Stop the man, stop the puck
By LEW FREEDMAN Mar 15, 2017 Updated Mar 15, 2017
The forwards get the goals and the girls. The defensemen get the bumps and the bruises.
The forwards get the glory and the headlines. The defensemen get the blame.
The scorers are rewarded with kisses for what they did.If they’re lucky, defensemen get high fives for what they prevented.
“Growing up, everyone wants to be the forwards who score and get the pretty girls,” Yellowstone Quake defenseman Mason Stewart said. “We do the dirty work. We’ve got to play physical.”
Stewart, 20, of Maple Valley, Wash., actually was a forward until he was 12. A coach watched him as a blue-liner and said, “You’re pretty good at it. You should probably stick with it.”
And he has.
The Quake has a corps of seven defensemen, players who are wary protectors of the goalies.
Netminders do say thank you, but they don’t profer many kisses to players who are supposed to be their best friends.
“Sometimes its a love-hate relationship,” joked Quake goalie Nick Ottenbacker. “No. They’re great. That’s what they’re there for, to cut them off at the pass.”
The primary Wild West assignment is to keep the puck away from the team’s net. Defensemen must think prevention first. Often they are the last man standing, a back-pedaling challenger to an onrushing puck carrier. They dare the foe to beat them.
“For one-on-ones,” Quake defenseman Cosimo Yappello said, “it’s just getting him off the puck.”
That can be done with a pro-wrestling body slam, a subtle hip check, or just riding the man toward the boards.
“It doesn’t have to be a big hit,” Yappello said.
Of course, if a splashy, legal knock-down occurs, the home crowd cheers the play as loudly as a goal.
Yappello, from Mahtomedi, Minn., understands his role is to run interference, as long as it is not the two-minute penalty kind of interference.
It is grinder work, the stuff somebody must do, usually without acclaim.
This can be like a basketball player being told he is expected to rebound and defend, but he better not shoot or the coach will send him to Siberia. It requires ego sublimation.
“I guess in some parts it is,” Yappello said.
There are stay-at-home defensemen and offensive defensemen.
Until Bobby Orr came along with the Boston Bruins in the late 1960s, there was no distinction, only one kind of defenseman.
Orr revolutionized hockey by demonstrating a player could be the finest defenseman (he won the Norris Trophy eight times) while simultaneously scoring big (he won the Art Ross Trophy twice). His mix of pugnaciousness, speed and puck handling were unprecedented and he scored as many as 135 points in a National Hockey League season.
Pre-Orr, the best defenseman in NHL history was probably the Montreal Canadiens’ Doug Harvey, who won the Norris Trophy seven times, but in 19 years in the league never once scored as many as 10 goals.
“Bobby Orr changed it,” said Stewart, who has only seen him on video.
Stewart scored nine goals this season and doesn’t ever expect to score a hat trick for the Quake.
“No, no,” he said. “When I got two in a game against Glacier, I was surprised by that.”
In a sense, defensemen used to live the ice life of the children’s cliche of being seen, but not heard. The entire mind-set was about deterring the other side. Defensemen didn’t carry the puck, they tossed it out beyond the blue line and let forwards scrum for possession. Orr emobodie the notion if you had the puck on your stick the opposition couldn’t score.
The Quake won the Frontier Division of the North American Tier III junior hockey league this season with jaw-dropping offense, something which overshadowed the defense. Now that the Quake are moving into a playoff series against the Bozeman Icedogs starting Friday at Riley Arena, defense will be spotlighted more.
Still, defense was always there during the 40-4-0-3 season, aiding netminders Ottenbacher and Brady Anderson.
The Quake outscored foes 291-100, a plus rating of 191. That means many games were not close.
The defenders helping Ottenbacher and Anderson were Stewart, Yapello, Matt Runyon, Hunter Ruschmeyer, Nick Ligocki, Anders Bergh and Justin Berezinski.
The sight of Ligocki, Bergh, Berezinski, Stewart or Yapello crossing the opposition blue line is a fairly rare one. Ruschmeyer is a bit of a tweener. He might rush the puck the length of the ice, but swiftly backtracks to the blue line.
Runyon, 20, of New Prague, Minn., is more of an offensive defenseman. He has 13 goals and 32 assists and has been deployed by coach Ryan Theros as a wing at times with a bit more freedom to roam.
“I’ve been able to play both,” Runyon said of the present and his past. “When you’re playing forward, it’s a little bit faster. I know I’m better at defense.”
If he is on wing, Runyon is supposed to score. If he is on defense, he is supposed to stop goals from happening.
“It’s a completely different mind-set,” he said.
Defensemen’s mistakes can be more glaring, occurring in the middle of the ice with all eyes riveted.
“When a defensman gets burned, it’s more noticeable,” Runyon said.
Defensemen shoulder more blame than forwards, but not as much as goalies. Goals against average is a black-and-white number, but it doesn’t explain what happened on the ice in front of the goalie.
Less-knowledgeable fans may wonder why Quake defensemen don’t chase the puck when a foe is carrying it up ice, but they are not supposed to do that. They’re supposed to keep eyes on the man.
Ruschmeyer, from Hutchinson, Minn., is the most traditionally built Quake defenseman at 6-3 and 190 pounds. He said he was taught to watch the skater’s hips and torso for clues about which way he was going.
“The puck has to go with him,” Ruschmeyer said.
Ruschmeyer was born to play defense. Otherwise, his defense compatriots were stationed up front at one time for youth teams.
Ruschmeyer and Ligocki are two who say they like the view from defense with the ice sheet spread before them providing a great angle on all developments.
Ligocki, of Crystal Lake, Ill., is 5-10 and 170 pounds. He is more physical than most Quake defensemen, but less offensive-oriented with four goals and 15 assists this season.
Defenders don’t have to cream skaters, just disrupt them.
“Stop the man, stop the puck,” Ligocki said.
The big picture
Berezinski, from Lansing, Mich., may not be more inclined to rush the puck than Ligocki, given that he has four goals and 17 assists this year, but one thing Ligocki is always conscious of is hanging back if his defense partner totes the puck into the zone.
“Justin can skate the puck up and I stay back,” Ligocki said.
Theros generally pairs defensemen based on their mix of strengths, one faster skater, one harder hitter, one offensive-minded, one defensive-minded.
He said he even recruited with that big picture in his head of just how he would be able to use defensemen together.
“Some of them I think of as a fourth forward, which is a totally different way than other coaches think,” Theros said.
Theros said Berezinki is “ruthless” and “relentless” at killing penalties, Runyon and Ruschmeyer may make things happen on offense and he expects Stewart to never let a skater get behind him.
Theros said fans do expect defensemen to swoop in on the puck, but those are not their orders. The strategy is to keep the skater with the puck on his back-hand side because it is a less dangerous scoring position.
“Fans wouldn’t have a clue we’re working on that,” Theros said. “They (defensemen) want to forget about the puck. You’ve got to look at the chest and step up when he turns right. Make him go where you want him to go.”
Bergh, from Mora, Sweden, has the typical defenseman’s points (two goals, 16 assists), and size at 6-1, 195.
He said he sometimes equates good checks with goals, even if they don’t appear on the scoreboard.
“In our zone I am trying to make it really hard for the other team to score,” Bergh said.
That fundamental defensman precept of shadowing the man, not the puck, makes all the sense in the world to Bergh.
“Because the puck is not going to go into the net by itself,” he said.
Words for all defensemen to live by.