Brain or body?

Great players find different ways to get from A to B

SAP Arena Mannheim  Germany

Jaromir Jagr's smarts have helped him stay an elite player with the Czechs and Avangard Omsk. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images.

MANNHEIM – Is Jaromir Jagr the “best player at this championship,” as Czech goalie Ondrej Pavelec claimed on Tuesday? If so, he's getting it done a little more with his brain, as opposed to his body, than he did back in his 1990s heyday.

Through May 11, Jagr led the 2010 IIHF World Championship in scoring with two goals and three assists in five games. The superstar winger has excelled despite admitting that his legs, at age 38, are not what they used to be: “The speed is not there any more, but I still love the game. Of course, I wish I could be faster than I was when I was younger. It doesn't work anymore.”

Now, to the naked eye, Jagr is not exactly lumbering around out there like Jason Allison or Dana Murzyn. But naturally, as an elite athlete he holds himself to a higher standard. And if you dial up YouTube clips of him, say, scoring against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1992 Stanley Cup finals, you can see he had one-step quickness back then that he no longer possesses.

Yet while Number 68 has kept himself in great shape and still has remarkable strength, what's enabling him to keep starring both internationally and in the KHL is his mind for the game.

It's evident in sequences like the power-play goal Jagr scored to cut the deficit to 3-2 versus Norway. With perfect timing, he moved into the opening that the Norwegian defence left in the right faceoff circle to convert Karel Rachunek's centering pass. It was reading the play to pick that spot, as much as his quick release, that made the goal possible.

If Jagr is still hungry to play hockey in his 40s, he'll be able to do it because he thinks the game so well. Even if his legs or hands start to fade.

This issue of brain versus body is among the most endlessly fascinating aspects of elite sport.

The greatest playmaking centres of the modern era, and indeed all time, earned their living principally with their brains.

At the Edmonton Oilers' training camps of the 1980s, Wayne Gretzky always excelled on the cardiovascular tests while struggling with the strength tests. But in game situations, he came closer to having eyes in the back of his head than any other player who's lived. His mind gave him a bird's-eye view of the 200-by-85-foot NHL ice surface, and he brought that to bear as well in what he's described as the “best game he ever played”: Game Two of the 1987 Canada Cup final versus the Soviet Union, when he recorded five assists.

By the time retirement loomed in 1999, Gretzky was far more brain than body, and while he said his understanding of the game was as good as or better than it had ever been, his legs and back just couldn't deliver the goods anymore. Not by his lofty standards.

One-on-one, Mario Lemieux could do even more with the puck than Gretzky, but his playmaking abilities were also superlative. And when injuries and illness all too frequently intervened to take the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar away from the game starting in the early 1990's, he couldn't always use the big man's body with which he was gifted to the full anymore. But his brain remained luminous, perpetually dangerous. Even the Lemieux of the early 2000's was an ominous figure for opposing defenders, not to be challenged while playing the perimeter with the man advantage.

As for Russia's Igor Larionov, few who looked at the Soviet “Green Unit” of the 1980's would have predicted that the diminutive Voskresensk native would be the last of the five to keep playing top-level hockey. Surely, either the physically robust blueliner Viacheslav Fetisov or the hard-rock, explosive winger Vladimir Krutov would be a more likely candidate?

And yet, come 2004, there was Larionov putting in his final stand with the New Jersey Devils. A shadow of the great puck-mover he was in his CSKA Moscow prime, to be sure, but “The Professor” would never have remained active in the NHL at age 43 if it wasn't for the way he thought the game and made others around him better.

At the 2010 IIHF World Championship, with due respect to Pavelec's judgement and Jagr's prowess, you could argue the two best players on hand, right here and now, are Russia's Alexander Ovechkin and Canada's Steven Stamkos. Of course, another Russian winger, Ilya Kovalchuk, merits serious consideration for that status too. But let's look at Ovechkin and Stamkos more closely, because both bring a different blend of brain and body to their hockey styles.

Is Ovechkin a “smart” player? Perhaps it's closer to the truth to say that he's “lethally instinctive.” Although the explosive 24-year-old left winger, a two-time Hart Trophy winner, posted a career-high 59 assists with the Washington Capitals this year, he's best known for his solo artistry and deadly shot.

For Ovechkin, the rink is less a chess board than a race car track. He blows past (or over) opponents and asks questions later. At his best, he moves faster than the speed of thought. While he celebrates like crazy even when he's just gone to the net and banged in an ugly rebound, as opposed to taking it end to end, he clearly enjoys executing plays with panache.

Stamkos, who outgoaled Ovechkin 51 to 50 this year, hails more from the traditional “they don't ask how, they just ask how many” Canadian school of thought. Since his traumatic NHL rookie season  run-in with ex-Tampa Bay Lightning coach Barry Melrose, who didn't think the 2008 World Junior gold medalist was ready for the bigs, Stamkos has rarely appeared to be phased by anything.

Like Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman before him, Stamkos has marvelous hands, but will usually take the most direct route to the net whenever he can. The 20-year-old likes to park himself in the faceoff circle to the goalie's right on the power play and simply get off shots as fast as he can (297 this season with Tampa, sixth highest in the league). Like Dany Heatley today, you get the sense that he'd be perfectly happy to score all his goals in that style.

Illustrating his mentality were his remarks after Canada's opening 5-1 win over Italy at this tournament: “It's difficult when you're playing with some great players. You want to make some good plays. But at the end of the day, when we scored, it was getting pucks to the net, getting traffic in front, getting some dirty goals. Once we realized that, we scored some goals.”

No need, a la Ovechkin, to put on a show.

He didn't crack the Olympic team in Vancouver. But in retrospect, even though things worked out fine for Yzerman's squad, it seems evident that Stamkos is mature and poised enough that he could have fit in just as well as fellow youngster Drew Doughty if Hockey Canada had elected to go that route.

In short, mentally he comes across as one of these unflappable, ultra-focused characters, much like Jonathan Toews, that will put Canada in good stead in future big-game situations. A little more brain, a little less body than Ovechkin's approach.

Those who last longest usually manage to accentuate the brain more. Ever-reliable Nordic defencemen come to mind, like Nicklas Lidström of the Detroit Red Wings and Tommy Jakobsen of Team Norway. Different men, different talent levels, different circumstances.

Yet they have this in common: they wouldn't be serving as team captains while heading into their 40's if they hadn't learned to think the game at an elite level.





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