It’s not the size of the dog in the fight. It’s the size of the FIGHT in the dog. Let’s Play Hockey photo by Mike Thill
Let’s look at some facts, not myth: Smaller players are NOT at a disadvantage in hockey except at two times in their lives: 1) Bigger PeeWees and Bantams have developed earlier, and the physiological-sociological maturity is an advantage, 2) Scouts make preliminary decisions as they walk in the arena, pick up the roster and put an asterisk by the names of the biggest players before the game even starts.
After watching the High School Elite League a few years ago, I report – from biased eyes, of course – that the most effective player was a short defenseman. He played consistent, aggressive defense and passed brilliantly to make every forward on his team a little better. However, I’m betting he didn’t get the scouts’ asterisk on the roster prior to the game because he lacks one criterion: height.
The reality is there are some actual physical advantages to being shorter. A sports car beats a Jeep in contests of agility (changing directions at high speed) because of the lower center of gravity. This occurs more often than physical battles, but keep in mind that even the important physical battles are for puck possession, where body position matters more than a player’s size.
Agility is the reason NFL running backs are not tall – they dodge and cut more effectively than a tall running back would. NFL scouts select on the basis of factual reality, not mythical tradition. Football is not exactly a game devoid of physical battles, and the lower center of gravity also helps a shorter running back shed tackles while maintaining balance. This is true for hockey, of course. It’s simple physics.
There are certainly advantages to size in NHL hockey, but when examined objectively, it’s obvious they are more related to intimidation than to the objectives of speed, agility, puck possession, goal-scoring and defending. The latter objectives always dominate the last half of every playoff series and game when teams get serious about winning, and stop running around trying to intimidate.
In the spring of 2014, the Minnesota Wild opened a lot of eyes around the NHL in winning the Avalanche playoff series. Zach Parise’s skillful-tenacious style spread like a virus and became the team identity. This was a group of forwards who didn’t compare in stature to many in the league, but they swarmed all over the opposing D like a bunch of hungry mosquitos. It was as much fun playing against the Wild at playoff time as trying to filet walleye in the deep woods of our northern wilderness. Welcome to Minnesota.
Another winning factor was the brilliant puck movement by Wild defensemen, led by Ryan Suter. One of the most effective D was also the smallest in the league, Jared Spurgeon, who came up with big goals and assists at critical moments. However, that was not his most important contribution. It was the quick fakes and pivots with the puck, leaving hard-charging forecheckers to chase nothing but air. This agility gave Spurgeon a little extra space to make quick, accurate passes on the breakout.
The ability of the D to move the puck up quickly on the counter-attack has become super-important in the playoffs, as many teams spin their hopes on a dump-and-chase style. That forecheck fails if the D can avoid the pressure and pass like Spurgeon. In the 2008 draft, 155 picks were made before he was selected. Today, 30 NHL teams would love to have him.
Speaking of oversight, Martin St. Louis was never drafted, not the first year of eligibility, not ever. That’s a lot of draft picks, and a lot of “no’s” by the scouts. Obviously, 5-8 mattered to the scouts more than other factors, so Marty enrolled at the University of Vermont, where he scored 266 points in four years, and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker award THREE times! Without doing a lot of research, I’m guessing that’s an all-time record.
But still no NHL team wanted him, so he scored mega-points in the minors for a couple of years until Calgary gave him a trial. The Flames didn’t like what they saw, because they were apparently looking over the top of his head for some big guys to hit people and keep their losing ways alive. So he was traded to Tampa Bay where he became one of the top players in the NHL.
As an assistant in Washington for a couple of years when he played for Tampa, I can assure you St. Louis was the most effective player in the league against the Capitals. Crosby was good, but too pre-occupied with Ovechkin to be at his best against us. Marty seemed to have the puck the whole game, even when they were killing penalties. He had an uncanny ability to use his (too-small) body to protect the puck until he could make a brilliant pass to linemates, who then became wealthy superstars.
In 2004, Marty won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer, and then led Tampa to the Stanley Cup Championship. NHL writers did a better analysis than the scouts had done previously, as they voted him the league’s Most Valuable Player. Not bad for a player no one wanted, because SIZE was valued above skill, creativity, goal-scoring, play-making, defensive effectiveness, puck control, courage and a burning desire to succeed against all odds.
How about a fantasy hockey game based on historical facts? You take 15 big guys from the entire NHL history (players over 6-0). I draft anyone else, and let’s get it on. Let’s Play Hockey … on the ice, not on the roster.