Hockey players are the toughest

Study says that only boxing is more demanding than ice hockey.

 

TORONTO, Canada: A recent ESPN study concluded that ice hockey is the most demanding team sport in the world. Only boxing was given a higher overall mark based on ESPN’s ten criteria: endurance, strength, power, speed, agility, flexibility, nerve, durability, hand-eye coordination, analytic aptitude.


In all, some 60 sports were considered, from the top individual and team sports right down to fishing, table tennis, and the rodeo. Football (the American version) was 3rd, basketball (4th), baseball (9th) and soccer (10) were the other top teams sports.


The panel of eight experts was made up of sports scientists from the United States Olympic Committee, of academicians who study the science of muscles and movement, of a star two-sport athlete, and of journalists who spend their professional lives watching athletes succeed and fail.


The group used a scale of 1-10 to determine each score, adding the ten results into one master score. Boxing weighed in with a top mark of 72.375 but right behind was hockey at 71.750. Hockey tied with soccer and auto racing for analytic aptitude with a score of 7.50 for top honours and had its highest mark with durability at 8.25 (second behind boxing and American football at 8.50).


In only flexibility and nerve did hockey fail to earn a score of at least 7.10, strange given that the task of a goalie requires large doses of those two attributes, perhaps more so than just about any other sport. Hockey also scored well in power (7.88), although this score was well behind weightlifting (9.75), a sport which ranked 44th overall.


The study, however, begs further scrutiny. If hockey is the most demanding team sport, is there one player who exemplifies the game so completely? Recall 30 years ago during the height of the Cold War and the Canada-Soviet Union rivalry that Anatoli Tarasov called Bob Gainey “technically” the best player in the world. Tarasov’s “best” didn’t necessarily mean the one player to build a team around or the greatest talent in the world, but the player who exemplified all attributes of the game more than anyone else.


So, is there one player today who is “technically the best” based on ESPN’s specific analysis?


Top endurance scores might go to defenceman Chris Pronger, who logs 25 to 30 minutes of ice time game after game, year after year, regular season and playoffs. More than a stud defenceman, however, is goalie Martin Brodeur. He has averaged about 74 regular-season games a year for the last decade, playing 60 minutes while wearing 20 kg of equipment, and then playing every minute every year in the playoffs. Even more amazing is Brodeur’s consistently high level of play. Endurance, thy name is Marty.


Strength. In American football, strength is usually brute force, but in hockey that strength must be used to a creative end otherwise it’s useless. How about a player such as Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, or, when inspired, Jaromir Jagr, someone with powerful legs who can cycle the puck or fend off defenders with sheer muscle? Speed? Pure speed has to go to Marian Gaborik or Ilya Kovalchuk, players who reduce the size of the rink through the power of their skating and determination to chase loose pucks or drive bravely to the net.


Despite what ESPN’s panel might say, agility and flexibility are, by definition, a goalie’s skills more than a skater’s, and because there are so many great goalies - all agile and supremely flexible - these categories are a tie for just about any number-one goalie in the NHL. Nerve is also a goalie’s first attribute. If you don’t have nerve, you’re not cut out to stand in the crease even for a second.


To face the slapshots of the pros these days, nerve is a 60-minute prerogative. And, to keep an eye on the puck as forwards “crash the crease” is only further evidence of a goalie’s bravery, a bravery first established by the maskless wonders of the Original Six but made more so by today’s players who happily go full throttle to the crease knowing the goal frame will dislodge upon contact.


Durability is a quality that hockey players display perhaps, paradoxically, more than any other athletes. They play a sport that is more physically demanding than any other - 60 minutes in a confined area with no “comfort zone” out of bounds - but they play with an ambition, love, and determination that is unparalleled. Today, Chris Chelios at age 45 must be on the top of this list, but other stars such as Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan and Dominik Hasek must also be considered because they continue not just to play but to dominate even into their late thirties and forties.


Hand-eye coordination can mean, in its simplest form, how the body reacts to what the mind sees. Again, goalies must surely come out on top. Without a good glove hand, quick legs, and an elastic body, they wouldn’t last in the game very long. Goalies may not be quite as quick as a table tennis player, but replace the ping pong ball with a puck hurtling at 160 km/h at your face and the degree of difficulty is surely weighted toward the goalie.


Last on ESPN’s list is analytic aptitude, the ability to see the whole rink, understand what is happening and what is going to happen, and react before anyone else. A player such as Crosby has such vision of the ice, and at 20 years of age his abilities in this area will only improve over the next several years. Again, though, a goalie’s ability to read the play is key to good body position and timing, the two elements most crucial to making a save. And let’s face it, to assess the action on ice while players are skating at upwards of 25 km/h is a lot more challenging than the much slower paces of “ground sports” like American football or soccer, where players, without the aid of skates, move far slower than hockey players.


Although ESPN surely didn’t have this in mind when it conducted the survey, it just might be that goalie Martin Brodeur is “technically the greatest hockey player in the game today”. Tarasov would be pressed to find a better example, and using ESPN’s criteria it seems Brodeur exemplifies almost all of them. His endurance and durability are without equal among modern goalies; his speed, agility, and flexibility are the prime sources of his success; his nerve is what got him to the crease in the first place; his hand-eye coordination extraordinary; and, his ability to see all strategies of puck movement give him superior position to the shooter.


Gone are the days of the overweight braveheart. In Gainey’s day, goalies were chunky, among the lowest paid players on the team, and almost never drafted in the first round. Today, they are among the finest athletes on any team, are among the best paid, and are routinely drafted in the top five every year. They are so well protected that head injuries have all but been eliminated and the most common ailment is a groin pull, the result of their remarkable flexibility. The modern goalie is the prime reason scoring is way down, and Brodeur is the very apotheosis of his position.


Go to this link to read the original story from ESPN: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/sportSkills

 

ANDREW PODNIEKS


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THE HOME OF HOCKEY

 

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