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How hockey language has evolved to the level of 'smart caveman'

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I once read that climates had an effect on how languages evolved. Sharp, crisp sounds travel better in colder temperatures, which is why northern places have names like Reykjavík and Tuktoyaktuk, and softer, vowel-based sounds do well in warm climates, hence names like Maui and O’ahu and Kahului in Hawaii. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it would certainly go a ways towards explaining the evolution of hockey language.

It’s not easy to communicate on the ice. Crowd noise is amplified by the bowl of boards and glass and ice, while a cacophony of skates, bodies, sticks and pucks demand a speaking (yelling) style that’s short, loud, and to the point.

Because it’s difficult only makes it more essential.

Why clear communication is key

The climate - not just the temperature, but the intensity and animosity, the infrequency with which you find yourself close enough to actually speak to teammates, and the general desperation that comes with defending - has developed a language where a word means a sentence, and those words are pretty short.

As an example, here’s Matt Cooke communicating with linemates a year ago.


During play - short and to the point

With only seconds to deliver information and many hurdles to clear, on-ice direction must get to the point and resonate clearly. Some common examples:

  • “Wheel”: Take the puck behind the net and skate it up yourself .
  • “Glass”: Shoot the puck off the glass and out of the zone.
  • “Deep”: Dump the puck in, I need to change.
  • “Yep/Hey”: I’m open, pass me the puck.
  • “Two”: You’re not alone, you have a passing option.
  • “Switch”: Leave the guy you’re covering and take the other one, I’ll do the same.
  • “Behind”: Hey defensemen, a player has snuck behind you, watch for a breakaway pass.

There are dozens of them. Between the whistles, the fluid nature of hockey has forced players to form a common language that can be spoken from team to team.

After the whistle - everybody on the same page

Before the puck drops, you’re afforded a few more seconds to communicate. In the Conference Final, we saw the Rangers score a goal on a faceoff play from their own zone, where I had hypothesized that the Canadiens intentionally lost the draw in the interest of running their own “set piece” of sorts, to steal a soccer term.

There was some confirmation that this is something the Habs do occasionally in a mic’d up video from the NHL yesterday. Here’s Brendan Gallagher asking Max Pacioretty if he’s going to lose the draw on purpose in that same series:

As we saw when the Rangers scored off that Habs offensive-zone lost draw, you have to be prepared for a multitude of faceoff outcomes. Desharnais tells Gallagher to “jump” - as in, “jump” through the circle behind the Rangers center, because if Desharnais does lose it Gallagher will be in on the forecheck quickly, and if they win it he can go to the net for a screen, tip or rebound.

If he wanted to dictate a similar message during play, that chat simply becomes “JUMP!”

Adjustments on the fly

Few sports require hockey’s simultaneously awareness of offense and defense. In the o-zone, you honor that by keeping a high forward even when you have possession. “HIGH, HIGH, HIGH!” On defense, we see it when players fly the zone and try to get breakaways on 50/50 pucks. “BEHIND, BEHIND, BEHIND!”

Endless goals have been scored and stopped based on a shared single word. It’s hard enough to work through line changes, defensive rotations and offensive ideas in the regular season - in the loud, frenzied environment of a Stanley Cup Final, clear communication will be crucial.

How hockey language has evolved to the level of 'smart caveman'
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