To play big-time hockey is to accept that every so often your hindquarters are going to get a good chewing, in the parlance of the game, for not doing things the right way.
Montreal Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges recently recounted a memorable roasting earned as a prospect in the San Jose Sharks’ organization.
The correct way to play defence, it seemed, was eluding the then-teenaged Gorges in a practice, who was informed at top volume that he was either too dense or too lazy to figure it out.
But then, the Sharks were famously punctilious about the way they wanted their blueliners to play: both hands on the stick at all times.
“As soon as it came down to a one-on-one or a puck battle, they never wanted you to have that free hand because you weren’t as strong. That was a big thing,” said Gorges, who was traded to Montreal in 2007 for Craig Rivet (the Sharks also sent a 2007 first-round pick that the Habs turned into Max Pacioretty).
In the intervening years, Gorges has adapted his technique, shading away from what he was taught in junior and in minor pro during an era when the unlamented can-opener – jam stick between opponent’s legs, twist, shove – was meat and drink for all defencemen.
“It was never stick on puck, it was stick between the legs,” Gorges said. “I take the benefits of it, but sometimes I find if you have two hands on the stick you’re limiting your mobility.”
Yet the criminally underrated Gorges, who is among the NHL’s elite in blocking shots and logs large numbers of hard minutes against opposing top lines, is a throwback compared to his regular defensive partner, P.K. Subban.
Though Subban’s form has wavered at points during his sophomore season – playing defence in the NHL, it shouldn’t need to be pointed out, is hard – he remains a swashbuckler and a confirmed proponent of one-handed defending.
“I like to lean on guys and get separation with speed, I also find it harder to skate with two hands. But the main thing is I want to be able to hold guys off,” said Subban, who at 22 has little recollection of prelockout skulduggery in the corners and blue paint.
“I think it boils down to things like body type and instincts. Andrei Markov’s going to rely on positioning and strength. Hal Gill’s almost seven feet tall and has a stick that’s 20 feet long. I need use my quickness,” he added.
Pro-level players often compare notes, and in the case of Gorges, who grew up in the B.C. interior, that usually happens with close friends and contemporaries Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks and Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators (“that’s a couple of pretty good resources to have,” he chuckled).
“You talk to those guys about how they work and what they’re taught. You look at Duncan, and he’s always stick on puck, it’s how he defends ... he’s going in there one hand on the stick, as soon as the puck’s loose it’s two hands and he’s gone,” the 27-year-old Gorges said. “Whereas Shea is coming in with two hands, he’s going to run you over, and then when he gets loose it’s one hand, here we go. So for each player it’s what works for you.”
Because he’s undersized for a top-pair defenceman, Gorges said in his case that means resorting to trickery – “I use a pretty long stick, I can hide it [using one hand]and hold it in high to my body, then you have that extra element of surprise when a guy’s skating at you.”
Call it old school versus new school, compare it to PC versus Mac, Coke versus Pepsi if you must, some players clearly feel the number of hands one holds on a hockey stick is a philosophical, rather than merely stylistic, question.
“I was always a two-hand guy, especially when the league was more tolerant, you’re just stronger with two. But I’ve had to change with the rules,” said Gill, the lumbering 6-foot-7 veteran who may be more wistful for the prelockout era than any player in the NHL. “The way I see it, you still have to have the ability to battle with both hands on the stick. It’s why I still have a job.”