This article appeared in the December version of the Minnesota Wild magazine. For information about how to subscribe to the magazine, click here.
After a morning skate against the Edmonton Oilers in late October, a member of the visiting media asked Head Coach Mike Yeo a question.
"I've had some coaches call your team 'hockey strong.' What would your definition of hockey strong be?"
"We're not quite strong enough yet," Yeo answered. "But what I would consider it—we're not the toughest team in the League, but we're a team that's going to play very hard, and we're a team that's going to play a unit of five both with and without the puck.
"What it comes down to is we know each and every guy's success hinges upon us going out and doing it as a group."
A simple answer? In some respects, yes, but in many others, an onion with many layers to peel back and unpack.
Had the question been asked to 29 other NHL coaches, and their definition of 'hockey tough' would have most likely varied to some degree. To localize the conversation, a phrase that has been thrown around for generations in hockey circles is 'hard to play against.'
"Hard to play against, it's not necessarily how it was in the old days when hard to play against meant physical, and in your face, and after every whistle you might have to drop them," Ryan Carter said.
While every team wants to play in a manner that is hard to play against, what that actually means is entirely uncommon.
What Is Tough?
October 8, at Colorado
After falling behind the Colorado Avalanche 4-1 in its season opener, the Wild went to work, with alternate captain Zach Parise the spark lighting the fuse.
Parise would eventually score a hat trick, his first as a member of the Wild, leading Minnesota to a dramatic 5-4 comeback victory, but it was his second goal that was so typical of Parise and such an embodiment of the player he is that Yeo began answering a question about the sequence with, "What can you say?"
Parise, who seems allergic to the ice based on how quickly he pops up whenever he's knocked down, was hit hard by Gabriel Landeskog. But Parise, despite giving up two inches and 13 pounds to the Avalanche captain, jumped right back onto his feet, went to the front of the net, and scored to draw the Wild within 4-2.
"That's what you need," Yeo said. "A team like that, they're going to try to push us around, and that's not our to style to go out there and drop the gloves and try to fight people, but we're a team that competes and never gives up.
"We've got a relentless work ethic, and he showed that tonight."
October 15, at Arizona
As Martin Hanzal of the Arizona Coyotes won a faceoff back to the point, Carter sprinted from his spot on the edge of the circle like a runner out of the blocks.
The Coyotes were primed for an offensive chance in the Wild's zone, but Carter, busting to get out to the blue line, had his progress impeded by Coyotes forward Anthony Duclair.
Two minutes for interference.
Just two minutes and 56 seconds later, Carter hustled into the corner to win a footrace to a loose puck.
After sashaying around Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Carter pivoted along the dasher, and was run into by Hanzal.
Two minutes for cross checking.
Through the month of October, Carter had drawn the most penalties in the League with respect to how much ice time he gets and how many penalties he takes.
Watching his shifts, and performing a word association or recall with how one might describe his style, 'hard to play against' is certainly somewhere in the lexicon.
October 24, vs. Anaheim
The Wild's fourth line had yet to score this season, but its contributions were still undoubtedly present and offensively influential.
"I look at that line as a whole, and kind of what we ask of them, and for sure we're going to need them to contribute for us at some time and chip in," Yeo said after a morning skate. "It's always a big lift for your team, and gives your team a big advantage if your fourth line can chip in.
"But make sure that you don't get scored on, number one, and you look at some of the things they've done, and they've drawn probably three real important penalties for us this year, penalties that we've actually scored goals on that have led to wins."
About nine hours later, Yeo was again singing the line's praises after a 3-0 victory against the Anaheim Ducks. Carter scored a shorthanded goal, he and Porter each drew minor penalties, and the fourth line had impacted the outcome of the game in a major way.
"We talked about them before the game, and the type of things that we were looking for that are frustrating and hard to play against those guys," Yeo said. "They move pucks ahead, and they've got speed to get in on the forecheck, and obviously we talked about them potentially drawing some penalties, and they did a great job of that."
October 25, at Winnipeg
It was how Yeo chose to begin describing a Parise goal, one that began with him being dumped to the ice by Winnipeg Jets defenseman Mark Stuart.
