10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Watching College Hockey
by Tom Douglis/CHN Senior Writer
As a former full-time hockey writer and media relations person, I was fortunate to be exposed to some excellent hockey minds over the years. Coaches, players, front office staff and scouts helped me learn how to watch the game as the pros do, and I'd like to pass along some of their tips to help you get more out of your own game-watching experience. Whether you are a novice, intermediate or advanced hockey watcher, hopefully, there's something in here that will further your knowledge and enjoyment of our game.
1. To see the game like a pro, first you need to prepare like a pro
College hockey players and coaches have three or four days of practice for every game they play, during which they prepare and develop their game for the next opponent. The late Maine coach Shawn Walsh once told me that if his teams put in 12 hours of hard practice for every weekend, real fans should spend at least 60 minutes of preparation for the game-watching experience. With careful study of media guides and game notes (usually posted on team web sites) you'll have access to data that formerly was only available to the press, the teams and leagues, and scouts. Investing your time here will pay off, as you get to know the players as more than just a last name. Indeed, knowledge is power, and the web is a tremendous tool for increasing your knowledge, providing access not only to team sites and general college hockey sites like this one, but also local on-line newspaper stories and hockey scouting sites. When I go over game notes, I look for trends and streaks in players or teams, as those trends often carry over. In addition, try to videotape your team's TV games (if applicable) as well as those of your opponent. The more time you spend watching video of a team, the better your feel for that team and what their tendencies are likely to be.
2. Watch a team practice
Most college hockey practices take place on weekdays in the late afternoons (so players don't miss prime class time), and most practices are open to the public. If and when you go, you'll notice that players are often wearing different colored jerseys or colored pullover vests denoting either their offensive line combination, defensive pairing or even injury status (to avoid contact). Practice sessions can tell you a lot about what the coaches believe are the areas that need work most — basic systems (breakouts, positioning, defensive zone coverages, forechecks), special teams, face-offs, decision- making, etc. In addition, since many coaches can be pretty vocal, you may get insight into what the coach is trying to teach that week. The more practices you see, the more you will learn to appreciate the skills of the players and how they are applied in game situations. You will also get a feel for team chemistry. Is the atmosphere loose and light? Is it 'all-business'? Are certain players continuously pulled aside by the coaches? How are injured players progressing? Watching practice gives you a real leg up on the 99% of other fans, who have never seen a practice session,
3. At the game, sit where the scouts sit
NHL scouts usually sit in the corners of an arena, usually halfway up or higher. From this vantage point, you'll be in a better position to see the plays develop, and you'll see a more complete game than most others will. And the tickets are often cheaper here too! Occasionally, you might even sit next to a scout, and you'll know they are a scout because they are usually taking notes. If you do sit near a scout, talk to him only between periods and only if he seems open to it. Remember, he's at work and you aren't. A chatty scout can be a wonderful educational opportunity, but don't take it personally if they seem a trifle truculent. They spend weeks and weeks away from home in a constant string of airports, rental cars, hotels and icy roads. It's a grueling way to make a living, and talking with fans is rarely high on their priority list.
4. As you watch, widen your viewpoint to see more than your team
Most novice fans just watch the puck carrier, or if they are a little more advanced, they primarily watch what their own team does in support of (or to defend against) the puck carrier. It's human nature. Pros, however, widen their view to include what the other team is trying to do tactically, and they watch what happens away from the puck. Look for defensive zone coverage. Are the gaps between opposing players tight and close, or are they loose? Notice the "systems" that both teams employ. How do they break out of the zone? Do they tend to carry the puck out or do they look for outlet passes? Where are the wingers positioned? Do they block shots and disrupt shooting and passing lanes? Do they like to cycle down low, or clog the neutral zone and operate more surgically on a counter-attack? The wider your view becomes, the more of the game you'll appreciate.
5. To better anticipate, learn to see in the abstract
Wayne Gretzky was famous for saying, "I don't skate to where the puck is — I skate to where the puck is going." Learning to anticipate where the puck will be is a big part of becoming a more advanced hockey watcher. The more hockey you watch, the more geometric and abstract the game becomes, and the easier it is to see strategies unfold, as each team tries to create space on the ice to control the puck. Watching soccer, basketball and lacrosse can also help your ability to see in the abstract, as these games also rely on passing in patterns of movement into open space, and most coaches in all of those sports want each player carrying the ball (or puck) to have at least two passing options at any given time.
One tip I learned from Dave Peterson, coach of the 1988 and 1992 US Olympic hockey teams, was a way of training yourself to see abstractions in hockey terms: Occasionally "de-focus" your eyes for a few seconds until players become just different colored blurs, and the white ice becomes more prominent in your field of view. Notice how the blurry players create and manipulate the "available space" on the ice. Space is usually created by some combination of three factors: speed, size and opponent mistakes. Successful teams create more space for themselves by forcing the other team to react to speed or size. As you get better at seeing the abstract spaces, you will notice that your sense of anticipation ratchets up when you see what the players see. As a result, you'll be able to sense scoring opportunities before others do and you'll find yourself cheering well before everybody else realizes what is happening.
