By Sean Fitz-Gerald
(Bill Smith / NHLI via GETTY IMAGES)
John Scott knows you are probably not going to use him on your power play, or give him ice time on the penalty kill, or require him to score goals: “I don’t bring much skill to the table; I don’t bring much in the way of special teams.”
At six-foot-eight and 260 pounds, the Arizona Coyotes winger has one notable skill — firing his fists across an opponent’s face like pistons — that can be reflected in a game summary. He has other skills, he says, but they are not readily apparent to those who monitor statistics.
“When I go to a team,” Scott says, “my job is to be a leader, kind of guide the little guys and show them the right way to do things.”
Some of his value to a team, then, would be intangible.
Hockey has developed a rich lexicon of so-called intangibles. Players can have grit, heart and vision. They might have good hockey sense, show good character, or be respected as a dressing room leader. A celebrated few might be known for how they perform on a big stage, knighted with the designation of being “clutch.”
“To me, an intangible is something that can’t be quantified,” says TSN hockey analyst Ray Ferraro. “You can’t touch it, you can’t feel it, you can’t mark it on a grade of 1-to-10 with any accuracy — it’s all subjective.”
As such, it can also be difficult to define. Like hockey’s vast unwritten rulebook — known widely as The Code — the meaning behind certain intangible skills can vary depending on the speaker. What is grit, anyway? And is it even possible for a player to be clutch?
In the name of clarity and the public good, Toronto Star sports reporter Sean Fitz-Gerald surveys hockey people, from managers to scouts and former players, from the NHL down to junior, in an attempt to nail down some of the game’s most inscrutable terms.
Active prototype: Chris Kelly, Boston Bruins
A player deemed to have grit is often described as gritty, though not as the word might be defined in the dictionary, where a gritty player might be one dusted with bits of sand, or guided by pluck. “To me, that means there’s a loose puck, and they work like crazy to try and get it back,” says Ferraro, who cites Kelly, the hard-working fourth-liner, as one example. “And if they fall down, they get right back up and try it again.”
Grit, then, is perhaps just another word for effort.
“It’s being tough, being hard to play against,” says Natalie Spooner, a forward who won gold with the Canadian women’s team at the Sochi Olympics.
“Grit is a guy, when it is a tough game and he is a targeted guy, he forges forward,” says Larry Robinson, the director of player development with the San Jose Sharks.
Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting, suggests the meaning has evolved. Today, when someone is discussing what might earlier have been known as grit, they instead use edge: “They play within the rules, but they just have physicality with their game.”
“Grit used to be more obvious in a game in a physical way,” says Warren Rychel, general manager of the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires. “Now, grit’s got a lot to do with the mental toughness side of the game, the willingness to block a shot.”
Active prototype: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
In hockey, having vision does not necessarily relate to exceptional eyesight. Good vision on the ice implies a player has an elevated analytical awareness. “It’s almost like card-counting in their head,” says Kyle Raftis, general manager of the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
“They have the ability to see plays before they happen,” says Sportsnet analyst Cassie Campbell-Pascall. “They put passes to space, sometimes, rather than tape-to-tape.”
“When Wayne Gretzky played the game, it was like when I sat in the press box,” Ferraro says. Up in the rafters, with the ice far down below, passing lanes appear with the clarity of a Las Vegas billboard. A player with vision can see that even when they are down on the ice.
“When I went down on the ice, I saw a bunch of 200-pounders in the way,” says Ferraro, who was an NHL forward for 18 seasons. “It was really crowded.”
Having vision is one way a player such as McDavid, the 18-year-old centre selected first overall in the NHL draft last spring, can create the optical illusion of having the puck follow him around the ice. “It’s not exactly like he’s lucky night in and night out,” says Raftis. “He sees the play develop.”
“That’s not coachable, one bit, in my opinion,” Ferraro says. “You got it, or you don’t.”
Active prototype: Jarome Iginla, Colorado Avalanche
Character might be the intangible quality that most aligns with the dictionary definition, though one layered with meaning from hockey’s culture. A player with character is said to have a certain moral quality, even in the face of adversity.
“Character is that you don’t become selfish, and that is really hard in a sport where your individual contributions keep you in the team sport,” says Ferraro. “I’d like to say that I had impeccable character, but I didn’t. Because I knew if I didn’t score, I was in trouble.”
Marr, the NHL scout, says character also suggests a player has “trust and responsibility” from a coach. A player with character, he says, can be trusted to understand the situation in a game, such as when not to gamble for a goal when protecting a lead is the priority.
“People with high character are guys that you just want to be around — men or women you work with, people you can tell do things the right way,” says Raftis.
In an era of advanced statistical analysis, though, the value of having players of character on the team has become a point of debate. As Raftis says: “Character only gets brought out when things are poor.”
Active prototype: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
On March 19, 1944, the term made its debut in The New York Times, in a story heralding Toronto Maple Leafs forward Gus Bodnar as the NHL’s rookie of the year. According to the story, Bodnar’s hockey sense meant he had “the ability to make the right play at the proper time.”
