Why hockey is the smartest game in the world

And how a good mind can turn the game upside down

Why hockey is the smartest game in the world

David E. Klutho/Sports Illustration

John Kenneth Galbraith, Martin Luther King Jr., Claude Lévi-Strauss, Margaret Atwood: the luminaries who have delivered the annual CBC Massey Lectures since 1961 are luminous indeed. They are an integral “part of the intellectual life of the nation,” in the words of CBC executive producer Bernie Lucht. This year’s speaker—“deeply honoured and deeply terrified” at being selected for the 50th anniversary—is Adam Gopnik, New Yorker staff writer, author and honorary Canadian. Born in Philadelphia, Gopnik lived in Montreal from the ages of 10 to 25, when he “experienced every significant thing that can happen to a human in those years, from falling in love to being rejected in love,” not to mention becoming a diehard Canadiens fan.

Gopnik’s topic is winter: “I wanted something Canadian but not narrowly Canadian, something that would bring in art, music and sport from across the world.” He offers an engaging account of the artists, composers, writers and intellectuals who invented the modern idea of winter, but the real passion lies in his sports lecture, especially when Gopnik discusses the only game that really matters in this country. His take on hockey describes how, in Montreal over a century ago, the French-Canadian demand for style and skill and the English-Canadian interest in playing rugby on ice saw the fusion of brutality and grace into a game of beauty.

This year’s lectures are scheduled for Montreal (Oct. 12), Halifax (Oct. 14), Edmonton (Oct. 21), Vancouver (Oct. 23) and Toronto (Oct. 26), and will be broadcast on CBC Radio’s Ideas Nov. 7 to 11. A book of Gopnik’s lectures will be published by House of Anansi Press. BRIAN BETHUNE


It seems to me there are two things that make hockey the greatest of all games. One is rooted in what it gives to the players and the other in what it gives to its fans. For the player—and for us as vicarious players—it offers the finest theatre in the world to display the power of spatial intelligence and situational awareness. “Spatial intelligence” is a term that the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner was the first to popularize. His point was that body is inseparable from mind, attitude from analysis, and that there are many kinds of smartness. There is the familiar IQ-test analytic intelligence, but there are also emotional intelligence, social intelligence and spatial intelligence: the ability to grasp a changing whole and anticipate its next stage. It’s the ability to make quick decisions, to size up all the relationships in a fast-changing array and understand them. A related notion is that of situational awareness: a heightened consciousness of your surroundings and both the intentions of the people around you and their anticipated actions.

Well, hockey, obviously, which is played at incredibly high speed, reveals and rewards situational and spatial intelligence at a degree of difficulty that no other sport possesses. So much so that the greatest of all hockey players, Wayne Gretzky, had, besides his other significant skill as a fine-edge skater, almost nothing else that he was specifically good at. That’s his gift—the gift of spatial and situational intelligence: knowing what’s going to happen in three seconds, anticipating the pattern approaching by seeing the pattern now, sussing out the goalie’s next decision and Jari Kurri’s or Luc Robitaille’s eventual trajectory in what would be a single glance if a glance were even taken. Gretzky is the extreme expression of the common skill the game demands.

To watch him behind the net was to see stasis rooted in smarts. I recall games (one in particular, late in his career, against the Canadiens stands out; you can still find it on YouTube) in which he would position himself there, waiting for the other team to make a move. If you went after him he would put the puck perfectly on the stick of the open man. If you left him there he would wait, and perhaps try a wraparound or find a free winger as the patterns of the power play wove and unwove in front of him. It depended on supreme skill held in tactful abeyance—and it was a demonstration that he also scores who only stands and waits.

Anyone who has kids who play hockey knows the phenomenon: there are big, strong kids and smaller, weaker kids—and then there is always one kid who “sees the ice,” who, in the midst of all the flubbed passes and scraped shins and sudden falls, grasps where the play is going next. Hockey is the one game in which, as a hockey-playing savant of my acquaintance says, a good mind can turn a game upside down.

In no other sport can a quality of mind so dominate as in the supposedly brutal game of ice hockey. Hockey is the one game where an intelligence can completely overthrow expectations. (When Gretzky recognized his successor in the still-adolescent Sidney Crosby, it was exactly that quality he was recognizing: not athleticism, but insight.) Yes, no doubt soccer rewards similar skills. A Johan Cruyff or an Eric Cantona has similar situational awareness and spatial intelligence, while we grow disgusted with superior players—like the shoulda-been-great Brazilian Ronaldo—who lack it; but there are 11 men on a soccer pitch and maybe two goals in a game, and the whole thing, despite the sporadic show of “pace,” proceeds at a walk, sometimes accelerating to a jog.

All sports entertain us in part because of the thrill of watching a great athlete do what we can’t, even if what he or she’s doing is in part a mental exercise. Our empathetic engagement—what a close female friend of mine (whose great-uncle is actually in the Hockey Hall of Fame) calls “pitiful vicarious identification” or “the sad armchair act of pretending you’re doing what you’re actually watching”—with the players is key. But sports also entertain us as forms of drama. We get engaged, even in the absence of a single great player or performance, with the way the game tells a thrilling and unpredictable narrative woven by 10 or 20 players at once. A great game is a great show, and it’s also a great story. What makes those stories great is when they’re unpredictable but not unjust—uncharted enough that there’s no certainty of the result but organized enough that the result does not seem to be pure chance.

