Wednesday, November 16, 2011

List: Three Ridiculous, Boring Coaching Ploys Better than Laviolette’s

Recently, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was able to stir up a bit of extra notoriety for his team with a creative scrap of hockey theatrics. Surely you’ve seen the clip by now: frustrated with the Lightning’s deployment of a 1-3-1 defensive posture early in the game, Laviolette instructed his team to simply refuse to carry the puck out of their zone, resulting in about 20 seconds of dead time wherein nobody on either side did much more than stand around and look ridiculous.

Now, to a certain extent, Laviolette’s little ploy was effective. It got everybody bitching and whining about the trap again, because hockey fans have the attention span of hyperactive gnats and DEFENSE IS BOOOOOOOORING. It gave the Flyers that little extra shot of dickish insouciance they need every season to keep them from turning into the Blues. And it made Laviolette look clever rather than incompetent, which is what he would have looked like had he tried to break the trap and failed.

Nevertheless, we here at the Theory did not really approve of Laviolette’s behavior, because we did not believe that ‘Act Like a Big Whiny Baby’ was a valid coaching strategy. In fact, we were apt to think that it was rather unclassy of Laviolette to waste everyone’s time just because he was feeling lazy and petulant that day. But then we took a trip to the hockey archives at the Seaman Centre and did a little digging, and we are forced to revise our position: acting like a big whiny baby is not just a valid coaching strategy, it is an ancient, time-honored, tradition-hallowed coaching strategy. Delaying the game and boring the fedoras off the paying customer in order to express one’s annoyance is a tactic that goes back to the Golden Age of the game, and a surprising number of rules in hockey have their origin in some coach’s sneaky, bitchy little exercise in hockey theater. Here are our top three:

Number 1: Icing

Back in the day- and I mean way, way back in the day- hockey had no such thing as an icing call. Anybody could dump the puck all the way down the ice whensoever they damn well pleased, and there was nothing for it but to go back and pick that shit up and keep playing. No whistle, no faceoff, no no-change, nothing. Back in the 1920s icing was some shit you put on cakes and nothing more.

Consequently, any team with any kind of lead was always looking to fire the puck away as hard and far as they could, and that was about it as far as strategic thinking went. Didn’t need to go no farther, it didn’t, so effective was this tactic. And, of course, it was boring, but hey, ain’t no rule against boring, is there?

So come 1931, November, the New York Americans are visiting Boston for a friendly game of hockey, and they get up to a 3-2 lead relatively early, and they start in with the icing. Over and over again, just sending the puck down the ice, protecting their lead. Maybe 50 times they ice the puck, and every one, Boston’s got to go back and get it from their own zone and skate it up fresh, and without no forward passing neither (Please forgive my excessive use of folksy vernacular in this piece; it is my mood) (N.B. This is an error- the forward pass was legalized in 1929, so it would have been an available tactic. However, the rules for forward passing were modified every year from 1929 to 1932, so it's probably fair to say that the technique was not particularly sophisticated in 1931). So, of course, the Americans win, and the Bruins can’t do anything about it but stomp their feet and make frowny faces.

However, Charles Adams, Boston’s irritatingly hands-on president, gets him an idea, based on the Biblical principle of “Fuck me? Oh, no no no my friend, FUCK YOU.” The next time they go to New York for a game, the Bruins start icing the puck from the very beginning of the game. They don’t even try to score. The second they get the puck they just throw it away like they don’t even care, and sit around in their own end drinking grain alcohol and mining for things, or whatever it is that hockey players did in 1931 when they weren’t playing hockey. They ice the puck 87 times, and the game ends at a 0-0 tie. Nevertheless, it still took the NHL 6 more years to get an icing rule on the books, proving that, then as now, the League is nothing if not inefficient.

Number 2: Time

Fast forward a couple of seasons to 1934. The previous season, the NHL had for the first time mandated that all arenas had to have a timekeeping device prominently displayed, such that all the coaches, players, and fans could see the amount of time remaining in the period. Boston, however, had been slow to comply, and began the ‘34-35 season as the only NHL team still without a clock in their rink. They preferred to do it the old-school way, by which the timekeeper just sat there with his pocket watch and let go with the buzzer when the period was over. Rumor had it that this was because Boston liked to be able to shave a little time when they had the lead, but this accusation remains unproven scurrilous gossip, which we will nevertheless believe because the old-timey Bruins were some devious fuckers, this being before the invention of mindless goonery.

Now, in the course of being devious fuckers, the Bruins had somehow managed to piss off Lester Patrick, who was at that time coaching the Rangers. So Patrick gets to the Garden for a game and notices, oh my, they still don’t have their clock in place. Now, the pre-clock rules allowed that the coach could call a time out during any stoppage to ask the officials how much time remained in the period/penalty, but because every other rink had installed their clock, the only place this rule still applied was Boston, meaning that he, Patrick, was protected from any symmetrical retaliation. Perfect.