“A lot of people in the scouting side will equate it to vision and anticipation,” Marr says. “It’s the ability to read the play and react to it, and the quickness with which you can do that.”
The game is evolving quickly. Enforcers are fading away. Size and brute strength do not create the same siren song for scouts they might have even a decade ago. “Ten years ago, I used to go out looking for size and skating,” says Rychel, the former NHL forward who now runs the Spitfires. “Now it’s hockey sense and skating.”
“Somebody with good hockey sense can sense what’s going to happen on a certain play,” says Robinson, a Hall of Fame defenceman. “The puck is coming around the boards, a guy with hockey sense will know, ‘the puck is going there, so I’m going here.’”
Active prototype: Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
Jordan Denning is co-founder of The Center for Cognitive Sports Performance, in Portland, Maine, and claims to have developed a system that measures an athlete’s intangibles: “We can finally metricize these things in a day and age in sports where everybody’s crazy about the analytics.”
Assessments are not based in psychology, he says, but rather in self-reporting. The player responds to statements — such as “I raise my voice to win an argument, true or false” — in order to generate a profile. Leadership is among the traits the company attempts to quantify.
“It could be anything from selflessness to cohesion to outward leadership,” Denning says. “So it’s the guy who’s going to be willing to take the critique, take the criticism and get better at it.”
Players who are considered leaders can demonstrate a number of traits, according to long-time player agent Allan Walsh. They could have exceptional eating or training habits, or strong pre-game routines: “The players who do that are known within the room.”
“He’s almost like a coach, in that he can read who he has to kick in the butt, who he has to take out to lunch,” says Robinson. “A leader is a guy who knows when to stand up and kick the Gatorade bottle.”
Active prototype: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Heart can overlap with compete level, and depending on the viewpoint, it is synonymous with grit. “It means ‘no quit,’” says Darcy Regier, assistant general manager of the Arizona Coyotes. “No end to the compete.”
Campbell-Pascall suggests heart can go beyond compete level.
“I think you can be a selfish player and have a great compete level,” she says. “But I think, where compete and heart kind of switch is, for a player to have heart, it’s completely about doing everything for the sake of the team.”
Saying a player has heart conjures images of a blood-stained jersey, a roadmap of bruises and a mouth running low on factory-installed teeth. Bergeron, for example, logged nearly 18 minutes of ice time in a playoff game two years ago despite a broken rib, a separated shoulder and a punctured lung.
“A lot of times, when you’re talking about heart, it’s a guy who maybe doesn’t have as much talent as another player,” says Robinson, “but he will go the extra to make up the difference.”
“He plays every game like it’s his last one,” says Rychel.
“Heart, effort, all that stuff, it all just has to do with wanting to win,” says Scott, the bruising Coyotes winger. “It’s lining up against someone and saying, ‘I’m going to out-compete you, I’m going to beat you tonight.’”
Active prototype: Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks
Hockey is a succession of small battles waged all over the ice, Ferraro says, and compete level refers to a player who fights to win more of those battles than they lose. As Spooner puts it: “You’re winning your battles on the ice and you’re winning your races.”
“Heart and grit and compete level are all part of a triangle,” says Rychel. “When one of those things doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t go right.”
Robinson suggests Dave Andreychuk was a player with admirable compete level, mostly for his work in front of the opposing team’s net. (Andreychuk retired in 2006, at 42, with 640 regular-season goals on his NHL resume.) “He wasn’t the fastest skater in the world, he wasn’t a big tough guy, he didn’t fight,” says Robinson, “but he had that knack of having great compete in front of the net.”
Campbell-Pascall, who won gold with the Canadian Olympic team in 2002, and again in 2006, says young players can sometimes struggle with compete level.
“They’ll compete in the offensive zone when there’s that opportunity to score,” she says, “and they kind of forget to compete through the neutral zone, and in their own zone.”
Active prototype: Marie-Philip Poulin, Canadian women’s team
Here is the issue Raftis, the statistics-minded junior hockey executive, has with the concept of a clutch player: “I don’t think it really exists.”
Clutch players turn into good stories, into heroes. The reality, Raftis says, is that the late-game heroics in the playoffs are often provided by players who were also heroic for that mid-season win in January that everyone has already forgotten about. And the reason they are on the ice in a so-called clutch situation is because they are proven performers.
“Those are elite players, they’re not someone that just got tapped at the end of the bench,” he says. “These are elite, elite people.”
Ferraro, on the other hand, believes in the magical properties of the clutch player: “I don’t know how it is, I don’t get why it is — except that it is.”
“They want to be out there,” says Campbell-Pascall, who immediately points to Poulin, the Canadian hero at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics. “They’re the ones, their butts are half-off the bench, like, ‘Coach, tap me, get me over there.’”
“I don’t necessarily believe it can be scouted,” says Walsh, the veteran player agent. “But once you have it, you recognize it. And getting that element to your team is plain, dumb luck.”
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