I think by now most of us have heard, however vaguely, something about the branch of mathematics called game theory. It’s a way of understanding competitions that began with the great mathematician John von Neumann at the end of the 1940s and has since spread and conquered the world, or at least many academic disciplines, particularly economics and some of the more hard-ass parts of political science. Game theory attempts to mathematically capture behaviour in strategic situations, games, in which an individual’s success in making choices depends on the choices of others. Anyone who has seen the movie A Beautiful Mind knows about John Nash and his equilibrium, and the more general notion that you can understand many social phenomena in the world if you see them as simple games rooted in guessing and outguessing your opponent’s plans.

The funny thing about game theory is that, though it has been used to explain everything from economics to nuclear warfare, it’s very rarely used to explain games—or at least not sports. And yet when you think about it, part of the pleasure we take in sports has everything to do with game theory, which has exactly to do with questions of how much we know, how much our opponents know, how much they know of what we know, and so on.

I am far too innumerate to even attempt a rigorous analysis of this sort, but I do think it can be enlightening to play with a few of its key concepts. One concept opposes open-information (or perfect-information) games against ones with closed, or imperfect, information. Chess is probably the most famous instance of an open-information game. When you’re playing chess, you have all the information the other player has; nothing is concealed from you, and so there are truly never any surprises in the strategic sense. There are no hidden rooks. On the other hand, old-fashioned five-card draw poker is a completely hidden or closed-information game. You don’t know what’s in your opponent’s hand, so you have to guess on the basis of their behaviour and your knowledge of their past playing patterns what they might be holding in their hand right now. It’s a game of deduced intention but also of inferred information. The best games—the games that people seem to enjoy most—offer some kind of equilibrium between a small sum of hidden information and a larger sum of open information held in tension. In Texas Hold ’em, the most popular of poker games, there are five shared cards—a lot of open information—and a crucial two cards’ worth of closed information.

Team sports, which are both athletic contests and strategic ones, can be ranked along the same dimensions. Basketball, for instance, in some ways comes closest to being an open-information sport. Plays are limited, surprises are unimportant—no one basket is so significant that it is worth over-planning to achieve it, and even if you could, it wouldn’t matter that much. What matters are trends, tendencies and small tactical victories—real strategic surprise is relatively limited. The great basketball coach Phil Jackson ran his famous triangle offence with the Lakers, and with the Bulls before them. It requires tactical discipline, but the other team always knows what he’s doing; it’s a question of whether they can do it more efficiently and consistently than you can defence it. (The key event in basketball, foul shooting, is purely mechanical, and a matter, not trivial, of consistency alone.)

Pro football, on the other hand, is a good example of something closer to a closed-information sport: you have a series of particular strategic plans that you invent in secret and that you then spring on your opponent. That’s why football rewards coaches like the great Bill Walsh, whose genius was not for tactical stability but for strategic innovation and surprise—half the playing time is actually spent watching people plan in secret. In the ’89 Super Bowl, Walsh pulled a single play, designed to freeze a Bengals linebacker, from his script for a winning touchdown. That he had a script is proof of the partly closed nature of the game. And baseball is more like Hold ’em poker: everything’s evident except the hole card of the pitch that’s about to be thrown.

Now, hockey looks, when you watch it with an unpractised eye, like an open-information sport. It looks like wild improvisation with no strategic plan underneath—a series of instinctive reactions to bouncing pucks and sliding players. (When people say they can’t see the puck, I think what they really mean is that they can see it but they just can’t see its point, its purpose in travelling. The game appears to be simply a brutal series of random collisions in which the invisible puck somehow sporadically ends up in the net.) But the more closely you observe the game, the more you see that it’s kind of the Texas Hold ’em of the world’s spectator sports: there’s a great deal that’s open, but crucial elements are buried or cloaked and are revealed only afterwards to the eye of experience and deeper knowledge. There are hole cards in hockey, and some of the fun of being a fan is learning to look for them.

Some of this is plain in the inordinate effect a man with a plan can have on a hockey team; the defensive system that Jacques Lemaire installed with the Devils could take a mediocre team and make it into a champion. The trap, or shell, is tedious but it’s wonderfully effective, and unlike the triangle offence it’s hidden, in the sense that it takes place so quickly, and demands so many rapid adjustments, that I have found even experienced hockey fans have a hard time describing the way it works. The tension between the obvious givens and hidden hole cards is true as well at a more granular level of the game.

Just think about the difference between taking a penalty in soccer and the shootout in hockey. The penalty in soccer is something that academic game theorists have actually looked at in detail: what’s the best technique, they ask, the optimal strategy for the shooter in soccer to pursue when he’s got a penalty shot to take? It’s a play of minds, because the goalkeeper has to anticipate what the shooter will do, and the shooter, the goalkeeper. Shoot left? Shoot right? High? Low? And the theorists have discovered that the optimal strategy is . . . just to blast away. The goal is so big and the goalkeeper so small that the shooter is much better off just blasting to the middle rather than trying to pick a corner.

