Fear of failure: NHLers past and present reveal what keeps them up at night

Ken Campbell
Even in his St. Louis heyday, Brett Hull used to fear he'd never score another goal. (Ian Tomlinson/Allsport)

Editor’s note: It’s almost Halloween, so it’s the perfect time to explore the spooky side of hockey. The following story appears in THN’s scariest edition ever: The Fear Issue. Grab a copy on newsstands today or order one here!

Ray Ferraro remembers coming home from practice one day in 1990 and seeing the light on his answering machine blinking. The message was from Ed Johnston, his GM with the Hartford Whalers. Things weren’t going well. It was mid-November and Ferraro had scored only two goals in his first 15 games. He had scored at least 20 goals in each of his five full NHL seasons to that point, including seasons of 41 and 30 goals.

But the blinking light and the message were a clear indication of what was coming and Ferraro knew it. He was getting traded, and before he returned Johnston’s call, he picked up a copy of The Hockey News that was on his kitchen table and began to desperately go through its pages.

“I looked through the league trying to figure out who would want me,” Ferraro recalled, “and I couldn’t come up with anybody.”

Almost a quarter of a century later, Ferraro’s vantage point allows him to see the game from a place where everything seems so easy. As a between-the-benches analyst for TSN, he’s far more comfortable in his abilities as a broadcaster than he ever was as an NHLer. He also has a front-row seat to the fear and uncertainty that can consume players. He can relate on an all-too-familiar level with the scorer who comes back to the bench muttering about a missed opportunity, questioning himself and wondering if this will be the time when he just can’t get out of this slump. He can see the fear in the eyes of the fourth-liners on two-way contracts and aging veterans who are hanging on by their fingertips. The ones who are playing scared are the guys who get rid of the puck as quickly as it lands on their sticks, since you can’t make a mistake if you don’t have the puck. They’re the ones who get it on their stick in the scoring zone, and yet somehow it all blows up.

There’s a lot of fear in the game of hockey. With players bigger, stronger and more physical than ever before, the fear of injury is omnipresent. Those who fight for a living go into every game knowing there’s a chance they’ll get punched in the face with someone’s bare knuckles. It’s not a wonderful way to live. For star players, however, if there’s anyone who should be immune to the fear of their place in the game, it should be them.

But it isn’t always. When Brett Hull was at the height of his talents and challenging Wayne Gretzky’s single-season record for goals, he was on top of the world. You’d think he’d wake up every morning gleefully thinking about how he was going to make some poor goalie’s life miserable that night. He might have had a goal or a hat trick the night before, but rather than brimming with confidence that he’d continue to score, Hull was wracked by insecurity.

“I wake up every day scared to death that I’ll never score again,” Hull said at the time. “I’ve never talked to Wayne (Gretzky) about it and I’ve never heard him mention it, but when he first started, he was so awesome he had to have that inner fear of failure, or he never would have done as well as he did. I can’t even sleep at night sometimes.”

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From Kenya to U.K. to hockey expert – the (almost) unbelievable rise of Chris Kibui

The Hockey News
CHRIS KIBUI (hockeytutorial.com)

BY MATT CARLSON

Chris Kibui, the passionate content creator of Hockey Tutorial, gets some memorable messages, such as this one via Facebook: “I am LOLing, as a Canadian and 15-year hockey player, I would never guess I would be getting skate tips from a British-sounding black man. Awesome video, 100% detail, thank you for posting it, it was a lot of help…”

Kibui isn’t just British-sounding: Hockey Tutorial is based in Cambridge, England. Kibui usually plays 40 miles up the road in Peterborough, a small city that’s home to one of just 55 indoor rinks in the United Kingdom.

“Me being probably the most minute demographic in hockey – black and English from Kenya – it’s pretty interesting the comments that get left,” Kibui said. “But I do enjoy reading them.”

