A Fine Line

Finding The Right Chemistry Is The Key To Creating A Great Line
Bob Schaller

Though it may not be rocket science, there is a certain science to making a great line: Chemistry.

The great lines of hockey history, some with catchy nicknames like the GAG (Goal A Game) Line in New York (Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield and Rod Gilbert), the Production Line in Detroit (Sid Abel, Ted Lindsey and Gordie Howe) or Buffalo's French Connection (Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Rick Martin), all featured great players who, when teamed up with the right partners, were downright explosive.

"You can be successful in your own right, and remember that success has a different connotation for every player based on their skills," said former New York Islanders great Bryan Trottier.

"So Rick Martin gets 30 goals and 40 assists, Robert has 25 goals and 60 assists, and Perreault had 100 points. Who was more successful? They all were. The key to that, and other great lines, is that one person's skills complement the other's, or make up for a certain skill another linemate doesn't have as much of. That's the big thing, getting all of the skills together on the line working together well.''

The Punch Line in Montreal consisted of Toe Blake, Punch Imlach (who later coached the French Connection in Buffalo) and Maurice "Rocket" Richard.

"The intangible key factor is chemistry," said the late Ralph Backstrom, who was part of a number of great Montreal teams during his playing career.

"That's what happens when three maybe average guys are put together and play so well as a unit."
Though Jean Beliveau was far from average, he did team with Bert Olmstead and Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion to form an incredibly solid line that Backstrom remembers watching as a kid at the Forum in Montreal.

"That was a tremendous line," Backstrom recalled. "Olmstead was the digger, Beliveau the playmaker and on the right side was Geoffrion, who was a tremendous shooter.

"Again, though, I think chemistry was the key, because it seemed like those guys had eyes in the back of their heads. What they did was so spectacular that you wondered how they did it."

The shift to defensive-minded hockey in the era of the neutral zone trap took some of the focus away from getting offensive firepower assimilated on the same line.

Things were different in Detroit, where the Russian Five brought their own style to the NHL after dominating on the international stage for so many years.

"We played a different type of hockey [in Detroit]," said former Red Wings assistant coach Barry Smith, who worked with the legendary Scotty Bowman in Motown. "We were more of a puck-possession team, so we weren't big on dump-and-chase and forechecking as much as other teams.''

"We weren't afraid to hold onto the puck. And players respond to that; most good hockey players want to have the puck, and not chase it for 60 minutes."

In the modern era, a number of factors-free agency, media attention, the urgency coaches feel to win-has limited the proliferation of lines that take on such personalities or monikers, though the Perfection Line-Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak-has enjoyed a long run of success in Boston.   

It's been far more common to have two great players team up with another journeyman or borderline standout join them on the wing, such as during Wayne Gretzky's run with Jari Kurri in Edmonton.

According to Smith, the two-stars plus one lesser-known wing is the wave of the present, and probably the future.

"Why change one winger? Because the responsibilities of the line change a little-maybe you're playing against a team with better defense, or you need someone more physical," Smith said. "You won't have these GAG Lines because players are rotated in and out, off and on. The 'third winger' is rotated based on game situations."

Former NHLer Tony Granato agreed, saying the special "tandems" are much more the norm than the three-player lines in terms of getting attention.

"You get guys like Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic on the ice at the same time-guys who won't play together regularly because they both play the same position-at a critical point in the game, and that's something special," said Granato, who has coached at the NHL and Olympic levels before returning to his alma mater at the University of Wisconsin.

The "other winger" on the Gretzky-Kurri line was usually a lesser known, lesser talented player that was deemed to be a mucker, a young up-and-comer and even the occasional enforcer. Ditto for center Stan Mikita and sharpshooter Bobby Hull.

And Mike Bossy and Trottier went through a number of wingers in New York with the Islanders.

"But, those two guys though, were better than just about any three guys in the league at that time," pointed out former NHLer and U.S. Olympian Ed Olczyk.

Though the greatest player Gretzky ever played with was Mark Messier, the two were both natural centers, and never clicked as linemates.

In fact, Gretzky's greatest pure line may have come later in his career, when he with the Los Angeles Kings and had Granato, a good shooter and finisher on right wing, and talented irritant Tomas Sandstrom on left wing, who could muck and dig and finish.

"Anybody in the world could play with Gretzky and he'd make them better,'' said Granato, who did just that for five years. "He was such a scorer and playmaker, so well rounded, that he was a complementary player to anyone, and he made everyone around him better."

Having such diversely talented players-with different skills-can lend itself to a special line.

"I think ideally what brings a line together is the guy in the middle who really is so adept to be able to be the setup guy and the finisher, who can work both ends of the rink extremely well, and distribute the puck," said Olczyk, who teamed with David A. Jensen and Pat Lafontaine to form the "Diaper Line" on the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team, and understands more than anyone how important great lines can be.

"But you have to have a guy or two who would rather give than receive-guys who don't worry about who is scoring most of the goals."

The era of the great line, Backstrom said, has been replaced by the great player. And even role players on good lines with better players see their own stock rise as they put up bigger numbers. That leads to bigger paydays-but usually not better numbers-in another city.

"Keep in mind the tremendous turnover in hockey nowadays with free agency, and everything else," he said. "You can't keep these great lines together, because one or two of the players are constantly moving onto greener pastures-and when I say greener, I mean money."

 Bob Schaller is a long-time freelance writer and published author in Colorado Springs, Colo. The article has been edited and updated from the original story that appeared in the January 2005 issue of American Hockey Magazine.




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