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Unsold hockey op-ed

Monday 5/24/21

The new, most important, influential position in sports

Until recently, the four major North American team sports bowed and cowed before the power and influence of three positions. One was the quarterback in football, the others the starting pitcher in baseball and the goalie in hockey.

We’re talking the kings of sport, but only the QB continues on in his reign. The starting pitcher is no more than a relief pitcher who just happens to go first, and that great bandit of the NHL—the goalie who could steal playoff series from teams better than his own—is now more a product of his size, equipment, and his squad’s defensive systems.

Some of the romance of athletics is drained when positions imbued with a questing quality worthy of Homer trend to the pedestrian and that notion of JAG: just another guy. But hold up—for the liquidation of heroic posts creates opportunities for others to make their advance upon top dog status.

The NHL playoffs represent the perfect place to witness what I’ll say is the gatecrasher as arguably the most important position in sports.

I’m talking about the stud, 1A defenseman, who plays half the game, and exerts his will—if he’s good enough—in all three zones of the ice, and on the power play and penalty kill. He’s the guy who determines the outcome of series, in a way that high-flying centers cannot, or the top shelf goalies whom the d-man helps look good.

Often in youth hockey, the kids who have the most skill are the forwards. Everyone wants to score. And let’s be honest—hockey moms and dads like when their little Johnny racks up another hat trick at some ungodly hour of the morning. But nothing can beat what fun it must be to excel as a defenseman.

Your top forwards play twenty minutes each night. Come playoff time, the stud d-man is allocated a half hour. He’s the on-ice quarterback, but unlike the Bradys and Rogers of this world, he gets to try and prevent scoring while simultaneously contributing to the offense.

The NHL game now is all about transition and turnover. Commit one of the latter, the other team goes about the former, and you’re fishing the biscuit out of the back of your net.

A defenseman is the player who can last afford a turnover. So much of his team’s success is in his hands. He’s also a potential demigod of transition, threading long stretch passes to streaking forwards—passes that wouldn’t have been possible years ago when two-line offsides was a thing.

That guy who can play but just can’t skate that well used to get stashed away as a defenseman, but now you need to fly. Possess crazy cardio levels. Amazing recovery time. You have to be one of the best passers in the league.

There is no part of the ice that might not belong to you. You’re the pitcher who also plays shortstop and blasts a moonshot in the same game and swipes a few bags. You’re potentially the most influential guy in all of sports.

D-men don’t get a lot of respect with awards. They don’t win MVPs, they don’t usually cop the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. But it’s time to seize upon the truth of just what this position means and the influence it wields. And hockey parents: show your kid what a Charlie McAvoy on the Bruins does, or Victor Hedman on Tampa. Might be time for a position change.


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