By Ryan Dixon in Nashville
By Ryan Dixon in Nashville
Inside the secret society of NHL defencemen

Dan Hamhuis is seated on the baseline of a slightly busted semi-circle. The 16-year NHLer is one of seven Nashville Predators defencemen participating in a group chat about all aspects of the position they play. It’s early December, post-practice, and backwards hats, hoodies and athleisure rule the day. The sweaty jerseys and socks have been whisked away, equipment staff are busy toiling in other areas of the team facility and the dressing room has pretty much cleared out apart from the blue-liners when Hamhuis, speaking to the idea that defencemen belong to their own little tribe, suggests that if he walked into a room full of hockey players he didn’t know, he’d eventually be able to sort out who else is part of the brotherhood without having to ask. “I think there’s a personality thing,” Hamhuis says. “I don’t want to blanket it, but I think you kind of can.” He opens it up to the room: “What do you guys think?”

Ryan Ellis, plunked on a chair facing Hamhuis, senses his opportunity. “It’s like we’re more win-oriented,” he says, igniting a round of chuckles.

That’s not exactly how Hamhuis was framing things, but you can see why the joke plays well. Whether it’s a bunch of blueliners skating in today’s green-light game or retired guys from more staid eras past, you don’t have to probe very hard to discover a common pride. “You’re not out to get goals and points as much as forwards,” says Hamhuis. “We’re more under-the-radar kind of guys, doing things that maybe don’t get the glory.”

Hamhuis makes the point knowing full well that defencemen have never been more likely to appear on highlight reels for the right reasons than at this moment in NHL history. Coaches in every corner of the league insist on their rearguards joining — if not leading — the attack. On the flipside, if Wayne Gretzky was playing today and his team turned over the puck, “The Great One” would be expected to immediately start campaigning for his Selke candidacy along with the two other forwards. The idea every winger and centre — not just an unusually responsible subset of them — is expected to ferociously defend really only sprung up after the start of this century. That shift goes hand-in-hand with the other changes in a game that has pivoted away from rough-and-tumble toward lightspeed, a development that has drastically altered the techniques defencemen use to protect the house. What persists, though, is a feeling amongst them that they belong to their own club, bound by the noble, shot-blocking, danger-foiling aspects of their job. “We are a team within the team,” says Roman Josi. “When [the Predators] don’t play well, we’re like, ‘Hey, come on D-men; let’s get going from the back end.’ I feel like we’re a pretty tight group back here.”

Preds D-men may only be kidding when they laugh about being "more win-oriented" than forwards, but there's an under-the-radar, team-before-glory set of values at the heart of the blueliners' identity

Ed Jovanovski was selected first overall by the Florida Panthers in 1994 and skated nearly 20 years in the league, so it’s hard to argue the man’s talents weren’t appreciated. That said, with a heavy risk-reward dimension to his game, he aggrieved his share of old-school coaches. One even moved him up to forward for a stretch, just to eliminate the pretense. So, as much as “Jovo” was valued for his offensive gifts, there’s little doubt he’d fit more seamlessly with the game we see today, a half-decade after his retirement. “When I first came in, there were a couple defencemen who never went past centre ice,” he says.

Hal Gill was certainly the circumspect type, which might explain why he talks with reverent disbelief when he describes what he — in his role as a Predators colour commentator — sees from Josi on a nightly basis. “I’ve never done anything he’s done,” says the man who played 16 stay-at-home seasons for a handful of teams, including Nashville. Josi, the Predators’ captain and designated rover, is at the forefront of the evolving nature of the sport. In a season where Washington Capital John Carlson could become the first defenceman to hit 100 points since Brian Leetch did it 28 years ago, Josi — still charged with significant defensive responsibilities — isn’t far off the pace. And those two aren’t the only ones lighting it up. In the nine full seasons from 2005–06 through 2014–15 (remember, we lost most of a 10th to a lockout), 10 defencemen turned in a total of 16 campaigns of 65-or-more points. In just the past four years, nine have posted a total of 14 such seasons. This year, eight blue-liners are scoring at a pace that would get them to at least 65 points if playing a full 82-game sked. “Unless you have a four-man rush, which means one of your defenceman is involved, you’re not going to get much offence,” says legend Larry Robinson, the two-time Norris Trophy winner and senior consultant for the defending-champion St. Louis Blues.

While defencemen are peppering the scoresheet at a rate we haven’t seen in generations, the change in the way they play goes well beyond goals and assists. Defending now begins in the other team’s zone. Where once you’d have backpedalled at the far blue line, now you’re on your toes, trying to thwart the rush before it begins. In your own zone, the difference is nothing short of checkers to chess. Slamming pucks off the boards or glass is still sometimes necessary, but it’s gone from a rudimentary coaching mantra to a last resort. “If you can’t make that first pass, you’re just not going to survive in the league today,” says Jovanovski, who is part of the Panthers broadcast team.

It is, of course, a little tongue-in-cheek when Ellis suggests the six guys manning the blue line each night care more about winning than the 12 up front. And before the masked men in the sport raise their padded arms in protest, nobody is arguing the fact goaltender remains the greatest high-wire act in hockey. But given their obligations, cut the defencemen of the world some slack if they ever come across a little smug. “We always joke, if you want to be a forward, you just turn off your brain and skate,” says Gill. “Someone will clean up your mess. As a forward, you can make 20 mistakes, have one goal and be the star of the game. As a defenceman, you’re bound by the [knowledge], you make one mistake and you ruin the game for your team. You play 20 plays great and one mistake and you ruined it.”