Hockey Tutorial’s equipment review videos provide top-to-bottom analyses with detail and clarity. And Kibui presents everything in crisp, proper English. Read more

NHL teams advancing past advanced stats with state-of-the-art video

Ryan Kennedy
Kunitz and Crosby (Gregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty Images)

Although the advanced stats revolution has been swift, it’s by no means complete. Corsi and Fenwick have easily displaced plus-minus as a go-to metric in evaluating a player’s worth to a team, but in essence, those measures are simply more accurate versions of plus-minus, since they draw from a bigger sample size of shots instead of goals.

What the so-called fancy stats crowd really wants to know is whether or not a player is driving puck possession when he’s on the ice or simply tagging along while a linemate does all the work. And as amusing as it may be to picture a blogger painstakingly pausing their DVR every time a pass is made in a game to write down who has the puck and for how long, a much more rational solution is coming to the fore.

Video is the savior, but not just any video. We’re talking about cameras that record an image every one-tenth of a second, compiling reams of data that can then be sorted by programs to give a more accurate representation of what’s going on during a game.

“You can throw Corsi out the window,” said Marc Appleby of PowerScout Hockey. “Because we know how long a player had the puck.”

So for every Chris Kunitz or Pascal Dupuis hater who thinks Sidney Crosby does all the work on his line, the answer will arrive soon. PowerScout, which has teamed up with tracking tech company ProZone Sports, was originally hatched from analytics research in 2009. It had contracts with two NHL teams last season but recorded more than 50 games in 25 NHL and major junior rinks overall.

Using three Ultra-HD cameras, Appleby’s firm can set up in any rink, right down to midget games, and doesn’t require any permanent installation (though that’s also an option). The cameras track every action in the game and the raw data is filtered through a cloud-based portal called Icetrax. The range of applications is stunning: a client team can look at zone entry speeds, how long a player holds the puck, the distance between two defense partners and even heat maps (see example, for Crosby, below) that show where a player spends most of his time on the ice.

“We’re actually measuring the little things,” Appleby said. “We’re analyzing on a micro-level.”

Crosby Heat Map

Appleby is a second-generation stats fiend. His father, Terry Appleby, invented a board game called National Pro Hockey back in 1985, which took real NHL player stats and allowed players to assemble lineups, with results based on probability. That same concept has led to one of PowerScout’s most ambitious goals: figuring out if a player made the best choice when he had the puck.

Using probability, the company can mine countless situations from the past and see what the ultimate outcomes were. For example, if Taylor Hall carries the puck into the offensive zone, is he better to stop inside the blueline and wait for help or charge to the net? PowerScout can look at the probability of the Oilers scoring on that play and relay that info to the team, which can then tell Hall if his instincts are helping or hindering.

Video analytics first came into sports in the 1990s, when optical tracking was used in soccer. The practice has expanded to many sports, including basketball, where PowerScout’s main competition reigns. SportVU, a technology run by the company STATS, uses six cameras for NBA games and is installed in all 30 team arenas via the catwalk. SportVU is interested in hockey, and the battle for hearts and minds is being waged in meetings throughout North America. Still, even among the game’s most progressive minds, there’s doubt.

“The camera structure and logistics of it would have to be changed for hockey because of the different dimensions of the surface, how difficult it is to track the puck and the issues hockey has versus soccer and basketball,” said Kyle Dubas, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ new assistant GM and a darling of the advanced stats community. “In hockey, substitutions can happen on the fly, while in the other sports it has to be at a stoppage. So it’s being able to identify which players are going on and off the ice. I think there are some companies doing that stuff now, but we’re still a long way away from where we need to go.”

If you’re worried all this info will take the fun out of hockey, keep in mind that even Appleby doesn’t project a cookie-cutter NHL should video win the day.

“Teams define scoring chances differently,” he said. “We want to give them data that compares apples to apples.”

If the NHL teams do become believers, however, there will no doubt be a rush to order. Every edge helps when building a Cup contender.

