Story of the Week

HOCKEY BY POSITION

    Baseball, football and basketball. We American sports fans know those team contact sports the best. We were brought up on them. And even though the NHL has infiltrated the U.S. with franchises all around our country, hockey commands less attention here as a major team sport than any other.

    I was a perfect example of this. I didnít see my first hockey game until 1968 (I was 29 at the time), after the St. Louis Blues played their first complete regular season. I finally went to a Blues game, a playoff game, and within 24 hours, I purchased two season tickets. Iíve come to love and respect the game ever since. But many of my friends do not appreciate the game, primarily because they donít understand the rules, but also because it is not made for television. In fact, itís a terrible TV sport if all you wish to do is follow the puck. And if you want to do more than that, you really do miss the sophisticated strategies of the game on television.

    The hockey season will soon be upon us, and this article might help those of you who really donít know hockey by position. Iím not going to get into the rules or the strategies of hockey in this article; you can buy such a book at your favorite store. But Iíd like to explain the roles of the players based on their respective positions. And letís not forget that they have ice to negotiate (they have to be very proficient skaters) while at the same time attempt to either score goals or prevent them, and at the same time endure the very physical aspect of the game while dishing out or taking tremendous body punishment. So here are the six positions:

    The Center. (1) Hockeyís greatest players can be found at every position. But the center is the offensive quarterback of the team. His job is to get control of the face-offs; a strong face-off artist gives his team a great advantage. Thatís just the beginning of his role. The center must be skilled both on the attack, passing and shooting, and in checking, both offensively and defensively. The prototype center is physically unremarkable; big centers ala Phil Esposito are exceptions. He is fast, with great instincts and vision. He is not necessarily the teamís most proficient goal-scorer. He is expected to dig the puck out of a jam, and create opportunities for his teammates by hard work and perseverance on the ice. He both causes and scores goals. And he checks the opposition when they have control of the puck at their own end, thus trying to break up a pass or even steal the puck. Again, speed, great speed, is a requirement for the center position.

    The Wingers. (2) Above all, their job is to do one thing well, and that is to put the puck in the net. Defense is not to be ignored, but winning hearts and scoring titles is a long-standing tradition in the NHL for this position. And my wingers would also be expected to hit hard on the boards; I love a big, strong, nasty, intimidating wing with a strong, nasty slap-shot.

    The Defensemen. (2) Their job is to prevent goals against their team. Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins was the first and very best offensive player at this position. He was everything all rolled into one, and his great speed permitted him to get back on defense in time. But Orr was a rarity. The primary role of the defensemen is to prevent goals against their team, and if they are mean and intimidating players who love to hit, all the better.

    The Goaltender. (1) He is the defenseman in the net. It is my opinion that stopping a puck traveling 100 miles-per-hour while being screened by players on both teams in front of the net is one of the very toughest jobs in sports. And he has to contend with deflected pucks as well, while all the time he is on ice skates. This position requires great reflexes. Stanley Cup winners have Stanley Cup goaltenders period.

    So if you have never been sold on hockey, give it a chance. Learn the game. Then youíll appreciate how tough it is. Try it; youíll like it. I love it!

Last Weekís Trivia

    Who is the only NCAA Division I-A football player to lead the nation in rushing and scoring, and never be drafted by the pros? Brian Piccolo, a star at Wake Forest, signed with the Chicago Bears. James Caanís portrayal of Piccolo in Brianís Song is terrific; so was Billy Dee Williamsí portrayal of Gale Sayers. If you havenít seen the movie, you should.

Trivia Question of the Week

    Who did Babe Ruth replace in right field for the Yankees after they acquired him from the Red Sox? The man Ruth replaced is a legend. See next weekís Sports Junkie for the answer.