6. Understand the importance of special teams
The legendary Wisconsin (and NHL/Olympic) coach Bob Johnson once told me that his philosophy was to stay even with the other team at 5 on 5, but to win the game with special teams. He believed that capitalizing on a power play was critical, and his umbrella power-plays were known for fast puck movement, and for gradually moving the shooters closer to the net as the power play progressed by forcing the defense backwards. Today, with all the penalties called in college hockey, the power play has become a critical determinant in how well your team performs. You can always tell novice hockey fans, as they are the one screaming "shoot!" every time an offensive player gets the puck on the power play facing the goal. Smart hockey teams know that puck possession in the offensive zone is critical, and when you shoot and miss, you create about a 40 percent chance of losing the puck to your opponent. Good possession teams also create more chances to draw another penalty. Of course, some teams (especially highly-skilled teams) can tend to overpass and undershoot, but by and large, they are simply trying to force the other team to break down and allow a clearer shot on net.
7. Watch how teams deal with emotion.
One of the great advantages of watching college hockey is understanding the huge role of emotion and how something like a key goal, a big hit or a key save can turn the momentum of a game around in mere seconds. We've all seen teams feed off the crowd noise, and how a team can put the other team "on their heels" by changing the tempo of the attack, or send them reeling from successive goals in a span of seconds. When a team has the emotional edge, they have a certain 'jump' to the way they play. You can often tell it by the way they skate — keeping their feet moving rather than gliding, digging for extra speed and power, finishing checks and "hitting the line" together. Passes click from tape to tape, and the players appear to be moving in a synchronous zone of guided instinct, where players seem to know where teammates are going to be. This kind of "in-the zone" emotion can rarely be sustained for a whole 60 minute hockey game, and great teams also know "how to play in the lulls" when not much seems to be happening. Smart teams can also sense when the other team is fading into a lull, and that's often when they try to strike — to take advantage of a team when it is down.
8. Learn to look for fatigue
One of the most overlooked parts of watching hockey is the role of fatigue in a player or team, especially late in close games when the benches often 'shorten' and only the top players play. One of the sure ways to tell if a team or player is tired is to look for attitude after the whistle blows and they are getting ready to resume play. Are players bent over or are they upright? If more of them are bent over, chances are they are more tired than a player or team that stands straight up. Also, look at the body language of a team on the bench. Are they up and into the game or are they sagging back and looking tired? Tired teams make way more mistakes, especially late in games. Often times, goals are scored when one team can capitalize on the other team's fatigue.
9. Learn the role of key stats beyond just goals and assists
Everybody knows goals and assists, but looking deeper into hockey statistics will help you become a better fan, faster. For example, most college goalies save about 9 out of every 10 shots they face — a .900 saves percentage. In other words, if a goalie has faced 30 shots and given up three goals, he's probably having an average night. If he's faced 30 shots and given up only 1 or 2 goals, he's probably playing well. Four goals or more on 30 shots and he's probably having a tough night. Saves percentage over the course of a season will give you a pretty good idea of how effective your goalie is. If he's above .920 (92%) he's probably very good. If he's in the .920 to .900 range, he's effective. Below .900 usually means he's inconsistent. The difference between the .880 goaltender and a .920 goaltender is significant, and will usually mean the difference between several wins and losses over the course of a season. Of course, the way a defense plays in front of a goalie can also affect saves percentage, but Goals-Against-Average (GAA) is a better measurement of a goalies effectiveness in the context of the defense in front of him, whereas the saves percentage gives you the direct relationship between a goalie and how often he saves the puck from going in the net.
An addition, a little known stat is what hockey teams call "Grade A" chances — shots on the opposing teams' goal that come from an imaginary triangle between the goal crease out to the face-off dots. Any shot from within that triangle has a much better success rate than shots that come from elsewhere. In college hockey you usually get one goal for every 10 shots you take, but if the shots are coming from the Grade A zone, the odds jump to about 1 goal for every 5 shots. That's why you keep hearing coaches telling players to "go to the net".
10. Watch for coaching adjustments and 'gambling'
When a team has success with a particular strategy or tactic, they will exploit for as long as they can, until the other team adjusts to it to mitigate the advantage. Teams that adjust quickly tend to win more games. The most common adjustments are changes in a fore-check, player positioning or on a defensive zone match up. The home team always has the last change, and will try to get players on the ice to dictate what the home coach wants to achieve. Perhaps it's to get a faster player out there against slower opponents, or to exploit a particular defensive match-up, or to overload one side of the ice with more players to overwhelm a defense.
Most coaches are thinking at least one or two line changes ahead of the group that's on the ice. Many fans think pulling a goalie for an extra skater is a gamble, and of course they are right. But the gambling probably started long before that. A coach that is behind in a game will often shorten his bench to get his better players on the ice more often, as well as "pinching" his defensemen to try to keep the puck in the other team's zone in order to create an overload situation or mismatch. Of course, there are risks to these tactics, and often times, the team that's ahead will exploit the pinching defensemen by creating an odd-man rush going the other way.
These tips are just a few ways to improve your game watching experience, and I hope you'll try a few of them the next time you go to the rink.
Tom Douglis is a contributing writer for College Hockey News. The former editor of College Hockey Magazine and former public relations coordinator for USA Hockey, he has also freelanced for UPI, ESPN, WFXT-TV, US College Hockey Online, The Sporting News, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, the Milwaukee Journal, Hockey Canada and the Rocky Mountain News.