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NHLers discuss thankless role of warmup puck distributor: ‘It can be a dangerous job’

Max Domi didn’t want the job. In truth, not many do.
Chicago Blackhawks centre Max Domi (13) skates with the puck as left wing Jujhar Khaira (16) and center Colin Blackwell (43) follow during warmups before an NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, in New York. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jessie Alcheh

Max Domi didn’t want the job. In truth, not many do.

But there were injuries up and down the lineup. Someone had to take the reins.

Not on the ice during the action of a live NHL game, but in warmups as the player tabbed with distributing pucks to teammates.

The task seems simple and straightforward.

It isn’t and, with vulcanized rubber flying left and right, comes with heightened risk.

“There’s very few guys that want to do that,” Domi, a forward with the Chicago Blackhawks, said of the thankless job.

NHL clubs go through largely the same routine before every contest.

Players hit the ice to get a feel for the puck — some without helmets, their hair whipping in the breeze — as music blares in half-empty arenas before going through a series of stretches, stickhandling displays and mostly carbon-copy drills.

Line rushes follow with forwards and defencemen going through the motions of half-hearted breakouts or attempts on goal.

Throughout the entire process, there’s a player on each team responsible for collecting pucks in the net after drills and dishing them among his fellow skaters.

It’s not for the faint of heart.

“Some guys are ruthless,” Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews said. “You’re trying to get pucks for the boys and they’re ripping one-timers off the crossbar.

“It can be a dangerous job.”

Calgary Flames forward Jonathan Huberdeau is one of a handful of players eager to embrace the role.

“If I don’t do that, I wouldn’t know what to do in warmups,” he said with a smile.

“For me, it’s fun. You don’t need to skate as much.”

When a person holding down the role is injured or moves on, there’s that awkward moment when someone — like Domi in the past — has to take charge.

“Some guys will never do it,” Montreal Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki said. “I’ll do it if we don’t have anybody.

“It’s kind of like, ‘Oh crap … gotta step up.’”

The most important part of the job, however, comes after the rush drills when teams form a half-circle inside the blue line and begin blasting shots at the goaltenders one puck at a time.

It might seem random, but there’s a hierarchy.

And superstition.

“There is 100 per cent an order,” Carolina Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal said. “If you really watch warmup throughout the whole season it’s the same passing order, same everything. (Jaccob Slavin’s) got a sharp enough mind to remember all that.

“When guys out injured are back in he’ll be right on cue.”

Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Zach Werenski said Jack Roslovic filled the void after David Savard was traded a couple seasons back.

“First warmup, guys were looking at each other like, ‘Who’s gonna do it?’” Werenski recalled. “There’s a certain order and certain guys get mad if it goes out of order. Definitely a lot of pressure. If you were to ask Jack, he could probably name who he passes to in order.

“It’s pretty crazy.”

Islanders forward Mathew Barzal said the task in New York usually falls to veterans Josh Bailey or Matt Martin.

“It’s just passed down,” Barzal said. “At some point it’s gonna have to be a new guy. Bails is a good disher.

“Matt Martin on the other hand…”

Matthews said the role is determined organically with the Leafs.

“There’s no vote,” he said. “I just know I’m not going to be the guy. I have my own things I like to do. If you’re a guy who likes to pass the puck and get all the pucks for the different warmup stuff, that’s fine with me.”

Ottawa Senators captain Brady Tkachuk flunked his audition.

“Did it once,” he said. “Was too quick getting the puck to guys.”

In terms of pre-game superstitions, generally, there are too many to list.

Washington Capitals netminder Darcy Kuemper shakes his head at what he’s witnessed.

“I’ve seen it all over the place where guys are getting off the ice at an exact second,” he said. “I just go with the flow.”

Colorado Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar didn’t know how warmups worked when he first entered the league.

“Nobody really told me,” he said. “Stepped on ice and just tried to follow everybody else.”

While warmups in the NHL are largely meant as a light skate, that’s not the case in Europe.

San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl was reintroduced to sessions that felt more like practice at last spring’s world championships.

“I was getting tired,” Hertl said. “In the NHL you go no bucket and leave the ice earlier. In Europe everybody stays to the end. There’s 15 guys shooting, ice is all messed up.

“Sometimes we do stops and starts.”

Hertl said Joe Thornton anointed him San Jose’s puck passer early in his career, but he’s since handed the job off.

“Hated it,” Hertl said. “Scary sometimes.”

It takes a certain type.

The best Domi’s seen is former teammate Jonathan Drouin.

“Not only good at remembering the order,” he said of the Montreal centre. “But probably one of the best sauce passers I’ve ever seen. Puck looks like it’s going in the fifth row, but lands perfectly on your stick.

“Pretty impressive.”

And like the rest of the league’s warmup distributors, Drouin also has to be keenly aware of flying objects.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2023.


Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press