Seconds later, Parise was back on his skates, hounding Jacob Trouba behind the net into turning over the puck. Over a minute into his shift, Parise banked the puck off Stuart's skates from behind the goal line and in.
"It was a tough night, and you could sense there was a little bit of frustration on his part, but that's what you want in players," Yeo said. "You can give into the frustration, but you can keep battling, and keep fighting, and that was a great example of what to do in that case."
October 31, at St. Louis
On his longest and arguably most physically taxing shift of the night, Jason Zucker would not be denied.
Zucker was being blanketed by Carl Gunarsson, who literally had Zucker pinned to the ice in St. Louis' defensive zone. As the play shifted to the other end, Zucker finally managed to get upright, and as he circled back through the neutral zone, flagged down a headman pass from Ryan Suter. Zucker used his breakaway speed to separate himself from the pack, and scored.
"We're tough in our own way," Yeo said. "Obviously, St. Louis, they've got a game plan, and they were coming at us, and I thought that we got a little bit too involved with it to be honest with you—we have to be a little bit better between whistles—but I like how we still jump on loose pucks, we still go to the front of the net, and we still execute.
"We just keep playing. That's a different kind of tough, but I know our guys are tough in that way; that's for sure."
These vignettes encapsulate what makes the Wild a hard team to play against, and none of these stories involve upper cuts, right jabs, or overtly physical plays.
"When we're hard to play against, we're skating," Carter said. "Teams, they don't have a chance to get into the rhythm of a game. They can't sustain multiple shifts in our zone where defensively, we're sound, and we skate well, taking away the time and the space."
Carter has lived the renaissance of the transformation of 'hard to play against' as much as any NHL player. He's provided value in his ability to take tough defensive assignments, eat up key minutes, and contribute in a bottom-six role that is consistent with the demands of the league's current landscape.
"The league has changed for sure," Carter said. "I came in with Anaheim, and they liked to play big too, but I played the middle in Anaheim, and on my left was Brad May, and on my right was George Parros.
"George's career was fighting, and he was good at it, and he could play, too, but he was a fighter. May Day, toward the end, he was tough, too, and that's what he did. When I was in the minors, it was Trevor Gillies and Shawn Thornton on my wings. It was 'be tough.' Three lines play, fourth line: 'be tough.'"
While Carter didn't completely diminish the value of size in a lineup, the simple fact is protocol is different now.
"In terms of fighting, I don't know, I think a team could survive with it," Carter said. "I don't think anybody here is intimidated playing against somebody that can fight; it just doesn't happen.
"The old days, you didn't know, maybe you were going to fight; maybe you weren't. Nowadays you know you're not going to fight because overall across the league, with player safety and everything, there's more respect in the game. So if a guy says 'no' then there's no fight. In the old days, maybe there was no such thing as 'no.'"
The League has shifted, and with that change comes the Darwinian concept of adapting to survive and thrive.
"The identity of the game has changed quite a bit," Zucker said. "There's a lot less fighting, and a lot more speed and skill involved. In general, a lot of people still correlate the two of big hits and physical (with hard to play against), and that's really all it means to them. There's a lot of different ways to play that."
There's also, as Carter alluded to, no longer the ambiguity of unwritten codes and bare-knuckle hieroglyphics. The league isn't without its run-ins that lead to injuries, but the on-ice policing is now primarily left to those in stripes.
"It's not like if we had a tough guy that would deter that," Yeo said. "I don't think that's the case, and those days of the deterrents ... the league has changed."
The Wild will play physically. No team can survive without a hint of physicality. But Minnesota does it in its own way, and one that's different from a Winnipeg, or a St. Louis.
"When you can have some guys that are big, and strong, and play real hard, but they're effective players, that obviously is a nice thing," Yeo said. "We like to think that we're team-tough, we play hard between the whistles, and we stay focused on our game."
It's a fast team that races to loose pucks like its life depends on it.
"We may not run around and look for the biggest hits, but we're going to battle hard all night, and make sure that we're skating," Zucker said. "If you take that battle-level and that speed that's a dangerous weapon to have, and I think that we have that here."