So, through the first period, Patrick calls a time out at every stoppage to ask about the time. Every single one. Every time there’s a goal, a penalty, a cover, a puck out of play, every time that whistle goes, there’s Lester Patrick making that little hand-T and asking, how many minutes left? And every time, by the rules, the refs have to skate over to the timekeeper, get the official time, and skate back to tell Patrick. Because of this, the first period took an hour and a half to play, and this in an era before the Jumbotron and the Kiss-Cam and the Chicken Dance, when fans did not have fuck-all to do except watch the damn ref skating back and forth and back and forth. You think Peter Laviolette is boring? You think the trap is boring? You get down on your knees right now and thank the hockey gods you never had to deal with Lester Patrick.

Number 3: Consolation

Now we get to fast forward much further, for those of you who don’t like hockey stories wherein every damn person has a trophy named after them. (Fun way to liven up old-timey anecdotes: next time somebody tries to tell you a story about Art Ross or Jack Adams or whatever, just picture the trophy in place of the man. Nothing sets off a bout of the giggles like imagining a giant anthropomorphic punch bowl trash-talking the Blackhawks. Works best with Conn Smythe- go ahead, just picture that thing waving its little fronds in umbrage, I dare you.)

Anyway, 1979, playoffs. The Canadiens, as is traditional, are on their way to a Stanley Cup, and the Bruins, as is also traditional, are trying to get in their way. The series will go to seven games and become famous for being won in overtime after being tied on a too many men call, but that is not what interests us here, because this is not a list of historic botchings of changes, but rather a list of historic theatrical coaching ploys, and no hockey list with the word ‘theatrical’ would be complete without Don Cherry.

For some reason, and I am not sure what that reason is, but it was probably a good one because Scotty Bowman thought of it and I’m pretty sure Scotty Bowman didn’t do anything just for shits and giggles, the Canadiens have been celebrating their goals throughout the playoffs with a bench-clearing hug. Rather than the scoring players skating by the bench for the ritual fist-bumps and high-fives, the whole team was coming off the bench to make snuggles with the lucky point-getters. One can see how this would be annoying, particularly if you were the opposition. As far as I can tell, however, previous opponents just stood around glaring in annoyance when the Habs did this, maybe tapping their feet and conspicuously checking their watches.

But Don Cherry is not going to sit around glaring while somebody else engages in hockey silliness. Oh no, Don Cherry is going to double down on the silliness, because nobody puts Don Cherry in a corner. Don Cherry must always be center stage.

So the first game of the series the Habs score the first goal, and as expected, they all spill on off the bench, and suddenly all the Bruins spill off the bench too, and while the Habs are skating around celebrating, the Bruins go over to their goalie and start patting him on the back and telling him it’s okay, not his fault, etc. The Canadiens have a party; the Bruins have a pity-party. So now, every time the Habs score, there’s two whole teams on the ice just milling around and congratulating/comforting each other, and it takes forever to get them all off and arranged for the next faceoff, and the ref is getting really annoyed and asks Cherry to knock it off, to which Cherry says, of course, ‘I will if they will’, and for the rest of the series a gentlemen’s agreement holds wherein both teams keep their asses more or less on the bench when they’re supposed to be (until Game 7! Hah!). The next year, the League instituted a rule against excessive celebration.

So, to sum up, one can say Laviolette’s ploy was tiresome, immature, ridiculous, irritating, and/or dull, but one can’t say it’s not hockey. It’s absolutely classic hockey.

Many thanks to the D.K. (Doc) Seaman Hockey Resource Centre for collecting and housing the material used for this article, and for helping me find it.


Clare said...

My favorite blog post yet!! Because it combines my three favorite things: hockey, history, and calling Peter Laviolette and the Philadelphia Flyers "big whiny babies." (In full disclosure, I am a Lightning fan.)

I'm honestly kind of sick of the whole "this game/the 1-3-1 defense has doomed hockey" vibe going around about this, too.

Scott Reynolds said...

Lovely article, E! One small note: Forward passing was allowed by 1931. Though I do wonder if excessive icing is something that got that changed in the late 20s.

E said...

clare- if there's one thing i've learned from the relatively small amount of historical research i've done, it's that there are a few things that are ALWAYS thought to be 'ruining the game', including 1) too much defense, 2) too much goonery, 3) not enough goonery. there are probably more, but those complaints are just perennial, no matter what the rules.

scott- sorry! i'll leave the mistake in there, as a tribute to my wrongness, but i'll add a correction so i don't mislead any poor googlers. honestly, though, i find the text of the 31-32 rules a bit confounding, in terms of what it means you can and can't do in a game. for example, apparently off-sides applied to entering the neutral zone as well as the offensive zone? weirdness.

Anonymous said...

This post is a beauty. Love the blog E. Hope all is well in Canada.