blatant cheating or massaging the rules, depending on your point of view—have been pushed deeper underground since Osgood's twin peaks. NHL Miss Grundys have cracked down on monkey business with new lines in the face-off circles that deter players from stealing draws, with tie-down jerseys that keep fighters from shedding their sweaters to gain an advantage and with increased scrutiny of the size of a goalie's equipment. Wary of league punishment, fighters no longer grease their jerseys with Vaseline or silicone to keep an opponent from getting a grip during a scrap. Skate-blade-dulling screws no longer protrude from the floor around the visitors' bench in Pittsburgh. On the surface it seems that righteousness rules, but the black arts are still being practiced with impunity by players savvy enough to test the limits. "The best players always are on the edge of the rules," Minnesota Wild assistant coach Mike Ramsey says. "[Defensemen like] Rob Blake, Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, Chris Chelios—they'll hack and slash and chop to the limit. Sometimes beyond."
When he was coach of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Craig Hartsburg grew livid over the possibility that the Avalanche had used improper means to catch his players using illegal sticks in a December 1999 match at the Pepsi Center in Denver. After the Avalanche successfully challenged the legality of the lumber being wielded by Ducks Teemu Selanne and Dominic Roussel within 66 seconds (both players were assessed minor penalties because their blades were either too wide or had a bigger curve than allowed), Hartsburg contended Colorado must have pulled an inside job because a door in the Avalanche's dressing room connected to the visitors' room. "If we cheated with illegal sticks," Hartsburg said, "somebody cheated and came in and checked our sticks."
For all of Hartsburg's indignation, coaches routinely designate a trainer or an equipment man to eyeball opponents' gear or swipe and measure sticks broken during a rival team's morning skate, information that might pay off when a power play is desperately needed. Indeed, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn says 300 players, more than 40% of those in the league, use illegal sticks. There's a priceless moment in the 1998 documentary The New Ice Age—A Year in the Life of the NHL in which Stars winger Brett Hull shouts down the bench at an equipment man, "I need my legal stick. I need my legal stick."
A stick challenge is rarely made before the final minutes of a match—if a coach is wrong, his club is assessed a delay of game penalty—but Hartley gambled midway through the third period in that game against Anaheim because Colorado trailed by two goals. Says Detroit associate coach Dave Lewis, "Everybody knows to switch [to a legal stick] with five minutes left. That's stupid."
Having grown up in the era of explosive offense, goalies have sought comfort in die world of hockey fashion. Until 1998-99, when the league dispatched former goalie Dave Dryden to police goaltenders' equipment, many netminders sported leg pads three inches wider than specifications permit (12 inches is the current limit) and wore jerseys so amply cut they would have been hanging on the Michelin Man. Goalies especially favored extra cloth in the sleeves of their sweaters. If the jersey was held tight by Velcro at the wrist, then when a goalie raised his arm, the material draping from it would form a taut, triangular web that could practically repel a puck and certainly would allow a shooter to see less of the net.
"But they still don't measure the equipment when it's on you," former goalie Brian Hayward says. "A goalie could take pads that measure 12 inches wide and pound them with a stick or step on them and make them 13�, even 14 inches. Until they start measuring the pads on you, you can fiddle with the width. You can also do things with the depth. You wear thicker leg pads—there's no rule on thickness—and if you're turned sideways, you take up more space."