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03-05-2011, 04:09 AM
I voted for Kodos
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So, now that Pit Lepine has been drafted, a little discussion on the art of the hook check, its great practitioners and its eventual disappearance from the game of hockey. We'll start with an interesting article detailing an interview with Elmer Ferguson of the Montreal Herald. From the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: March 2, 1950:

The poke or hook check which Walker was the first to try would be of no use today, says Fergy, but it was a potent weapon in the no-forward-passing game of the time.

"Players like Walker, Frank Nighbor, Hooley Smith and Pit Lepine," says Fergy, "would coast around centre ice when the opposing team attacked, crouch to one knee, reach their stick as far as possible along the ice, and hook or poke the puck smoothly and efficiently off an opponent's stick. Timing and judgment of distance played a great part, of course, in successful operation of the play."
So we have here an old-timer who recalled many years later that the hook check would be useless in the forward-passing game, and named the greatest practitioners of the art from the early days. I think the old-timer was mistaken about the effectiveness of hook-checking in the forward passing game, however. The NHL amended the forward passing rules before the 1918-19 season to allow forward passing as well as kicking the puck in the neutral zone (the area of the ice in which the hook check was most often practiced). If the hook check were rendered ineffective by forward passing rules, this should have largely killed it, and yet Frank Nighbor went right on dominating opponents with his hook check.

Now maybe Nighbor just backed up to the blueline or behind the blueline in the execution of the hook check, as forward passing was still not allowed in the attacking zone? That's one possible argument, but it appears to be false in light of other evidence. The NHL further amended forward passing and puck-kicking rules before the 1929-30 season, and introduced the offside rule midseason after the chaos of the winter of 1929. So, by 30-31, we have a game that greatly resembles the modern game, and yet the hook-check remained an effective tool to those who had mastered it.

This is where Pit Lepine and Hooley Smith enter the picture. Both men played the majority of their careers after the 29-30 rules change, and built great reputations as the late masters of the hook check. Did the hook check go out of their games after the rules change? It does not appear so. Here is an article from The Calgary Daily Herald - January 7, 1932:

Not only are the real masters of the hookcheck passing from hockey but there are some critics who think that it should be abolished altogether from the game. While it may be one of the most devastating weapons for breaking up scoring plays yet, in the opinion of one writer, "it contributes to much centre-ice play which is far from entertaining for the spectator."

The point seems to be that long arms and longer sticks, rather than hockey intelligence and ability, are requisites for its success. Don't confuse the poke check with the hook check. The poke-check can be used effectively only against the puck carrier. The ice-sweeping hook check, first mastered by Frank "Dutch" Nighbor, present manager of the Buffalo Bisons, is a wide swing which often attains a radius of 18 feet. It harasses not only the puck carrier, but the wing men who may be in a position to receive a pass.

The hook check has been made of late years by players on their knees. It rather tends to slow up the game. Nighbor is though (sic) as an active player, so is Jack Walker who is credited with its invention. "Hooley" Smith is adept at the sweeping check, but the best in the business today is "Pit" Lepine of the Canadiens. When he sets himself out to play a straight defensive game, Lepine is almost impossible to pass.
The above is probably the best breakdown of the poke and hook check that I am aware of, and is, in and of itself, of considerable historical interest. Note the date: January 1932 - two seasons after the rule change allowing forward passing in all zones of the ice. The forward pass doesn't seem to have killed the hook check, at all, but rather, as the author notes at the beginning of the article, a "passing of the real masters" out of the game seems to have ultimately rendered the tactic extinct.

It is also clearly not the case that hook-checking involved no hockey intelligence, as is obliquely argued in the above, as the number of players who actually mastered its use was actually very small. Given how effective the hook-check was, we can only assume that everyone would have used it if it was easy to perform, but it was actually a rarity in the sport. The poke check seems to have been much more widely used, but the effective practice of the hook check was actually restricted to a very narrow group of players. Nighbor was the grand master of the art, and after him Jack Walker and Pit Lepine seem to have been the next great practitioners. Hooley Smith seems to have been a step down from their level, but also great, and at the bottom rung of players who used the hook-check regularly and effectively stand Frank Boucher and Aurele Joliat. There are others who used it occasionally, including Howie Morenz, but if there are others who made it a large component of their game, I don't know of them. With the exception of Lepine (and he was restricted by playing behind Morenz), all of the above were stars.

The hook-check seems to have been both difficult to execute and impervious to the forward pass, in any zone of the ice. It seems to have been a rare tool employed by a few star players and not passed down beyond the second generation. More on this later.

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