Whether I have played hockey or soccer, I’ve always been a more offensive-minded person than defensive. I believe there is nothing like the feeling of scoring a goal and absorbing the recognition and acclaim that goes along with that role. However, once I saw a t-shirt in a sporting goods catalogue that had emblazoned on the front in a large and intimidating font, a bold warning to attacking players: “Defense: Where the Fun Ends and the Pain Begins”
As much as I didn’t have a desire to play defense, I had a desire to buy that shirt—buy it and wear it. I thought about how tough I would seem promoting such a proclamation. People would see me and tremble. They would think of me as one dangerous and confident player. But, knowing that I always played forward, I couldn’t be a poser, so I only kept that shirt and that phrase in my mind.
I was recently playing a game against a team of very skilled players who also happened to have only one sub on their bench. They were rotating on and off the ice one at a time. There wasn’t a lot of room for anyone on that team to be choosy about position. Then, their very skilled-yet-cocky superstar scoring machine, who had finally subbed off, subbed back on during a break in play. Clearly irritated to find she had subbed on to defense, she announced in a tone of revulsion, “Um, anyone wanna play defense? ‘Cause, uh, I don’t!”
Something about her attitude really bothered me, and I lost a lot of respect for her because she wouldn’t take her turn in defense. Then I stopped and wondered why even I looked at playing defense as “taking a turn,” like it was some sacrifice every player would have to make once in a while for the good of the team. Playing defense shouldn’t be viewed as a chore—it’s an honor and privilege. Yet, we live in a culture that places value on measurable results (ie, goals) above all else. The most esteemed players on any professional sports team are those who have tallied the most goals, points, or runs. But, as often as not, the most steadfast, tenacious, and reliable players on a professional sports team are the under-appreciated defenders—those who make an impact by preventing others’ goals, points, or runs.
And so, in congruence with the goal-focused nature of our North American culture, the same dialog plays out in the change rooms of arenas everywhere on nights when women’s rec teams are playing—especially on teams that do not have established, long-term players on their rosters.
Amy: Ok, we are missing two of our regular defenders. Who will play defense tonight?
Betty: Oh, I can’t play defense.
Christine: I’ve never played defense.
Daphne: (chuckling) Trust me, you girls don’t WANT me to play defense!
Elise: I can’t play defense because I can’t skate backwards very well.
room: (more silence)
Fran: Um, I really suck at defense.
Gina: I’ve only ever played wing.
Heather: Well. . . I’ll do it if no one else will. But don’t be mad at me if I’m not very good at it!
And so the conversation goes until three or hopefully four people have agreed to give up what was supposed to be a fun night of doing nothing but scoring goals and literally take one for the team and serve time playing in what is arguably the most important position on the ice. We can and should refute these declinations in a positive and encouraging way.
“I’ve never played defense.” Really? Well then there is a problem because everyone on the ice, regardless of their positions, plays defense and offense throughout the game. If you are a winger, you should be playing defense when the puck is in your own end. Not only this, but there was a time when you never played winger. . . or center. . .but one day you bit the bullet and did it. You can do the same with defense.
“Trust me, you girls don’t WANT me to play defense!” The question was asked because the team is short on defense. Let the team be the judge of whether they want you to play defense only after you’ve given it a good try.
“I can’t play defense because I can’t skate backwards very well.” Backwards skating is required for all positions. If you’re not very good at it, playing defense will certainly force you to improve this skill rapidly. My own experience has been that my skating improves the most in game conditions because I am in situations where I have no choice but to make my blades do what I need them to.
“I really suck at defense.” This is just code for “I don’t want to play defense but I’m not going to say it.”
“I’ve only ever played wing.” Well, then isn’t it time to learn a new skill? And guess what? The skates and all the equipment are exactly the same!!!
“I can’t play defense.” As the saying goes, whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.
Now, from my experiences as an occasional blueliner, there are some great reasons to play defense, which I will list here. Not all of these benefits may be a reality in your league, but for most women’s rec play, they would apply.
1. You will probably get more ice time. When was the last time you played on a team that had two lines of forwards and three lines of defense? Exactly. Usually any skaters above ten get allocated to the forward lines, which means that the defenders are on the ice significantly more than their forward counterparts.
2. You get to bond with your goalie. Not only will your goalie love you for being her most important helper, you are like a bouncer around the crease, protecting the goal and the goalie—no one gets in unless they go through you. It’s a tough role and one to be admired. And most goalies who understand the game know that a portion of the credit for any shutout goes to the defenders.
3. You can score goals. Yes! It’s true! Defensive players score goals! And whether it’s a goal scored as you skate up while your winger drops back to cover you, deking out the opposition the whole way, or whether it’s an amazing shot from the point, goals scored by defenders are often the most impressive and fantastic goals in a game because they usually take more thought and strategy.
4. You have the opportunity to make crucial plays and be a heroine. When you hold the blue line and keep the puck in, you are continuing offense that would have otherwise fizzled. When you lunge with your stick to cover an open space near the goal while your goalie is still recovering from the prior shot, you protect your team’s lead, perhaps your goalie’s shutout, or just keep the score gap from widening. And when the other team’s superstar has a breakaway and you catch up to her and cleanly poke check the puck away from her, you’ll hear your team go crazy, cheering for you in appreciation.
5. You learn more about hockey because you have to think. . . differently. I am not implying that any players on the ice can get by without thinking and playing smart. But. . .honestly? For some of us forwards, our minds are functioning like that of a Jack Russell Terrier chasing a ball. Our brain is stuck on repeat: “Get the puck! Go to the goal! Get the puck! Go to the goal! Get the puck! Go to the goal!” as we skate around the ice like maniacs, vying for optimum offensive positioning. In defense, your mind is quieter as you observe the entire ice and see the plays developing. You have time to decide where to go, what opponent you will cover, where you think the puck will go next, and what you will do with it once it’s on your stick. You are the master of your team’s destiny once you do get the puck because you have the option to skate it out of your end, keep control of the puck while your teammates get into better positioning, pass to any open teammate, take a shot, or ice the puck if your team needs a change. You must be able to quickly analyze what is happening before your eyes, decide what you will do in a variety of possible situations, and coordinate with your defensive partner. And if you haven’t played defense before and don’t feel you have this skill set—trust me, all you need to do is jump into the role and you will pick it up quickly.
6. You will be in demand! When teams are being put together for tournaments, the organizer will start from the defense up. First she will find a goalie. Next she will find defenders. And if you are willing to play defense, you will probably get more invitations to play on teams as there are not typically as many defensive players in women’s’ rec hockey as there are forwards.
If you normally play forward, be a leader and set an example for your team and play defense when your team is in need of defenders in addition to encouraging others to give it a try. In talking with the many players in my recreational league, I have repeatedly heard from players who were at first reluctant to play defense that they now enjoy and prefer that position. Of course, defense may not be for everyone, but you won’t know if you like it unless you try it. And trying it may mean giving it a couple of games. Maybe your preference will still be playing forward, but at least you will have the experience on defense and be able to say, when asked, that you can play anywhere on the ice.
The secret that defenders know is that defense may be where the fun ends for opponents on the attack, but it’s where the fun begins for themselves.