Monday, 5 December 2011

The Fine Art of Lifting

One of the barriers to entry, so to speak, of interest in early hockey is some of the terminology in use during the early years of the game's development. Some of these are the result in simple changes in terminology (such as "bully" for faceoff, or "game" for goal), but some instead have to do with changes in the strategy and tactics used on the ice. Plays and tactics no longer relevant to the modern game result in archaic terminology that is unfamiliar to current fans of the game. If you're reading a game report from the 1890s, for example, you'll probably come across some terms you've not seen before.

Some of these differences you might already be aware of, such as the names for the positions. Rather than two defencemen, there was a point and a cover-point, and there was a fourth forward called a rover. This is pretty simple stuff, and doesn't by itself shed much light on how the game was played.

One of the most important archaic term in this respect is probably the "lift". When you read about a game featuring the Montreal or Winnipeg Victorias (basically every city had a club with that moniker, as a tribute to the Queen), you'll see references to players, typically the defence, lifting the puck down the ice. The meaning of this phrase is fairly self-evident: it is quite literally a player using wrist action to flip the puck high up into the air, and down into the opponent's end. What is not immediately obvious is the tactical implications of this maneuver.

Lifting the puck was not simply a matter of clearing the puck out of your end, though it was certainly used for that purpose. More important, however, was the interaction of this tactic with the rules of the day, specifically the offside rule. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was no forward passing allowed in hockey. Passes were often made laterally, as in rugby. You could pass the puck forward to an extent, as long as the recipient of the pass was not ahead of you when the pass was made. You could not simply pass the puck ahead to a waiting teammate to clear your end. If you weren't able to carry the puck out, you had to clear it in another manner. But if you simply shot the puck down the ice, it was an easy matter for the opponents to corral the puck and begin another attack.

Lifting the puck, however, provided several advantages. It took longer for the puck to travel down the ice, giving your side more time to regroup. More importantly, the hard rubber puck bounced when it hit the ice, making it more difficult for the opponents to predict where it would go and organize their counterattack. Indeed, sometimes the bounce was so unpredictable that a long lift could result in a goal being scored, if the rubber skipped past the goalkeeper. This unpredictability, in fact, allowed the lift to be used offensively as well as defensively. Think of an onside kick in American football - the opponents would often have difficulty in gaining possession of the puck, allowing a teammate to rush in and take the rubber away and begin an attack of his own.

This is why the lift was so important, tactically. In some sense it was a pseudo-forward pass in a game that did not allow forward passing. It was useful both for offence and defence, and the points and cover-points of the day were expected to be able to execute the maneuver well, both to fulfill their duties on defence and to move the play ahead to their forwards. Sometimes matches would have periods referred to as "lifting battles", where the teams exchanged lifts back and forth for a time. Although this does not sound exciting, and was certainly criticized as such at the time, it does illustrate that the play was seen as an effective one, if teams were willing to indulge in it with such aplomb.

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