Is hockey the most conservative sport when it comes to change, rooted in Canadians’ tendency to endure rather than conquer new frontiers? Or does hockey too often redefine itself, look to fix itself, question itself?
Change shows that you’re thinking, that you’re humble, that you’d push that which you care about into an uncomfortable future.
Adam Oates wants change in the NHL.
The former player, coach and now skills consultant penned a piece in the Players’ Tribune Friday, recalling how he studied Wayne Gretzky tapes as a youngster and how he sees the NHL can improve scoring and stay ahead of the curve.
While the hockey community has been wringing its hands over the perceived lack of scoring and the size of both ice surfaces and goaltending equipment, Oates says the game needs smarts and not just blind speed.
“With Gretz, the magic was all about how he manipulated his opponent through misdirection,” wrote Oates. “Wayne’s footwork when he was handling the puck at a standstill was just as impressive as when he was skating full-speed down the wing.
“There’s always going to be a ton of guys who can skate, especially with the emphasis now on training and athleticism. But there’s not enough of a premium on players with the brains or the hands to be real playmakers.”
Oates rejects the idea that larger rinks are the solution to provide more offence. The best players, he says, invite defenders to come after them.
“Gretzky was the king of misdirection,” he wrote. “This might seem like an odd comparison, but he reminds me of Messi in soccer. Messi is good in space. But he’s incredible when he’s surrounded by defenders.”
Think of Evgeni Malkin picking up a loose puck in the corner, leaning on a defender with a defensive bodycheck and spinning off to make a play. More space on the ice could mean defenders won’t bite on attackers’ moves, instead playing a kind of zone defence.
Oates came under some scrutiny recently when it was reported that he had become a private skills coach for NHL players. When former Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo was let go, he spoke to Yahoo! Sports about Ryan Suter and Zach Parise taking Oates on as a consultant.
“I’m not going to even comment on it,” said Yeo. “But I would say, that I would not do the same thing.”
It takes some form of dissent in order to begin to change the way the hockey world thinks. The analytics community now has its hands in the clay — working to partially mould the game in their image.
If there’s a criticism to be made of Oates’s approach, it’s to say that most players aren’t Gretzky or Patrick Kane, that most teams aren’t the Dallas Stars or Washington Capitals.
Making the game work for these highly-skilled types is hard to disagree with but what about the middle class of the league that has to find a way to win without virtuosic talent?
Oates is thinking big picture and believes that change can be grandfathered in.
In late March, I published interviews with Kevin Woodley and Steve Valiquette — an NHL.com writer and former New York Rangers goalie — in which they questioned whether shooters do as much to improve their skills as goaltenders currently do themselves.
Said Valiquette: “For 15 years now, goalies have been working on their skill sets in the summer — we don’t play shinny. Over those 15 years, what position has gotten better in the sport? The goaltender.
“There’s nothing holding these players back right now from hiring skill-specific coaches instead of playing mindless shinny and not back checking and having bad habits.”
Oates isn’t the only one of his kind. Darryl Belfry’s name is getting out there more and more given that the clientele for his skills training programs include Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Jonathan Toews and Kane.
“Nobody bats an eye when Tom Brady has a QB coach, a nutritionist and a separate skills trainer,” Oates wrote Friday. “Why shouldn’t Sidney Crosby — or for that matter, a third line NHL player — have the same type of specialized team helping him get better?”
Hockey is a fast game — sometimes to a fault — but as Oates points out, it’s also played at a standstill and in a phone booth. For that, one needs more than speed and strength.
It may just be that smarts and creativity, something that Gretzky himself recently spoke aloud about, takes hockey into a new frontier.