A quick scan of most NHL rosters shows the bulk of big leaguers tip the scales at 200 lbs and up. And most hover above the six-foot barrier. But does that really matter anymore?
There’s not a general manager in the league who’s ever looked at a draft pick and thought “You know, that guy’s just too big.” But with a tighter interpretation of the obstruction rules, and no red line, size isn’t as crucial as it once was. The emphasis is on speed – or at least that’s the popular line these days.
The Canucks have never emulated the Broad Street Bullies, but they certainly appear to have embraced the new “Skill not Kill” mantra with seven roster players under the six-foot mark, and nine under 200 lbs.
Matt Cooke, a member of the Canucks, since he was first drafted in 1997, is a core player who’s certainly shorter than most of the competition.
“I don’t know,” he says when asked about his height, “[the media guide] says 5’11. So I guess that’s how tall I am.”
Cooke remembers his growth spurt – a three-inch leap back in Bantam hockey.
“Yea, I think from 13 to 14, I went from 5’7” to 5’11.”
Although Cooke hasn’t grown since his early high school days, he plays a tough game, even by NHL standards.
“It doesn’t affect how I play the game. It affects how people look at me in the game, but it doesn’t hinder me the way that I play.”
“Well, I’m obviously one of the smaller guys on the ice, but I like to think that I prepare myself and train myself physically to compete at a high level against some of the bigger guys.”
Cooke uses speed and leverage, along with good old hockey smarts to best bigger opponents.
Cooke glances at Taylor Pyatt a few stalls away and nods at the giant who’s towering over a local beat reporter conducting an interview.
“I think Taylor has a nice frame on him,” says Cooke. “I think that if you could be that big and that strong and talented, then obviously that would be a situation I’d like. But, it’s also a situation that if I were that big, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am.”
At 6’4” and 230-pounds, Pyatt’s growth spurt was much more dramatic and lasted longer than Cooke’s, but like most, it still happened in a summer.
“[I grew] when I was about 13 or 14,” says Pyatt. “I really started to shoot up over the summer and grew a few inches. I was probably 5’10” or 5’11” and then 13, 14, 15, shot up to about 6’4”.”
With a view from up high, Pyatt plays an entirely different game. And with his size, comes specific expectations.
“I think whenever you’re a bigger guy, you’re expected to be a little more physical and use your body more. With my game, a lot of it’s being around the net, being in front of the net to screen the goalie and take their vision away.”
“You can sometimes lean on other players or get better body position. I guess it’s tougher for a smaller player to be able to check or defend a larger man.”
Of course the downside is mobility. The big boys might do well in front of the net, but out in the open ice, it’s a different story. Speed kills, and this truism isn’t lost on Pyatt. He knows he has to train for quickness as much as strength in order to make his size pay dividends. If you can’t get to the net in time, it won’t matter what you do there.
“I think a lot of it, being a bigger guy, is training in the summer: working on the quick feet, being more explosive, and just less lifting a lot of heavy weights. The focus is on speed and quickness. That’s the best way as a big man to keep your feet moving and stay fast.”
On the far opposite side of the spectrum is Ryan Shannon. He’s quick like sparrow, but list his height as 5’8 ¾”.
“I don’t think I really had a growth spurt really, but I remember being a squirt or peewee and I was the same size as everybody else. I wasn’t smaller at that point. So, I just must have tailed off in the past few years.”
That hasn’t prevented Shannon from breaking into the NHL. He logged 53 games with the Stanley Cup-winning Ducks last season, and had two goals in his first three games this season before a demotion to Manitoba last week.
Shannon impressed enough that Alain Vigneault deployed him in a top-six offensive role alongside Markus Naslund and Ryan Kesler
“[Height] definitely does [make a difference],” says Shannon. “It has a lot to do with my strengths and also my weaknesses. Because of my frame, I have an advantage in terms or my weight, so I can be faster, quicker, more agile. It’s physics and I can bring that to the ice every night.”
“But a weakness of mine would be that I have trouble overpowering guys - them being stronger and protecting the puck. So I have to move my feet to compensate for that. [Size] could be advantageous or it could be a negative as well.”
It all depends on how you use it.
Martin St. Louis is a prime example.
There is an obvious majority of the players’ sizes, most over 6’0” and 200 lbs, but if someone at 5’8” can reach the NHL level, then there is nothing that would prevent someone from becoming a professional hockey player.
“It’s who I am, it’s part of my make-up, and I’m happy to be it,” Ryan expressed.
The conclusion? Size doesn’t matter. Once again, the Canucks signed a player, Mike Weaver, who is a 5’9” defensemen as it seems that Dave Nonis doesn’t focus on height, but how they play the game. For players who must fend off giants, skate around them, and create space, it must be that size doesn’t matter.