They flood onto the ice through a rinkside door, flowing seamlessly into lines that weave their way around the ice. As if attached by a string from one skater to the next, they move with ease into circular patterns. Starting goalie first, followed by a veteran ready to knock down the neatly stacked pile of pucks onto the ice, into the remaining parade of uniformed men on skates.
From above, to the untrained eye, it appears to be something akin to a figure skating routine. Only this is the NHL, and these are professional hockey players. Choreography is not in their playbook, but routine absolutely is. And as routines go, nothing is more predictable than the nightly pregame warmup, a symphony of movement filled with both purpose and poetry.
“Once the whistle blows, we’re like robots with what we’re doing,” Chris Wagner said.
Though driven more by practicality than artistry, the movements paint a beautiful picture. Each player is motivated to complete his own agenda, from broad goals such as stretching out the legs, checking on equipment, or working up a sweat, to very specific superstitions such as shooting the same number of pucks into the same spot on goal.
But they must be accomplished as part of a larger whole. The same drills every game, including line rushes, half-moon shooting (players gather near the blue line in a semicircle and deliver one-timers), three-on-twos and two-on-ones, power plays or passing, ones that may vary slightly from team to team but generally include the same core objectives of feeling the puck, letting the goaltender see the puck, and getting the blood flowing.
A common drill includes all five players of one unit and begins with a puck dumped in from the neutral zone. The two defensemen go back, make one pass between them, then pass it up to a forward, who initiates a passing sequence in which each player touches the puck, after which they all go toward the goal and someone shoots. Among the rules here: No high shots, no fancy dekes or penalty-shot moves; the emphasis is on feeling the puck and letting the goalie get his pads on it.
“The synchronicity of it,” David Backes said. “You could probably set your clocks by some of the things guys are doing, the same routine every time.”
‘Nothing is by chance’
There are rules about when and how the warmup works, as detailed in the NHL’s Broadcasting Factbook. For a 7 p.m. game — the most common start time, which actually features a 7:08 puck drop — warmups are held from 6:29-6:45. They must happen simultaneously for the home and visiting teams, who split the ice straight down the middle.
Among the unwritten rules is not allowing a puck to invade the other team’s side.
“You don’t cross center ice,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “That’s an absolute.”
Each team’s prescribed routine goes for about 12 minutes, allowing the last few to be used for whatever players like (that’s when David Pastrnak flips pucks over the glass to gleeful kids in the stands).
“Nothing is by chance,” defenseman John Moore said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces. When you think about it, it’s 23 grown men in a very tight area all adhering to their own script, and somehow it works.”
The schedule allows for Zamboni cleanup as well as the national anthem, and can differ slightly based on game-night circumstances (the need for two anthems, perhaps a ceremony for a jersey retirement, and of course, special events such as the Stanley Cup). Logistics have changed little over the years, but old-timers will tell you the tenor of the warmup most certainly is different.
“There’s a lot of chitchat now,” Cassidy said. “There never was before. They were the enemy. Now these guys all know each other very well and it’s, ‘Hey, how you doing, how’s the missus, you going fishing?’ Whereas before it was, ‘I’m going to break your [expletive].’ It’s a lot different than maybe it used to be.”
For all the inside action going on, it’s the overall picture that is most impressive to that untrained eye — the lack of collisions, crossovers, or crashes, attributable to the fact that, in the words of defenseman Connor Clifton, you “got your head up all the time.”
Paying attention starts before you take the ice, which for the Bruins means you have to be ready for Jake DeBrusk, who makes his way down the line with a special handshake for each teammate.
“I think that’s the funniest thing,” said Wagner, the offseason acquisition who grew up watching the Bruins in nearby Walpole. “The JD-[Charlie] McAvoy one is pretty good; they have a whole basketball thing. Me and Sean [Kuraly] have the same agent, so we incorporate something with that. Heino [Danton Heinen] shakes my hand and says ‘Mayor,’ and always says, ‘Pleasure to be here.’ ”
Once on the ice, the heads-up attention continues, even as muscle memory takes over. There’s captain Zdeno Chara, taking the same three slapshots from the middle of the ice. Here’s Brad Marchand, deciding whom to feed as he dumps passes in for shots. There’s Patrice Bergeron, softly stopping pucks so they don’t cross center ice, on the receiving end of the work Marchand does gathering pucks from the net and clearing them out.
Here’s Marchand and Torey Krug doing their nightly handshake and spin move. There’s Steven Kampfer shooting from the same point on the short side until he scores into the top right corner. Here’s Pastrnak flipping pucks to the kids, the byproduct of a young fan who once asked him if he noticed signs during warmups, and when Pasta said yes, he wondered why the player ignored them.
“Since then, I just try to see them and make people happy,” Pastrnak said.
There are other under-the-surface currents.
“There could be gamesmanship, too,” Cassidy said. “One day if you’re mad at the other coach, you could say, ‘Bergy, go out there with Kuraly and [Noel] Acciari,’ and they start panicking, thinking, ‘Holy crap, Bergy is playing with the fourth line.’ ”
Legendary NHLer Jaromir Jagr was famous for skipping warmups altogether, lest he show anything to an opponent.
Unique to hockey
There also are important insights to be gleaned from the warmup, from the line leader telling you who will be starting in goal to the ensuing on-ice groupings informing you which players will play on which lines together.
“As broadcasters, the hockey pregame warmup is pretty valuable,” said broadcaster Kenny Albert, the only current play-by-play person working across all four major professional sports. “A. if you haven’t seen a team in a while, even though we see them on TV and study the rosters, actually seeing them on the ice, names, numbers, helmets, what they look like, body size is great, but B. the lines especially.
“I would say, as a broadcaster, hockey is the one you look at the closest.”
And when you look, what you see is unique among all sports.
“It looks like it’s so choreographed, like synchronized swimming almost, where these guys, for them, they’ve been doing it for their whole life, but it just looks like everything comes together,” Albert said.
“Whether it’s the line rushes, the drills, it’s something that as a hockey player it’s ingrained in them. They just know what to do.
“Like, how do they know which player goes to retrieve the pucks, to shoot the pucks out from the net toward center ice? There’s a routine to it they know; they’ve done it forever. It’s like poetry in motion.”