He is Kevin Hatcher, arguably the most unfairly criticized defenseman this side of Hall-of-Famer Harry Howell. But he also happens to be an All-Star invitee, the balance wheel of the Pittsburgh Penguins defense and a very good reason why the Pens are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders once more.
ďKevin is a terrific guy to have as a partner,Ē says his Pittsburgh buddy Darius Kasparaitis. ďThe first night I worked with him I had the feeling we had played together for years.Ē
The reason for the unfair buildup to a letdown in Hatcherís case is rooted in his background. A native of Detroit, the 6í4Ē, 225 lb. backliner was Washingtonís No. 1 pick in the 1984 Entry Draft.
He matured on a Capitalsí defense that featured the redoubtable Rod Langway and Scott Stevens. Once they departed the nationís capital, Kevin was asked to shoulder the defensive burden. He played well both offensively and defensively, totaling 79 points in his best arithmetic year with 35 goals and 45 assists in 1992-93.
It marked the eighth highest season total for a defenseman in NHL history. Only Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey and Doug Wilson had ever scored more in a season. But when youíre Kevin Hatcher and own behemoth proportions, you are expected to play like a monster.
That never was Kevinís style. Like Coloradoís Uwe Krupp, Hatcher played as much a stylish as a socko game and that displeased a segment of the Washington fans. Caps GM David Poile eventually dealt Hatcher to Dallas where he teamed with kid brother, Derian. The pair actually reached a brotherly peak of performance during Uncle Samís World Cup triumph.
Nevertheless, Dallas decided it wanted Sergei Zubov and moved Kevin to Pittsburgh where he has melded magnificently with Mario Lemieux. In interviews with Stan Fischler and Jon Friedman at Nassau Coliseum, Hatcher examined the finer points of his game, its preparation and his equipment.
Your teamed suddenly turned it around after a dismal start of the season. How come?
Our general manager, Craig Patrick, made a number of acquisitions and it took a bit of time for us to get adjusted. Once we got the new players, we began to take off and moved over .500 where we belong.
Yet you seemed to jell immediately with Kasparaitis.
It was amazing. From the moment Darius and I teamed up together, we clicked. There was a chemistry there that enabled us to work as a nice defensive team and it has been that way since his first day as a Penguin.
What has Kasparaitis done for your game?
Everyone in the league knows his style; heís a terrific bodychecker and he forces the opposition to keep its eyes open. As a result, he creates a lot of room not only for myself but for others who are on the ice. That makes playing the game somewhat easier.
What about playing with
In the Islanders game that you saw, he demonstrated how he could turn a game around. We were down 2-0 in the second period when Mario swung into action. On the go-ahead goal, we had a power play because his stickhandling forced a penalty. On the power play he threaded a pass right through the Islanders defense on my stick and I put it in. The man is amazing.
What about Jaromir Jagr?
His skating and strength are really something. He was the one who put us back in that game when we were down by two. Jags stickhandled through the defense and worked himself free for a backhand and then fired it past Tommy Salo. That got us on the score sheet and started the comeback. He does things like that all the time.
Letís talk gear. What kind of stick do you prefer, considering your shot and your defensive needs?
I use a fairly whippy stick. I donít like a stiff one. Itís one playerís preference; having a weapon that he feels comfortable with when heís in action. My lie is about a six. I try to have the curve on the blade as close as I can to being the same for every game but in some situations it doesnít work out that way.
What about when you heat the blade?
If I heat the stick with the torch and try to curve the blade myself it takes some of the stiffness out of the blade. Thatís not necessarily good in my estimation so I go with whatever I have.
There are heavy, medium and lightweight sticks. Which is your preference?
I like a light stick. To me, thatís the most important criteria in selecting one. Thatís what makes it whippy which is important to me because it helps the wrist shot a little as far as getting a snap to it.
Whatís wrong with a stiffer stick?
Itís a matter of a playerís preference. With a stiffer stick, your slapshot is probably a bit harder than it would be with a whippy one. But the way we play the game there isnít enough time to shoot slap shots that much.
Youíre a big fellow. Does that mean you automatically use a longer stick?
Actually, I use a normal stick and not a really long one. Mine is average size for my height and weight.
So many players use differing techniques for taping their sticks. What about you?
I use black tape on the base of the stick because the blackness supposedly meshes with the blackness of the puck. The thinking is that the puck becomes camouflaged on the stick blade or hides the rubber from the goalieís eyes. I put a little tape on the shaft of the stick to make it sticky and easier to grip. At the top, I put a little knob for friction.
What kind of attention do you give your skates in terms of sharpening them? This should be a concern considering that there have been more complaints about ice conditions than ever before in the NHL.
When Iím in any particular arena I try to remember what the ice is like; that is whether itís soft or hard on my skates. I have a tendency to cut right through it if itís soft so I try not to have the blades too sharp. If I know the ice is real hard and fast, I tend to have the skates sharpened more. Just about everything depends on the ice conditions in the particular arena in question. If I donít lose an edge, I donít sharpen them much but if I get a brand new pair, I sharpen the skates a lot.
Which arenas have soft ice?
Rinks such as Madison Square Garden and US Air Arena in Landover have soft surfaces. Places like The Saddledome in Calgary and Edmontonís Northlands Coliseum have good, fast ice.
How do you get in condition on the day of a game?
We have a set routine. At home we have a half-hour skate at 10:30 on the morning of a game. On the road the skate takes place after the home team leaves the iceóat 11:30. We have our meal at 12:30. Some guys like to take a nap after that and others donít. I sleep for an hour and a half in the afternoon, get up, have a little snack and go to the game.
What about on non-game days?
On days we donít play we skate for about 45 minutes or some guys will just ride the bike. Itís up to the individual player to see how much extra time he needs. If youíre playing up to 25 minutes a game, you might not need to ride the bike a whole lot. If you play only 10 minutes then you might need the bike.
Some playersóChris Chelios and Ray Bourque come to mindólike to ride the bike after the game. Do you ever do that?
No, but I know why they do it. It gets the lactic acid out of your legs. They donít ride the bike hard and itís not necessarily for conditioning purposes that they get on the cycle. It takes about 10 minutes and they do it at a very low RPM.
What about a playerís off-season regimen?
It all depends on what stage a player is in his career. Itís important to get strength in the off-season. Basically, I ride the bike and walk a Stair-master. When I was younger, I would do quite a bit of running but I donít do much of that any more.
At this point in my career that would result in too much wear and tear on my knees. I like to run between three and six miles when I do run. These days mostly everything I do is on the stationary bike or the Stair-master.
What drills do you recommend for your defensemen when it comes to your feet and hand-eye coordination and other techniques?
Iíve always said that the very best thing is to just get on the ice as much as possible and practice.
Is that what you did as a youngster learning the game?
First I worked out on a frozen pond. Thatís where I startedóin the outdoors after the weather had gotten cold enough to let us have ice. Once I got a little older, I began playing indoors.
What about coaching?
A young player should try to find a good coach and concentrate. Itís important to focus and not simply go out on the ice and horse around. A youngster must try to get something out of it especially since heís not on the ice every day.
So what is the key?
Most of all just enjoy hockey. Kids should not have a lot of pressure on them to play when theyíre in their early teens. They should have fun.
This first appeared in the 04/1997 issue of Hockey