This feature originally appeared in the September 15, 2014 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

David Clarkson doesn’t fear the THN cover curse – and he’s fighting back

Matt Larkin
David Clarkson has started 2014-15 strongly after a nightmarish 2013-14.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Do hockey players believe in curses? The easy answer is “Of course not.” An athlete who lets superstitions dictate his game isn’t made for The Show. But if there were ever a player to start believing, could you blame David Clarkson?

In the summer of 2013, fresh off landing a seven-year, $36.8-million contract, Clarkson appeared on THN’s cover, postured as Toronto’s next great fan favorite. He grew up a diehard Leafs fan, so he happily posed for the shoot, after which we photoshopped blue blood trickling down his cheek.

He was positioned for a season he’d never forget. And while that did come to pass, it wasn’t what he imagined. There was the 10-game suspension to start the year after he left the bench to join a fight during a pre-season game. There was the gruesome elbow gash that cost him eight contests. And there were the slumps. A man expected to chip in 20 to 30 goals gave Toronto five in 60 games.

This September, excited to have a blank slate, Clarkson broke his cheekbone in a fight with Buffalo’s Cody McCormick just days before the season started. Ugh. Even the most scientific person would start to wonder about a hex at that point.

“It definitely went through my head,” Clarkson said. “It was tough. After hitting that reset button and feeling good this year and doing everything I did over the summer, to break the bone, that wasn’t fun.”

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Roberto Luongo interviews Zach Fucale, and it’s awesome

Adam Proteau
Interviewing Zach Fucale was one of Roberto Luongo's many responsibilities as THN's guest editor in chief.

Roberto Luongo and Zach Fucale were born 16 years apart, but they do have several things in common: they’re both Quebec-born goalies and Quebec League stars born to Italian families, and they’ve each represented their country in high-stakes international competitions.

Fucale, 19, has yet to play an NHL game after his hometown Canadiens drafted him 36th overall in 2013, but he attended Canadiens camp this year and had just returned to his Halifax Mooseheads team to start the season. That’s where special guest editor-in-chief Luongo caught up with him for an exclusive, insightful talk, under the supervision of yours truly, that was more conversation than straight-ahead question-and-answer.

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Top 50 players in the NHL: 1-10

The Hockey News
Sidney Crosby (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

In THN’s 2014-15 Yearbook, we asked our panel of executives, broadcasters and observers to rank the best hockey players in the world right now, heading into this season. If you were starting a franchise from scratch today, which players would you take?

We ended up with a ranking of the top 50 NHLers and we’ve been releasing that list in chunks of 10. Today, we finish with the top 10 players in the NHL and where they ranked on last year’s Top 50 (LY). Here is the rest of the list:

11-20
21-30
31-40
41-50

1. SIDNEY CROSBY | PITTSBURGH | C | LY: 1
It’s pretty difficult to go against the guy who won the MVP award in voting by the players and media last season and won the scoring championship by 17 points. Crosby only had two goals in 19 Olympic and playoff games, but an injured wrist undoubtedly contributed to that. Read more

2014-15 NHL predictions: Standings, awards and Stanley Cup picks

The Hockey News
chicagoblackhawks

Weeks ago, the THN team gathered to debate and argue over the 2014-15 NHL standings as we went through the league team by team. We shared our final predictions in the annual Yearbook and ran individual breakdowns of each team over the past month. In our Season Preview magazine, we took it a step further and picked our winners for the major individual awards.

Here, on one easy page, are THN’s official predictions for the 2014-15 NHL season. Read more

Referee focus more on goalie interference than goals in 2014-15

Ryan Kennedy
Ben Bishop. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Although a new season brings challenges for everyone in the NHL, perhaps no clan will be tasked with a bigger mental hill to climb than the referees.

“Historically, our focus has been on the crease,” said director of officiating Stephen Walkom. “This season our guys will look at the activity happening around the blue paint and the secondary focus will be on the puck.”

Simply put, determining if the puck crossed the goal line is no longer that important for refs. There are cameras – very good cameras – that are better equipped to take care of that task. Instead, the officials want to make sure the goalies are allowed to do their jobs in the crease, and that’s just fine for the men behind the masks. Read more