There is something that lives deep within every great hockey player. It’s intangible, immeasurable and undeniably necessary. You can’t see it in a box score and you can’t measure it in a weight room, but at the end of the day, it is the difference between legend and bust. A hockey player’s “Compete Level” is often the determining factor of how long and successful a career they will have.
The dissection of the meaning of compete level is one of the most debated and misrepresented topics in hockey. Some say that a player who combines skill and toughness has a high compete level. Therefore, you can measure compete level, to an extent, by looking at a combination of scoring stats and penalty minutes (PIMs).
The problem with this is that not all penalty minutes are “tough” penalty minutes. Getting a 10-minute misconduct for arguing with the ref isn’t tough and doesn’t represent a high compete level. Neither is a racking up 35 hooking penalties in a season.
There are team penalties, like sticking up for a team mate after a cheap shot. These penalties are good for morale and are usually coincidental penalties unless there is an instigator penalty attached. And then there are individual penalties, like hooking a player because you took a bad angle and now you’re caught in a bad position. There are also roughing after the whistle penalties and slashing penalties that just make coaches go nuts. Slashing someone or punching someone in the face because he said he banged your girlfriend isn’t tough. Laughing at him and then winning a battle to walk out and score a goal the next shift is.
In my opinion, Ryan O’Reilly has a legendary compete level that is off the charts. If you don’t believe me, check out this video. O’Reilly is on pace to become the first NHL player since Butch Goring (New York Islanders: 1980-81 season) to play an entire NHL season without registering a single penalty minute. It is truly an impressive feat considering how much O’Reilly spends playing in traffic.
Others will say compete level is measured simply by championships. If a player wins multiple championships he is a winner and therefore has a high compete level. They’ll say: “He’s won a cup before, so he knows how to win. He has a high compete level.”
My problem with this statement is that it’s far too vague and is much more dependent on collaboration. Not to knock anyone who played on the Oilers dynasty in the ‘80s, but I’m pretty sure they could have slotted me in on the 4th line in the playoffs for 2 minutes a game and still won 4 Stanley Cups. That doesn’t mean I have a high compete level. I would have been skating around hanging onto Dave Semenko’s jersey, trembling and saying: “Why is Clark Gillies growling at me?”
To me, compete level is something that is in no way black and white, and it’s something you absolutely have to have to play in the NHL. It’s the “IT” factor. Scott Stevens had IT and so did Niklas Lidstrom. Stevens and Lidstrom played the game with two contrasting styles, but each had an insatiable hunger to succeed and knew how to take command of a game. Doug Gilmour had IT, as did Steve Yzerman, Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, and so fourth. Ian Laperriere carries IT around on his face just like Maurice Richard carried IT in his eyes.
The question of whether a player has a high compete level is answered at many stages of any game on any night. If a player makes a bad turnover, how is he going to react? Is he going to pout, slam his stick and loaf back into his end, or is he going to slam on the breaks, back check and do whatever it takes to make amends? When the game is at its peak of intensity, and everything is on the line, is the player going to blend into the crowd or is he going to step up his intensity and rise to the challenge? It doesn’t necessarily mean scoring an overtime winner. It could be blocking a shot at a key moment or winning 7 out of 8 faceoffs in the third period after losing 11 out of 12 in the first two periods. It’s the inspiring combination of maximum effort, inner toughness and an unbelievably intense hatred of losing.