Nashville's grinder hockey is partly in the hands of Rich Clune. (PHOTO: @KWilsonPreds on Twitter)

Grinder Hockey: Cherish It

Grinder hockey isn’t the flashiest part of any team’s game. The guys who play this style of game – grinders, muckers, plumbers, pipe-fitters, call them what you will – are the ones who work to keep the whole show running. They take it to the boards, battle for possession, set up plays, and at their best, they simply wear down the opposition by maintaining relentless pressure on the forecheck. If carrying such a workload weren’t enough, grinders do it all for lower pay and less recognition. One might even call them the working class heroes of the NHL.

Over the past few seasons I’ve noticed a return to a grinder hockey, and for good reason: it works. The 1972 Canadian Summit Series team, the 1980 U.S. “Miracle” team, and, most infamously, the grind line from the Detroit Red Wings’ late 1990s heyday are prime examples of how grinder hockey can play a vital role in the overall effectiveness of a team. Love ‘em or hate ‘em (and hatin’ on Detroit is still a favored pastime of mine), the sheer dominating effectiveness of Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty can’t be denied. Don’t believe me? Watch these 22 minutes of playoff goals from the Grind Line and then tell me you disagree:

It’s not that grinder hockey ever really went away really, but for quite a few years, the NHL seemed more focused on skill-based play. Sure, it’s more exciting to watch a fast skater split the defense and put one over the goalie’s shoulder or to watch a sniper blast a shot through traffic, but those “star” players couldn’t get where they are without support. This is where grinders shine. They are the support, the backbone of the team.

Grinder hockey in Nashville often means Brandon Yip and Matt Halischuk

Yip and Halischuk aren’t to afraid to go to the corners. (PHOTO: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports)

What they lack in finesse or exciting, open-ice play, they more than make up for in sheer determination and scrap. After all, the dump-and-chase only works if you have players who are willing to dig in the corners and come up with the puck. Grinders have a do-what-it-takes attitude. They’re generally the first forward to push in over the blue line and establish that all-important foothold in the offensive zone, allowing their playmakers to set up in good positions where they can cycle the puck and drum up scoring chances. Even though not every dump into the offensive zone results in a recovery and set play, having a player who is willing to get his hands dirty is probably more important on a defensive-minded team. A strong forecheck disrupts the defending team and puts pressure on their breakout, resulting in more forced passes and neutral ice turnovers.

Not only does this strain grinders place on the opposing team produce opportunities both offensively and defensively, but like a boxer throwing body blows it serves as a means to tire the other team. Grinders oblige the opposition to stay alert both physically and mentally. They use the direct correlation between fatigue and morale to their team’s advantage, engaging in what is in essence a type of psychological warfare.

Much grinder hockey is played in the defensive zone.

Nick Spaling does a lot of grinder work for Nashville. (PHOTO: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

In much the same way that police might employ Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles” blasted at a deafening volume or any number of annoying tactics to disorient and demoralize suspects in a standoff situation, grinders wear down the opposition by not allowing them a moment’s rest. They make it a hell of a lot harder to set up in the defensive zone by hassling their opponents into moving the puck. Less set-up time often results in sloppier play.

The grinder’s support role may be uncelebrated, but it’s one that’s crucial to winning hockey games. Being a grinder takes strong, physical play and a willingness to sacrifice one’s body night after night for the good of the team. Not only do these hard-working players have smaller contracts, they generally have shorter careers too. So cherish your grinders. They may not all be lamp-lighters and headline-grabbers, the fastest, the highest paid, or even the prettiest. But grinders are the workhorses, the heart and soul of any team worth its salt.

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