Aside from being the game's most prolific scorer, Wayne Gretzky also had a way with words.
His most famous quote: "You miss 100% percent of the shots you don't take."
A one-liner like that is the stuff of legend, and it's now seen in corporate training, heard in motivational speeches, and made pop-culture famous by The Office. And while it's applicable to hockey, it's definitely not his most useful quote.
That distinction surely belongs to Gretzky's explanation of how he managed to score an NHL-record 894 goals over the course of his career.
"I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been."
It's a profoundly simple quote, and it's what separates good and great hockey players.
Consider Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, the greatest goal scorer of this generation (and arguably of all time). He rarely skates the puck from end to end to score a goal; instead, he lurks in the weeds, getting lost in coverage, and BOOM! The puck finds him. An instant later, a rocket of a puck flies past the goalie. And yet, if it were that easy, everyone would do it.
Believe it or not, the quote applies to you, the viewer, as much as it does to a player.
Like other dynamic team sport (sorry, baseball), hockey players are constantly in motion on the ice. But I implore you to stop pretending you're at an optometrist, following the puck as though it were the doctor's finger. If you simply track the puck, you're probably missing the play.
Let's Get Started
An old coach of mine once told me that you're the most dangerous player on the ice the second that the puck leaves your stick. If that sounds more like a Chinese Proverb, trust me, 12-year old me agrees. All five skaters on the other team are trained to do one thing when the other team has the puck: get it back. That means that it's natural to 'puck-watch'. Players aren't the only offenders. Goalies are fixated on stopping the puck, constantly shifting angles to square up with that vulcanized rubber disk.
But the attacking team wants you to watch the puck. Because while your five players – and the goalie – are focused on containing me, the puck carrier, I have four teammates desperately moving, anticipating, getting open to allow me a chance to make an easy pass for an easier goal.
If you think about it, it's no different than a play-action pass in football, or a pick-and-pop in basketball. While everyone else is busy watching the ball (or ball fake), the offensive players who may have nothing to do with the immediate play are busy scrambling to get open for what should be an easy score. The same happens in hockey. As soon as a player moves the puck, the defense instinctively turns to the puck, tracking it like a cat follows a laser pointer. That's when the great goal scorers get open.
Unlike other sports, the ball (er, puck), is smaller, and significantly harder to see than, say, a basketball. And I get that. If you're a newer fan, or you're having a hard time simply following the puck on TV, one useful tip would be to watch the players heads. More often than not, they're keeping tabs on where the puck is, either looking down in a scrum or tracking back towards the puck.
The Blue Jackets have scored some goals in recent days/weeks that a seasoned hockey watcher may have anticipated just like the eventual scorer, all from watching the play away from the puck. By anticipating and filling in open space in an offensive-position, the following videos all follow that similar theme.
Let's start by picking on our old friend Anthony Duclair, who left the Blue Jackets in a February trade with Ottawa. This clip starts as a pretty innocuous play, but at the 0:17 mark, Oliver Bjorkstrand walks around Mark Borowiecki. At 0:18, you can see Duclair (#10) in a moment of panic when he realizes he's been watching the puck and not tracking a player (one of John Tortorella's main critiques). At this moment, it was only a matter of time before Bjorkstrand saw what we all saw, which is a wide open Markus Nutivaara with nothing but space in front of him. Easy tap-in goal.
The next goal may be my favorite goal of the season, because I'm pretty sure I was whooping while jumping off the couch to grab a beer, celebrating the beauty of the impending goal before Artemi Panarin even finished off the most beautiful tic-tac-goal play of the year.
That's right, we're talking Game 2 against Tampa Bay, in which Panarin scored a goal to put the nail in the coffin in the Blue Jackets' 5-1 road win.
At the 0:08 mark, you'll see a 2-on-2 corner battle. Nothing to see here.
But at the 0:09 mark, Bjorkstrand comes up with the loose puck. If you listen closely, you'll hear Matt Duchene yell out "BJORKY!" (on-ice communication is a topic for a different day).
Right after, you'll see #86, Nikita Kucherov, coming down to help. The 0:10 mark is where things start to spiral out of control fast for Tampa Bay. If you freeze it, you'll see four members of the Lightning staring at the puck. Unfortunately for them, none of them are staring at Artemi Panarin, who is lurking right behind them. Duchene completes the easiest assist of his life, sliding an uncontested pass past an unsuspecting Andrei Vasilevskiy to the backdoor, where Panarin slams home the no-doubter. Brilliant.
One More Example...
The last goal I wanted to illustrate comes on the power play, which may seem like a cop-out, but I can assure you that puck watching does anything but disappear when a team is shorthanded. In Game 3, Bjorkstrand scored the game-winning goal on a beautiful passing play, but the Great Dane did the easy part.
At the 0:09 mark, Alexandre Texier did yeoman's work to draw all four Lightning players eyes' (0:38 is an incredible look, too). At the 0:11 mark, Seth Jones brilliantly winds up to take a slap shot but has no intention of letting a shot fly. Instead, you'll see that, again, all four penalty killers (plus Vasilevskiy) are deeply enamored with the thought of blocking that shot. That's when Jones easily slid the puck into space, where the sniper can finish the job.
Again, by watching the players without the puck, this goal was almost simple to project.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that you completely neglect the puck while watching a game. But at the same time, try not to be fixated on it like you're hypnotized. The puck carrier leaves clues as to where the eventual scorer may be lurking, anticipating, for a better opportunity. For a more enjoyable viewing experience, I'd encourage you to try to anticipate the play by taking your eyes away from the puck.