EDMONTON — Tomas Holmstrom was once the Master of Redirection, able to regularly tip a 100-m.p.h. slapshot with a defender on his back, picking corners throughout a 1000-game career with Detroit.
Ken Hitchcock? Call him the Master of Direction.
As in, “May I direct your attention to my top player, Connor McDavid, and the unfair tactics being employed at his expense.”
Forget for a moment that Hitchcock likely invented most of the manoeuvers being used by opposing coaches to slow McDavid down. The past is the past. Let us talk about how unfair it is today, shall we?
It’s an art that is as old as the games themselves, spanning across athletic lines.
Some lean on hyperbole, like Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who complained after Sunday’s game that Kawhi Leonard “takes 100 hits and shoots four free-throws.”
Others, like Hitchcock in Edmonton, can stand behind a podium and talk about the referee’s work concerning his guy McDavid, look you square in the eye, and say, “I don’t care about penalties. If you need a power play to win games, shame on you.”
“This is a five-on-five league, and it gets to be more (that way) as the season progresses,” Hitchcock explains. “To me it’s more (McDavid) being involved in a closer manner, in the five-on-five hockey. We don’t need to go on the power play to win hockey games. We need a chance for our players to participate in the actual shift. That’s what I’m fighting for.”
Hitchcock did not, however, devise a scheme to get defenders off of McDavid that would not result in a man advantage (or several) for his Oilers. Perhaps a stern tongue lashing, or a salty email would save the Oilers from the shame of a two-minute advantage.
“They were hitting, holding, cutting, grabbing, clutching, hitting,” Nurse fumed. “It’s been going on all year. I do not understand why they are letting everyone play one of the best players in the league so physically. I do not understand it.”
That’s another old standard, plied by coaches in every sport: This isn’t about my team winning as much as it’s about the overall entertainment value in the game.
Hitchcock references how the NHL is trying to showcase the skill of players. That’s why he draws the line — rightfully — at possession. Opponents are not supposed to start slowing McDavid down before he even gets the puck.
“Connor is a very unique player. You can’t stop him at the puck,” Hitchcock said. “Where you stop him is before he gets involved in the play. That’s the part that bothers me. A lot of what happens is way behind the play.”
Beginning Tuesday, when St. Louis visits the Oilers on Sportsnet, our cameras will go in search of such interference off the puck, as McDavid tries to join the play. If it’s there, and we have little doubt it exists, Canadians across the country will see it for the next two days — because that’s the media’s role in all of this.
It’s also up to us scribes to unearth some statistical evidence to back up Nurse, or Hitchcock. Like the fact that Warren Foegele, a low-profile Carolina winger averaging 13:58 per game compared to McDavid’s 22:38, has somehow drawn 17 penalties to McDavid’s 16 this season.
Warren Foegele. Connor McDavid.
You tell us if one of those guys isn’t getting screwed by the refs…
Speaking of the refs, a coaching tutorial is never complete without a good, old-fashioned conspiracy theory. Outside of Vancouver, those usually come from the fan base.
In Edmonton, the fans point to a January 2018 game where McDavid, having had a goal disallowed, scored in a shootout. That was when he pointed skyward, motioning that the refs should “go upstairs.” It was thin-skinned zebra Steve Kozari who couldn’t take the joke, and handed out a misconduct that night.
Some Oilers fans believe Kozari has held that grudge against McDavid and the Oilers, and of course, he was one of the refs for Sunday’s 4-2 loss in Vancouver. Then you do the research to find that Kozari (and whomever his partner may be) gives Edmonton just 2.2 power plays, on average, compared to 3.0 for the opponent in games he’s worked since The Incident.
How could all of this NOT be true?
“The tug o’ war on him was absolutely ridiculous today,” Hitchcock told the media Sunday. “He’s not allowed to play give and go. It’s give and hold.”
His tact was more explanatory on Monday, as the media gathered in Edmonton the way they will Tuesday in Toronto. Hitchcock is the master, planting a seed in front of the few travelling media members on Sunday that germinates in front of a much larger group, dispatched by editors on Monday in search of juicy content.
That’s another part of the shtick. Once the story hits the streets, the coach who started the wildfire on Day 1 tends to lean back on some perspective on Day 2.
Psychologists call it “Glen Sather Syndrome.”
“As an opposition coach … you figure out where you can negate where you can discourage them. That’s your job,” reasoned Hitchcock. “If I was the opposition I’d be trying to do the same thing. But as a coach who has an elite player, your job is to protect that player.”
As for Connor McDavid, he didn’t meet with the media on Monday.
He’ll talk Tuesday.
No doubt, he’ll wonder what all the fuss is about.