So, predictably, the optimal strategy for the goalkeeper in the soccer shootout is just to stay in place, not dive to either corner—though it’s very hard for a goalkeeper to summon the discipline to do that. And so you have this situation in soccer where basically any kind of strategic planning doesn’t pay. In the shootout in hockey, you have exactly the same confrontation between shooter and goalkeeper, but the shooter just blasting away or the goalie staying in place is never going to work. There are just too many dimensions in play—the shot takes place in depth and in motion, not from a fixed spot—and the odds between goalie and shooter are too closely matched. The shootout in hockey puts a premium on having a hole card: an idea, a strategy, a plan in advance, unknown to the opposition. And the goalie needs to respond to that kind of strategic initiative, that kind of creativity, with aggressive anticipation. The obvious play, which benefits you in a sport such as soccer, penalizes you in hockey.

Though it may seem as if the great goals in hockey history were chance events, stray moments seized by opportunistic players, the truth is that as you understand the sport more deeply you can see that there is a kind of hidden strategic reservoir, almost a morality play, a history, behind every great goal in the game. When I think about the great goals that have been scored in hockey, the famous goals in my own lifetime, I see an element of historical pattern and strategic consequence in each of them. I think, for instance, of probably the most famous goal in my own fanship, the goal that Guy Lafleur scored in 1979 in the famous “too many men on the ice” game, the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup semifinals. What’s remarkable about that goal, if you watch it now, is not only that Lafleur takes a terrific shot but also how much else is going on around it, pointing toward past and future alike. Seeing it now, we’re stunned by the sheer incompetence of Gilles Gilbert, the Boston goalie, who is playing a stand-up-and-kick style that now looks antediluvian—a very old-fashioned kind of upright goaltending whose futility, so evident on this shot, would make it extinct within a decade. The shot invalidates a style, not just a moment.

But one also notices that the man actually carrying the puck is Jacques Lemaire, Lafleur’s centre, and that Lemaire draws the defence toward him before he makes a quiet drop pass to set up the shot. Now, Lemaire was only promoted to the top line after an up-and-down career as a one-dimensional player, famous for his heavy shot. (He in effect won the Stanley Cup eight years before, by taking a more or less random shot from centre ice that happened to stun and elude the Chicago Blackhawks goalie Tony Esposito.) But in this case Lemaire doesn’t take the shot, and we’re reminded that Lemaire was schooled for five years by Scotty Bowman, the Canadiens coach, who patiently transformed him from an offensive-minded player into a defensive-minded player, first demoting him to the second line, then eventually putting him back on the first line after he understood the virtues of an all-over game. And it’s Lemaire, as we’ve seen, who then takes Bowman’s regimen and, in his years with the dull but effective New Jersey Devils, turns it into the modern trap, an ice-clogging reactive defensive game plan that demands more self-discipline than style. So the pass, in a sense, is more potent than the goal. What Lemaire has learned matters as much as what Lafleur has done—a whole history compressed into a back pass and a shot.

Part of the joy of understanding the game is being able to read it well enough to spot when those pivotal moments take place. The fine hockey writer Michael Farber has analyzed Sidney Crosby’s goal in the most recent Olympics in that spirit: six seconds that subsume 20 years. One could do the same with Mario Lemieux’s great goal in the ’87 Canada Cup—seeing, for instance, how in that goal Gretzky identified himself as primarily a playmaker, not a scorer—but it’s enough to say for now that each of these goals is the result of a plan and history unknown to or beyond the control of the opposition, shared among the players through their common spatial intelligence, each taking place at such high speed that the plan is invisible to all but the tutored eye. Each is crucially significant to the outcome of the contest but is not the only such moment in the contest, and each has long-term consequences for the way the sport evolves.

Hockey approaches a more perfect balance between planning and reading, idea and improvisation, than any other sport. Runs in baseball are information; in basketball, baskets are events; in soccer, goals are exclamations. But goals in hockey are punctuation—they end sentences that can be traced through phrases to make long chains of meaning. And so great goals, like great aphorisms, repay any amount of after-the-fact analysis. How did so much get packed into one phrase, or play? Ice hockey looks like a reflex, rapture sport but is really a rational, reasoned one. Spotting the patterns amid the quick plunges is part of the fun. I often go to sleep at night running through great goals I have seen—there is a weighting toward the seventies Habs, but only because they were the greatest team of all time, not because I was a teenager then—and what astonishes me is that, no matter how often you rewind them, they still play back beautifully, and in your mind’s eye (or on the YouTube screen) you always see more. Hockey offers drama at first viewing, meaning on the second, and learning on the third and fourth, even 40 years on. The tradition that began a hundred years ago in Montreal—when the English university idea of “rugby on ice” met the evolving French-Canadian idea of a high-skilled performance—of a game that combined the collisions of rugby with the beauty of ice-skating, has, if only for a moment, been realized, and it lingers in your head.

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