Ken Hitchcock, back in his Columbus days. A cliche master
If I had a dollar for every cliché I’ve heard in 18 years of covering the NHL, not only would I buy a great steak dinner at Morton’s, I might be able to make a competitive offer on a Morton’s franchise (Oh, is “If I had a dollar for every…” a cliché? Well, I do cover hockey).
Hockey is the best. It’s the greatest game out there and the players are truly the nicest to deal with among the major sports. I’ve covered all the big sports, and by far hockey guys are the best. But they tend to fall back on well-worn sayings. Like, a lot.
I’m pretty sure no day has gone by in a hockey locker room without one cliché rearing its head (cliché No. 2 in my preamble). Notice I didn’t say the clichés rear their “ugly” head, though. Clichés, to me, are part of what makes hockey great. ‘Tis like a warm blanket to me, a “Gotta just take it one shift at a time."
Clichés are no good for writers, though.
For my very first story as a paid writer for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor in 1990, I covered a Babe Ruth League baseball game and my lead paragraph was “One of baseball's oldest adages, that it is a "game of inches' proved disappointingly true for Concord Saturday night.”
I was so proud. My first story! I’m a wordsmith, a poet, the bard of the little league fields of New Hampshire! Hey Hemingway, move over buddy!
Next morning, I walked through the newsroom with a “How ‘bout that, eh?’ look on my face. Top that writing, anyone. I had a strut. Then, I asked a news-side reporter named Andrew Galarneau—a smart, cynical guy with a fuzzy beard and appropriate thrift-store wardrobe—what he thought of my opening masterpiece.
“Cliché right in the lead sentence, man,” he said with a shake of the head and then walked away.
I was devastated. I could barely look at anyone the rest of the day. He was right. Baseball—a “game of inches.” Massive cliché. Thank God I got an early education in their evils for a writer.
But in hockey, somehow, they are still somewhat endearing. It’s part of the fabric of the game. And with the “fabric of” being my third cliché of this intro, let me introduce to you my top 10 favorite hockey clichés:
10. “Guys Have to Go to the Net”
Arguably, you can win hockey games without ever sending a guy to the net. Shoot the puck from the blue line or anywhere past the faceoff dots, have those shots go past the goalie, and you never need to rely on this cliché. But it doesn’t work that way much anymore. Testimony: before they played the Washington Capitals Wednesday night, Pierre McGuire of NBC Sports Network asked Penguins forward Chris Kunitz how the team’s power play could be improved. The transcript:
“Ah, I mean, we gotta still put more guys toward the net when we’re shootin’ it. Ah, we can still make those plays, but make sure you’re puttin’ the puck there, makin’ guys go towards the net.”
That’s perfectly logical. Clichés are always true.
9. “We Played a Great Road Game”
This always comes after a really dreadful game, usually on a night when the visitors had no business winning. Further translation: “We didn’t have a prayer tonight, so we rope-a-doped it, played for the three-point game and we got that point. Points are precious this time of year, and so we’ll take the point, we’ll cherish it for a while, and we’ll move on.”
8. “We Managed the Game Well”
This is a new entry to the Hockey Cliché Handbook, a favorite of coaches hired within the past five years. A hybrid cliché is: “We managed the puck well.” I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, but it has something to do, I think, with winning the game.
7. “We’ve Got to Keep it Simple”
Hybrid versions are: “We need to simplify our game” and “We’ve got to go back to basics.” This is the cliché most often used when a losing streak starts to get semi-serious. It is often used in conjunction with Cliché No. 10, and very often used in the same sentence. See: every utterance made by Edmonton’s Ryan Smyth after a losing streak by his team.
6. "We Had/Didn’t Have Good Jump"
Seriously, have you watched any of the HBO “Road to the Winter Classic” shows? Every coach in the pregame speech on the locker-room cameras says something to the effect of: “Let’s have good jump tonight, boys, right off the hop. Let’s get off to a good start!”
The start to hockey games is deemed ultra-important by coaches. Proper jump is necessary. Unless, you’re a third-period team that played the perfect road game and/or got their wake-up call just in time.
5. “We Did/Didn’t Play for 60 Minutes”
They should just put the tick-tick-tick from the famous CBS show in hockey dressing rooms. Only Mike Wallace talked more about “60 Minutes” than hockey players. A team wins/loses any game? It’s because it played/didn’t play 60 minutes.
Hybrid versions: If a team doesn’t play a full 60 but wins anyway, they were “fortunate,”often because the goalie “stood on his head” or “We got the bounces tonight.”
4. “We Gotta Get Pucks to the Net/in Deep/Behind Their D”
Now keep in mind, this is a crucial distinction from the “We gotta get guys to the front of the net” bromide. Under the former cliché, guys have to get to the front of the net in order to put pucks in the net. Under this version, getting “pucks” to the net is different because… well, I have no idea.
One of the all-time cliché men in the NHL is Edmonton's Smyth. Take a look at this interview:
3. “We Did/Didn’t Pay the Price”
Translation in a win: “We took all their @$#$$!#% cheap shots and we still beat their @$$.” In a loss: “We were a bunch of (insert politically incorrect reference here) tonight.”
These are clichés used in a penalty-filled game in which a subset of clichés will form in the media, such as “Donnybrook,” “Old-time hockey” or “I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out.” Further hybrids: "We were good in the hard areas." "We played a greasy game."
2. “Gotta Take it One Shift at a Time”
This is part of the "keep it simple family", but in a more micro-economics way. You cannot do anything in hockey, and in life for that matter, except take things one shift at a time.
But somehow, this saying becomes like Christopher Columbus discovering America every time it’s uttered by a player or coach. It's always endearing at how truly profound the ones saying this believe they are each time it happens.
1. "We Did/Didn’t Bring Our "A" Game"
I first heard this one in the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals, after an 8-1 Avalanche victory over Florida in Game 2. I really didn’t know what Avs coach Marc Crawford was talking about until later, when I asked the late, legendary Buffalo News hockey writer Jim Kelly what that saying meant.
The "A game" cliché nicely encapsulates every one of the aforementioned ones. Take ‘er one shift at a time, come out with good jump, keep it simple, go to the net, get pucks to the net and pay the price in the greasy, dirty areas, and you stand a great chance of getting a cherished point or two.
But don’t look ahead, eh? Just keep it one game at a time and you might be rewarded.
Adrian Dater has covered the NHL for The Denver Post since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @adater.