The wolf versus the caribou

Hockey games, once they’re over, usually yield just a handful of snapshot memories, with the overall game fading to a blur shortly after its conclusion.

For me, it’s usually a few little plays that I remember: the odd trivial thing that I did well or wish I could try again.

My second game of the season yields one such memory that stands out above the others, a measuring-stick moment that illustrates where I am in my development.

We’re on the power play* in the opposition end and I’m at the right point when the puck comes loose in my general vicinity. I race in a few steps and take possession of the puck as an opposition forward comes out to challenge me. This challenger is their best player – a good skater, puckhandler and passer – not a guy to whom I want to turn over the puck.

As I gather up the disk along the side boards, I ascertain that I have a little bit of space and three options: 1) slide the puck around the boards in the hope that one of our forwards can get it in the corner or behind the net, 2) retreat with the puck back to my point position and orchestrate a play from there, or 3) carry the puck down the wall myself.

The old me would have played it safe and dumped the puck around the boards. However, the new and improved me wants to be more proactive, so I maintain possession and drive wide against the onrushing forward, skating hard to see if I can get around him along the boards.

You see this all the time in advanced levels of hockey. A team with a man advantage will rush the penalty killers, testing for a weakness that will allow penetration through their defences. It’s like a wolf testing a herd of caribou, putting them on the run to test for a weak member.

For the last few years, when I’ve had the puck on the power play, the situation has been reversed, as if the caribou on the other team would look at me and conclude, “Man, that wolf can’t run and he gots no teeth!” One or more of them would unceremoniously swarm me, take the puck and leave me in a quivering heap on the open plain ... or ice, I mean.

On this night, when I make my offensive dash, the opposing forward cuts me off, so I execute a tight turn toward the boards and retreat hastily, focusing on quick strides toward a pocket of open ice where I can take refuge.

This routine manoeuvre represents significant progress for me. Their good guy pressured me but I totally had enough leg juice to get away. Ha ha!

Unfortunately, I follow up this small victory with a slightly larger defeat. I pass across to my defensive partner, thinking he’s wide open, but he’s got a guy on him in an instant. My pass eludes him and slips out over the blue line, forcing our whole side to exit the zone and regroup. Oh well, it’s only beer league.

My takeaway message from this moment, and the entire game, is that my training is helping me develop the physical tools required to maintain possession of the puck at times when I would previously have felt compelled to get rid of it. However, I clearly have work to do to hone this developing ability so I can apply it effectively in pressure-packed beer league competition.

In honour of this newfound insight, I’ve coined a new hockey saying. Please pass it along to all your buddies and feel free to work it into your casual conversations with your co-workers, friends or spouse: 

“That’s hockey ... sometimes you’re the wolf; sometimes you’re the caribou.”



* Power play: When one team has a player in the penalty box, leaving the other team with one more player on the ice.