By Ted Cox

It is often said that hockey has to be seen in person to be understood. Even so, the people who say they can’t see the puck on television have always struck us as the same sort who say they can’t read the pitches in baseball from the center-field camera. First of all, they show a sad lack of concentration; second, it isn’t essential to see the ball or puck every moment on TV. The ball or puck, after all, is but an object; it’s the players who are active. That said, there is a considerable difference between the way hockey players appear in person and on television–a difference much greater than in, say, baseball.

Great athletes, we’ve often felt, establish their characters in seemingly idle moments, for instance, when Frank Thomas is swinging a weighted bat in the on-deck circle. Hockey is unique in that a player can seem to be enjoying an idle moment even in the midst of play. Hockey players, more than any of their sporting brethren, project their characters and their genius (if they’re endowed with any) in the way they drift, sometimes magically, sometimes absentmindedly, into a spot where the play suddenly comes to them. “Letting the game come to me” is a cliche with athletes, especially in basketball, a sport whose tactics are sometimes very similar to hockey’s. Yet hockey is even more fast-paced than basketball, and the goals are comparatively rare. When Michael Jordan says he waited for the game to come to him, he means he waited to find himself in rhythm with his teammates, and to feel how the opponents would respond. A sense of team rhythm is important in hockey, but it isn’t as essential as it is in basketball. A team utterly out of sync can be rewarded with a goal if a single player should suddenly become one with the cosmos and drift into position in front of the net just as the puck happens to be passing through.

To be sure, the tactics of hockey stress team play and the repetition of fundamental movements in hopes of creating those serendipitous moments, and a team in sync along those lines is more apt to enjoy success than a team that isn’t. That’s why so many passes go sliding untouched through the slot in front of the net in search of a teammate who hasn’t yet moved into the proper position, and why so many goals are attributed to just those passes that connect up. That’s also, getting back to our point, why hockey players seem to be enjoying idle moments even as they play. Genius in a hockey player is the ability to see patterns developing on the ice and exploit them. That’s why a hockey player, like a writer, sometimes does his best work while not seeming to be working at all. Wayne Gretzky drifts into position behind the opponent’s net for the same reason a writer stands up and goes to the window: to let an idea simmer, to wait and see if it will congeal. But the camera is always on the puck in hockey.

So hockey on television, like a book or an article or a piece of E-mail, delivers the end result rather than the genius of creation. That’s why, for all the urgent beauty and drama of the sport, hockey highlights are so undramatic on the evening news. Hockey goals, in hindsight, are no more dramatic than a golfer sinking a tournament-winning putt. Of course the one player is going to move into position to convert the pass from the other player, just as of course the putt is going to go in; otherwise the TV sports anchor wouldn’t bother showing it. In the moment of creation, however–ah, then there is drama and beauty. While the TV camera captures those moments from time to time–especially when the coverage is done well, as on our local Blackhawks affiliate, SportsChannel–mostly they’re something only a spectator is privy to.

Late in the game last Sunday between the Hawks and the Edmonton Oilers at the United Center, Bob Probert stretched out along the left boards and poked a pass ahead to Brent Sutter. That set up Sutter one-on-one against an Edmonton defender. The Hawks were leading 3-1 in the third period, so defense would figure to be foremost on their minds. Yet defenseman Chris Chelios suddenly lowered his head and darted forward across the ice, down the right-hand side. He and Sutter crossed the blue line simultaneously, and Sutter made a cross-ice pass to Chelios to give him an open shot on goal. He fired it in for his second of the game to all but put the victory away, 4-1.

Chelios’s previous goal had been less elegant but even more important. After a scoreless first period, the Oilers had scored first in the second. This seemed to arouse the Hawks. They started banging the Oilers into the boards and beating them to loose pucks. They answered with a goal and then scored again (a very pretty play, in which Joe Murphy, Sutter, and Probert all touched the puck on a three-on-one break, with Probert shooting) to take a 2-1 lead into the third. After a short burst of back-and-forth skating to open the period, the Hawks grew cautious and the Oilers began to pepper Chicago goalie Ed Belfour. Then, however, in one of those serendipitous moments, Tony Amonte intercepted the puck at center ice and broke toward the Oilers goal. He was hooked and dragged to the ice. When a second Edmonton penalty followed, the Hawks had a five-on-three advantage in skaters. The puck came to Chelios at left point, and he blasted it into the Edmonton net.

Chelios is the captain of the team and also its most popular player. He has the pouty lips and dark-lined eyes of a soap-opera star, but he also has the skill and temperament one looks for in a designated captain: he is almost always cool and collected, always in the right place–an invaluable knack for a defenseman–and with just a hint of a gambler to him. Chelios seems the sort of player who would draw to a four-card straight open on both ends, but never to an inside straight.

His mirror image, both in temperament and in the Hawks’ offensive scheme, is Jeremy Roenick, the team’s leading scorer. At 26, Roenick is a rash, erratic player–a real hockey Hotspur–who has never settled into that mature state of mind where the game seems to come to him. Before a game, he is the first player out of the chute to circle the ice, and of the starters he is the first to leave the blue line during the national anthem and start skating around. For these and other reasons, he too is immensely popular with the fans–his urgency to get the game started seems to echo that of Hawks fans as they shout their way through the anthem–but the fans have also shown a similar impatience where he is concerned. He was criticized last spring for not returning faster from a knee injury during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and he has alienated a few of the Hawks and their faithful with his negotiations for a new contract this season. He is now skating with a face guard on his helmet, the result of a broken chin suffered recently when, head down, he got his clock cleaned after scoring a goal. Roenick is the epitome of the player who has to force things to happen every moment on the ice. For all that he is a compelling figure–jersey tucked into his shorts, shoulders hunched, careening around the ice making sharp turns on one skate, like some hockey Keystone Kop.

Deprived of injured line mates Patrick Poulin and Sergei Krivokrasov, Roenick has been moved from center to right wing and reassigned with Bernie Nicholls and Amonte. If anyone can teach him patience it’s Nicholls, a shifty veteran with a sharp profile who skates around with his head jutting forward in the manner of a ferret.

Yet our favorite player to watch has become Eric Daze, the big left winger who in his rookie season already projects that gliding serenity of a hockey star. Daze is six feet four inches tall and 200 pounds–big for a hockey player–yet he has a placid professional demeanor. He has amassed only 12 penalty minutes all season. He came into the league with a reputation for being a solid defensive player–a rarity in hockey, as in all sports, for rookies–and going into the week he led all first-year players with a plus-minus rating of plus 17, meaning the Hawks scored 17 more goals while he was on the ice than they gave up. (Only Chelios and his defensive mate Keith Carney have higher plus-minus ratings on the Hawks.) He didn’t figure in any goals on Sunday, but he made a couple of exceptional passes to line mate Denis Savard, who both times couldn’t get the puck off his stick. (That’s another part of hockey: the missed scoring chance, where everything goes well except for the puck finding its way into the net.) Daze, by contrast, is known for his “soft hands,” meaning that he has a way of calming down an errant puck the way a shepherd might calm a sheep. That he can do this on the fly in time to get a shot off is all the more noteworthy. As a 20-year-old rookie he already has 27 goals on the season, and, of course, he should only get better. He is going to be a great one, but that impression might not be so certain nor as immediate if he were seen only on television. Daze, like all great hockey players, has to be observed moving apart from the puck in order to be appreciated. He glides from spot to spot, plays his man on defense, and on offense maneuvers into places that create new openings on the ice, for both himself and his line mates. It’s exciting to watch Roenick, but it’s a pleasure to watch Daze. On television he might sometimes seem lost, but in person he seems the sort of player hockey was invented for.