On any given night in the National Hockey League, there are hundreds of one-on-one battles all over the ice, continually shifting over the course of 60 minutes. Hockey is a game of jazz, improvisation within the confines of a 200-by-85 foot space. Take your eyes off of game play for a moment and you’ll surely miss something.
In hockey, there is only one confrontation that you can truly anticipate and prepare for; one battle, clear as day, you can see one winner and one loser; one conflict that you can count on happening in the same controlled meter night in and night out, like a drummer with perfect timing. It’s the play initiating the chaos that is the rest of the game–the faceoff.
A faceoff opens every period, restarts every play and breathes new life into the contest after a goal. When the referee drops the puck between two combatants, it is the first chance for glory or another shot at redemption.
“It’s a game within a game,” Minnesota Wild centerman Kyle Brodziak said. “A lot of times you’re taking a draw against a guy all night, so if you beat him a few times he’ll change things up. It becomes a little one-on-one match with the guy you’re going head-to-head with.”
From the stands, the faceoff might look like the simplest of all hockey plays. Everyone mills around until a referee drops the puck on a dot between two centers and then they try to knock it to one of their teammates. However, ask any centerman, and they’ll talk about the details that go into taking each faceoff.
Zenon Konopka admits that pushing the boundaries of the rulebook in order to win a faceoff is part of the game. In years past, the centerman won many draws in the defensive zone by pushing the puck back with his glove. However, the NHL adopted an addendum to Rule No. 76.4, aka The Konopka Rule, outlawing the tactic.
Per the NHL:
Both players facing-off are prohibited from batting the puck with their hand in an attempt to win the faceoff. Any attempt by either center to win the faceoff by batting the puck with their hand shall result in a minor penalty.
“We were bending that rule pretty hard the last couple of years,” the center laughed. “It was funny, because when [the NHL] showed the video [of the infraction] two of the three videos were of me.
“In a way, it’s a feather in my cap, but if you want to go the other way, I guess it shows I’m not afraid to bend the rules
for an edge.”
“It really is odd to look at a faceoff, if you’re an outsider to try and know much is involved,” said Zenon Konopka, who is consistently one of the best drawmen in the league.
“You have to look at every situation–the zone you’re in, are we even strength or shorthanded, is the other guy left or right handed,” Brodziak added. “From that you plan on how to win the draw.”
Each center relies on their own personal bag of tricks for winning faceoffs: knocking an opponent’s stick back, pulling the draw back cleanly with quickness or even kicking the puck to a teammate with a skate blade. But there are a few things that a centerman goes for each time they line up for a faceoff.
“You try to be faster, stronger and smarter than the opponent,” Wild Captain Mikko Koivu said.
Not only do centers have to concentrate on what they are trying to accomplish in the circle, but also–and maybe more importantly–attempt to anticipate what the other guy is trying to do. And that’s when the game within a game really ramps up.
“It’s a chess game,” Zenon Konopka said. “Body language, reading his eyes, the way that he’s holding his stick, where his wingers are. There are a lot of variables that go into it.
“You try to get into the other guy’s head, as far as what he’s trying to do, and then counter that.”
Although the centerman is alone at the beginning of the faceoff, as soon as the puck is dropped reinforcements are on the way. Often times, centers will duel to a stalemate, puck frozen between them, and it will be up to their wingers to fish the rock out of the tangled mesh of sticks and skates.
“[Faceoffs] are not just about centers, it’s everyone,” Koivu said. “You let your linemates know [your plan] and try to work as a line. We have a set play on every faceoff.”
After tipping off their linemates, you’ll often see the centers engaging with the refs in a conversation. These short chats vary depending on the center. No matter which direction the talks go, gaining any slight edge always seems to be the end goal.
“They’re probably getting tired of me because I’ve been dealing with a lot of these guys for a long time and can give them a hard time,” veteran center Matt Cullen joked. “But really I just am trying to get as much room as I can and keep pushing to gain an edge.”
Konopka, however, takes a less serious approach in an attempt to curry favor amongst referees.
“I try to make the linesmen laugh once or twice throughout the game,”
Konopka shared. “If you can get a on their good side, it’s an edge because they might not kick you out of a faceoff so quickly. A trick I’ve used is that when they think you’re going to yell at them, just crack a joke instead.”
The faceoff talk isn’t limited to just inside the circle. Teammates will share secrets like spies in order to try and gain any competitive edge against their opponent.
“You might ask, “What does this guy like to do?” or “What do you do against this guy?” If you’re having trouble with a certain guy, we’ll ask a teammate what he’s doing against him,” Koivu said.
In the game within the game, the slightest of edge matters. Even though the faceoff dots are uniform throughout the league, the home team holds the advantage.
“At home, you get to go [into the circle] last,” Koivu said. “You get the advantage of seeing how he is lining up. It makes a big difference.”
With all the responsibilities that go into something as seemingly simple as a faceoff, why would anyone want to be a centerman? Konopka analogizes the experience, “It’s like driving a car. The first time you’re in a car, it’s pretty hard to eat a cheeseburger, listen to the radio, talk on the phone and drive. But the older you get and the more you do it, it’s easier to process all that information quickly.”
But in the end, a faceoff is really all about something as simple as getting the puck.
“Puck possession is so important in the game now; it’s tough to get it back once you lose it,” Konopka said. “If you start with the puck, it’s a huge advantage.”