"When the puck drops, thats one of the only one-on-one battles in hockey."
When I first started watching hockey, the faceoff appeared as chaotic an event as the ping-pong ball drop used to determine winning lottery numbers. Two guys flail at a falling puck, one of them is bound to make contact first, and then off goes the puck in some crazy direction. Seems like anyone who takes a faceoff has a 50/50 chance of winning it, right?
In truth some players win more than 50% of their draws, and during the 97-98 season, Guy Carbonneau was third in the league at .594. His expertise earned him the main focus in an article on faceoffs in Sports Illustrated, which ranked him seventh best in NHL history. This usually ignored skill, tracked statistically for the first time this season, doesnt seem as heroic as the 60-foot slapper of an Al MacInnis or the shutout string of an Olaf Kolzig. But as Guy points out, the faceoff is a unique moment in hockey that pits one mans skill against another, a moment that can sometimes determine the outcome of a game.
AN ART FORM
Think of it as a split second fencing match its a bit of swashbuckling. Or a drag race of inches that allows you an eyeblink to get there first. Or a psychic challenge: can you guess where your stick will need to be in an instant? It will take your best vision, your keenest reflexes, your balance, your strength, your coordination, your aim, your cunning and if you get a second swipe, all that again.
Hey, its an art form. When Guy has an off night, he has the Dallas video coordinator splice together film of all his faceoffs to study between periods. "Some nights my reflexes arent there," says Carbo, "but if its mechanical, Ill try to find the flaw. On the nights when nothings working, I dont worry as much about winning as making sure the other guy doesnt get it clean."
. . .
Seem heroic yet? Well, just watch Carbonneau ready himself for the drop. Hes got that overhand grip midway down the shaft which some think he invented and most agree he made popular. Hes got those snap reflexeswhich in most players have given out before this agecoiled and ready to spring. Eyes and brain have switched to auto pilot; theres no time to think in this business. His body is poised to apply the quickest action with the most strength and be ready for whatever happens next.
What happens next, Ive found watching Guy take faceoffs, is more often than not a preternatural interception of a falling puck and its instant redirection to the vicinity of a nearby Dallas Star. Not so chaotic after all; thats exactly what this faceoff hero intended to happen.
Click HERE for "Faceoff" wallpaper for your PC (featuring Guy, Joe Nieuwendyk, and Doug Jarvis of Dallas, thanks to Sports Illustrated--90K)