Ice hockey, the world’s fastest sport, is played at blinding speed by powerful men gliding along the rink on razor-sharp blades fastened to their boots, swinging fiberglass sticks at a vulcanized rubber disc.
It’s polo played on ice, sans the horses.
The thrills and chills come from the long, effortless strides of a puck-carrier as he bores down at the goalie from the wing, at some 25-30 miles per hour. Until he loses the puck, and the same thing happens, going the other way.
It’s a sport whose stoppages of play can come in rapid-fire fashion or as few and far between as an apology from Rush Limbaugh.
The typical rink is 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. That’s 17,000 square feet of frozen fun.
Yet despite all that area with which to work, an Italian-Canadian named Phil Esposito made his living operating within a fraction of it.
Esposito was a center man, or, to be true to his Canadian roots, a centre man. But he played the position as if he was employed by the Boston Celtics instead of the Boston Bruins, for whom he toiled in his heyday of the 1970s.
If the NHL had a three-second rule in front of the goal crease, Esposito would have led the league in violations.
The Bruins led the NHL in goals in the 1970-71 season, scoring nearly 400 in 78 games. Esposito scored 76 of those, by far a new NHL record. If you measured the distance the pucks traveled, those 76 goals likely traversed no more than the 200-foot length of a rink, combined.
Esposito was immovable in front of the opponent’s goal. He never took a slap shot in his life. He didn’t shoot the puck, per se—he shoved and poked and pushed it past the goal line.
The single-season goal scoring record that Esposito shattered was held by Bobby Hull, who ONLY took slap shots. The two players’ styles couldn’t have been any more different.
Hull skated; Esposito planted.
As for their shooting skills, if they were pitchers, Hull was Nolan Ryan and Esposito was Phil Niekro.
Yet both hockey players made it into the Hall of Fame by scoring bushels of goals. It’s just that Hull did it from afar and Esposito did it from the goalie’s doorstep.
Esposito comes to mind as I watch this man the folks around town call The Mule play hockey for the Red Wings.
Johan Franzen wears No. 93, a number never considered to be worn in Esposito’s day. Hockey players back then didn’t wear a number higher than 35, and that was reserved for the goalies.
If a player was sent to the minors, his replacement simply took his number—kind of like a hockey doppelganger.
A hockey player wearing No. 93 in Esposito’s time might as well have been all green with one eye in the middle of his head.
Doesn’t matter. Franzen plays Esposito-like hockey.
They call Franzen The Mule because, well, you ever try to move a mule that doesn’t want to be moved?
Like Esposito four decades ago, Johan Franzen takes a vast majority of his cracks at the net a stick’s length away from it.
Franzen is the bull to the goalie’s china shop. He has the finesse of a caveman and the grace of the town drunk. His goals have the beauty only a mother can love.
But hockey doesn’t award style points. Like its brethren, hockey is a bottom-line, end-of-the-day sport. Wins are doled out to the team with the most goals, not the most oohs and ahhs.
Every team should have a Johan Franzen. Yet not every team does.
It may seem that all Franzen does is throw himself at the net like a blind squirrel in search of a nut, hoping to pick up a few. But Franzen is a strong, powerful forward with a will to match. He is maybe the most purposeful player in the NHL.
Especially come playoff time.
Since he’s been a regular with the Red Wings (seven seasons), Franzen has been his most lethal when the buds begin appearing on the trees and you can start smelling the charcoal and lighter fluid again.
In 83 career playoff games, Franzen has 37 goals—about 10 more than he averages per the same amount of games in the regular season.
An injury reduced him to just eight playoff games and two goals last spring, his effectiveness neutralized by his poor health. It was one major reason why the Red Wings couldn’t advance past the San Jose Sharks and the second round for the second year in a row.
Franzen is 6’3”, 225 pounds and doesn’t take no for an answer around the net. He plays like a bulldozer, but in reality he has hands as soft as rose petals. Often, you need to see the replays of his goals to appreciate his dexterity in such close quarters in the crease area.
Franzen has 18 goals this season in 47 games. On that pace, he’ll register about 30 for the year, which would be second to his career-high of 34, set in 2009. Of his 18 tallies thus far, all but a few have been scored while breathing down the goalie’s neck.
Franzen plays on a very intriguing line with center Pavel Datsyuk and right wing Todd Bertuzzi. I say intriguing because few lines in the NHL can match theirs in terms of creativity (Datsyuk), smarts (Bertuzzi) and sheer strength (Franzen).
The line is becoming a beast in the league. All three of them are playing some of their best hockey right now. It’s a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches.
Johan Franzen isn’t likely to get a sniff of MVP talk, probably ever in his career. His play isn’t glitzy or glamorous. His goals don’t find their way on any of the ESPN highlight montages.
But try playing chunks of games without him and see how the Red Wings fare.
Not that I’m suggesting it.
Forget Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg et al—how Johan Franzen goes will pretty much determine how the Red Wings go. They are, after all, the only team that can saddle up a mule.