Those stakes are part of what forges the D-men’s bond, and the strongest connection, naturally, is often felt between the people who share the ice, shift after shift. “A lot of the time you’re playing the game with your back turned to what’s coming at you,” says Scott Stevens, a three-time Cup champion with the New Jersey Devils and current NHL Network analyst. “So you really need your partner, you need to be on the same page, you have to understand each other, you have to have each other’s back and try to help each other as much as possible to try and beat the forecheck and [avoid] getting hurt.”

Like any relationship, the dynamic of a D pair is defined by the people forming the duo. Jovanovski used to rib one of his partners, Scott Lachance, about the fact no matter which corner the puck went in, the whole world knew it was going to be Jovanovski — not Lachance — who would have to chug back and get it. “And then he left for a $10-million dollar contract to Columbus,” laughs Jovanovski. [Editor’s note: It was actually $8 million.]

When Gill played with P.K. Subban in Montreal, he filled the Lachance role, running interference and creating breathing room for Subban to take the puck and whiz out of the zone. If Gill was skating with fellow defence-first guy Josh Gorges, though, a completely different approach was required. “It was more of a partnership; we had to get the puck out together. We could defend well, but we really had to be on the same page.”

A shorthand develops between partners, who tend to stay together much longer than forward lines. Single words like “Up!” or “Over!” or “Back!” carry layers of meaning. The longer conversations happen elsewhere. “I played with Nick Boynton,” says Gill. “He was a fiery competitor and I could see he’d get too fired up and I’d try to tell him a joke or something to bring him back down.

“With P.K., he’d get so fired up and excited, I’d be like, ‘This is a big shift, let’s keep it simple on this one.’ You get to know, not just the [player’s style], but the mind behind it.”

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The conversations often spill onto busses and into hotel rooms. But just as two defenceman learn each other’s on-ice habits, they also settle into a rhythm during the endless road hours spent together away from the rink. In the early 2000s, Stevens roomed with partner Brian Rafalski, who wanted no part of his insatiable hockey appetite. As soon as Stevens started flicking channels to find the game, Rafalski knew it was time to crack a book or leave the room. Robinson couldn’t escape the cigar smoke of his partner and roommate in the 1970s — fellow Hall-of-Famer Serge Savard — so he always had to make a pit stop at the end of any road trip. “I had to have my clothes dry cleaned when I got home,” he laughs. “My wife wouldn’t allow [them in the house] because they smelled so bad.”

Jovanovski recalls often sitting beside his various partners on flights and having unending back-and-forths about the games. Gord Murphy was the steady vet a rambunctious Jovanovski was paired with when he broke into the league with Florida. On the ice, it was, “Hey Jovo, do your thing.” In the hotel, Murphy was far more likely to take the lead.

“He’d be like, ‘I don’t like the way you do your tie’,” Jovanovski recalls. “So he’d always do my tie.”

The bond between D partners is a constant from current pairs to Hall-of-Famers like Robinson and Serge Savard, and usually requires learning to live with a foible or two

Dante Fabbro’s positioning is what’s really messing with the contour of the semi-circle. Hamhuis, Josi and Yannick Weber are seated on a bench, and Ellis, Matt Irwin and Mattias Ekholm have pulled up on chairs in an arch facing them. Without another chair in sight, though, Fabbro is left by his lonesome on another stretch of bench. He’s on the periphery of the action, just as he often was when he was a little guy playing forward. “I would always hang back, I would never be up,” Fabbro says of those early days, before a coach made it official and moved him to the blue line. “I’d always be the F-3 guy.”

Maybe defence is just coded in the DNA. Despite the ever-changing landscape, much of what the vets say about the position rings true with the current generation. And while the old guys do have some concerns about the offence-first mentalities they sometimes see and the loss of the beautifully barbaric honor that came with muscling (or cross-checking) an invader out of your space, it never reaches a point where their complaints could be met with an “OK Boomer.”

Stevens strongly believes defence is harder to play than ever because there’s less ability to hold up hard-charging forwards lest you land in the box with an interference penalty. Gill, who had to drop 20 pounds to avoid extinction when the game opened up following the 2004–05 lockout, sounds genuinely spooked by the potential horrors facing rearguards today. “Playing against a guy like [Nathan] MacKinnon, if you’re in the wrong position — even by six inches — it’s over,” he says.

Get these guys talking about their craft and they really can get going, especially once the laughter’s died down after Hamhuis cracks that Josi still hasn’t decided if he wants to be a defenceman or forward. Everybody agrees on the importance of mentorship early on, especially on a team where Shea Weber was the franchise face for years. Before he played with Josi, Ellis spent a lot of time beside Ekholm while the two cut their teeth together. “It was kind of cool for us,” Ellis says. “We’d come back to the bench, both learning the league and learning the game to a higher level. We’d kind of, one, lean on [Weber], but two, look at each other [and say], ‘What did you see? What do you think?’ It was cool learning it at the same time my partner was learning it, too.”

Irwin’s sounding board when he was a rookie with the San Jose Sharks was Dan Boyle. But like the rest of the guys playing the thinking man’s position, he’ll crib notes from anybody while he’s on the bench. “We’ll be on a heavy forecheck and you see [an opposing] D-man make a nice little play to the middle or whatever,” he says. “To the average fan, they don’t see that; they think, ‘That’s a tape-to-tape pass, they should do that.’ But you’ve been in that position where you have a guy barreling down to rip your head off on a forecheck and you’re able to find that cute little area to put a pass. I’ve caught myself thinking, ‘That was a good play.’ Just as a D-man to a D-man.”

It wouldn’t mean as much coming from anyone else.

Photo Credits

John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images; John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images; Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images.