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On Contact: How to hit like the pros

March 28, 2011 Hockey Tips 3 Comments

By Bob Cunningham
Oct 29, 2001, 19:35

©Linda Marczak

Their names are easily recognizable to even the most casual hockey fan; Cam Neely, Wendel Clark, Chris Chelios, Scott Stevens, and Rick Tocchet. These are among the big-name players of the National Hockey League associated with toughness. And while they may be noted for their scoring, too, what these superstars really have in common is that they usually spend more time dishing out punishment than absorbing it.

But how does this come to pass? Are these guys just born big, bad hitters, or did they work on becoming hockey’s most feared freight trains? The answer is…a little of both.

As is so often the case in hockey, anticipation is a critical element in giving or taking a monster hit. Most great players have a seemingly innate ability to read the play before it develops, but that kind of anticipation can also be acquired through game experience. A key link with these stars is their ability—both natural and acquired—to anticipate plays in order to time their hits appropriately.

“It’s a timing thing,” explains Clark, whose combination of physical prowess and scoring talent has helped the Quebec Nordiques to the NHL’s second-best record at press time. “At the same time (as) you skate into a guy, you put your shoulder down. Keep your center of gravity low, not high.”

Los Angeles Kings defenseman Rob Blake adds his own take on technique. “There’s a lot more to throwing a check than just running into somebody,” says the 25-year-old blueliner. “You have to position yourself a certain way so that you don’t get yourself injured. And you have to know when it’s a good idea to make a hit, and when you should avoid it.”

The best in the game

Tocchet, an NHL teammate of Blake’s for the first time this season (courtesy of an off-season trade with Pittsburgh) lauds Blake’s physical prowess. “(He’s) the best hitter in the game, for my money,” says the right winger. That’s high praise considering the source. Tocchet is one of the NHL’s few tough, talented members of the 30-300 club—that’s 30 goals and 300 penalty minutes in the same season

“He can be three or four feet away from you and then he’ll lunge at you,” Tocchet said of Blake’s striking technique. “He’s like a snake.”

Whatever their individual techniques, one thing is certain: the players that are widely regarded as the game’s best hitters each have their niche within the craft.

For pure big hits, the ones that earn the loudest oohs from NHL crowds, there may be no better craftsman than Neely.

“He can lay waste to you if you’re not expecting it,” says Tocchet of Neely’s physical prowess.

Because his primary role on the Boston Bruins is offense, Neely doesn’t hit routinely. But he’s big and strong and savvy—a lethal combination for unwary opposing players—and his physical play is an important element of his game.

“He doesn’t hit a lot, but when he hits you, he hits you,” Clark notes.

Chelios, the kind of player everyone hates to play against but yearns to have on their team, has acquired a more outwardly intimidating persona through his hits.

“There’s nothing better than a good, clean hit,” he says. And the bigger the better.

“Give them something a little extra. When you give them a good shot, you’re putting it in their mind that you can do it again at any time. That can be a real advantage for you.”

Clark can come up with the big pop, too, and has his own favored technique.

“The main thing is to keep yourself compact,” Clark says. “And something else that is very important is to not throw a hit before you’re ready. You have to make sure you’re in full control if you’re going to play a physical style.

“Players are bigger and stronger now. It’s more important to be in control when you make a hit now than it used to be. You have to work your hit so that you’re more ready than the other guy.”

David vs. Goliath?

And while the average NHLer is bigger than ever before, you don’t have to be a giant to unleash a giant hit. At 5’10” and 185 pounds, Clark has endured more than his share of bumps and thumps during a 12-year career; he’s missed the equivalent of nearly three full seasons with a variety of ailments.

But still, virtually any NHL watcher will agree that Clark is one of the NHL’s most effective hitters. He hits big and he hits often, especially for a forward. His philosophy? His tricks of the trade?

“Early in games, I like to get hits. It gets everyone in the game,” he says. “And in forechecking, you have to finish your hits.”

Clark dismisses the notion that physical size is necessary to be a big hitter.

“A big hitter, especially considering he’s a 175-pound defenseman, is Todd Gill of Toronto,” Clark notes, citing his former teammate with the Toronto Maple Leafs. “He hits as big as just about anybody.”

Being a defenseman, Chelios may seek out the hitting opportunities more than a forward like Clark, but you can’t just hit randomly. It’s combining his smarts with his physical play that makes him the all-star he is.

“Don’t be afraid to follow your instincts on a play,” Chelios advises.

Tocchet concurs: “You have to be smart out there, but don’t get to where you’re analyzing every single move you make. If you need to make a check, make it with confidence.”

Following the old adage that “He who hesitates is lost,” Tocchet says that the worst thing a player can do at a moment of collision is psych himself out.

“If you’re hesitant, you’ll end up (getting) taken out of the play yourself, or you may get injured. That can do more harm than taking a check,” he says.

Clark adds his own take on when to hit.

“You do have to follow the situation, “ says the left winger. “Sometimes it’s better to play the puck than to play your man. It’s doesn’t do you any good to make late hits. That’s just wasting energy and taking you out of the play.”

Steven’s hits: “ferocious”

Tocchet’s pick as among the game’s most consistent hitters is New Jersey’s Stevens. His is a constant physical presence at both ends of the ice, and although it’s most vital in the defensive zone, the ferocity of his hits are felt rinkwide.

Stevens is the consummate “team hitter.” He’ll never shy away from a check when it’s called for, but he’s never observed taking himself out of the play just to complete a check.

“It’s a team. It’s not any one individual,” Stevens says. “It’s everyone doing whatever it takes.” And if that means giving up the opportunity to lay a juicy hit, so be it.

A consistent hitter of a different sort is Hartford’s Jocelyn Lemieux.

“He’s not a great hitter, necessarily,” says Tocchet of Lemieux, “but he hits everything in sight.”

Lemieux’s whirling-dervish role on the Whalers is well defined—they want everyone to pay for coming within a few feet of their burly defenseman.

“He’s on you constantly,” says Tocchet, who has played his entire career prior to this season in the Eastern Conference, and is very familiar with Lemieux’s style. “There aren’t many players like that, but it’s a good philosophy—(being) constantly in everyone’s face.”

Clark notes that the game, because the players of today are bigger and more physical, has slowed down a notch. The big hits don’t come as often, which lends credibility to his “hit early and often” philosophy.

“It’s a slower game, with more close checking,” Clark says. “There’s more clutching and grabbing.”

Stevens stresses that players can always learn, regardless of their skill level or the league they’re competing in, to hit or hit better.

“I’ve played 12 years and I’m still learning,” he says. “I’m not afraid to admit that. I’m a veteran and I believe I’ve learned a lot, but there’s still more to learn. You never stop learning.”

Blake agrees. “Without a doubt, I’m picking up little things all the time,” he says. “Almost with every game I play.”

Another key to hockey in general is no less important when it comes to hitting: you have to know your opponent.

“Early in my career, Brian Engblom taught me that,” says Stevens. “He was my partner, (and) taught me about other players in the league. It helped me out a lot.”

Still, says Clark, when a hit needs to be made, it doesn’t matter who’s on the receiving end.

“Make sure you’re under control, and get to it.”

This first appeared in the 05/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2011 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®


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