Clarke was the king of the spinners-and-kickers, a small but tough face-off man who had the speed and reflexes to maneuver quickly. Of course, even with the new configuration, some players still tie up an opponent's stick and win a draw with their feet (Vancouver's Peter Zezel is superb at that), but turning 180 degrees around the dot takes too long now. The new rules have reduced the effectiveness of veteran spinners-and-kickers such as Otto and the Stars' Brian Skrudland. Coupled with the recent crackdown on obstruction—a face-off man can't bowl over an opponent and let his defenseman pick up the loose puck—the face-off loopholes have closed. A center can still steal a draw by anticipating when the linesman will drop the puck, but in a skill predicated on hand-eye coordination and reaction time, that isn't cheating.
One of the few ways a face-off can be unfair is if a linesman drops the puck on the edge of the dot, which is two feet in diameter. Lemaire says he lost a crucial overtime draw to the Buffalo Sabres' Gilbert Perreault in Game 5 of the 1975 semifinals when a linesman dropped the puck practically in Perreault's skates. "I felt like [Canadiens coach] Scotty Bowman lost confidence in me after that," Lemaire says. "He never wanted to use me in those situations afterwards. For years, when there was a defensive-zone face-off, I'd just skate to the bench, pissed off, because I knew he wasn't going to use me. Every time I talk to my centers about face-offs, I flash back to that puck dropping."
On draws nowadays linesmen stand almost straight, with only a slight knee flex, and they grip the puck with their palm facing down before dropping it from just below the waist. In Lemaire's era, linesmen would crouch and hold the puck out at knee level before releasing it. Today the disk falls from a height of almost three feet, higher when 6'9" linesman Mike Cvik handles the draw. Clarke says dropping the puck from waist level causes it to bounce too high once it hits the ice, introducing an element of luck, but grumbling about face-offs was his specialty. "Nobody is paying 30 bucks to watch you drop a puck," Clarke used to growl at an official who he thought didn't drop it fast enough.
THE RULE of thumb is, 90% of the face-off men will draw to their backhand 90% of the time. "Everybody's better on their backhand because they're [raking] their entire blade over the entire dot," says Philadelphia's Eric Lindros, the NHL's top face-off man this season (chart, page 62). "You don't have as much strength on your forehand as you do on your backhand." There is a biomechanical explanation that involves the oblique muscles—from the face-off stance, the muscles that control trunk rotation have more range of motion and generate greater speed turning to the backhand side—but that's oblique to most players. All they know is, in critical situations they stick with their best move.
The beauty of the face-off is not the similarity of styles among centers, but their diversity. Take Stastny, who liked drawing to his forehand. Or Francis, who wins as many of his face-offs with his feet as he does with his stick. Or the black art of Vancouver's Mark Messier, who, if he is losing consistently to a centerman, might slash him as the puck is dropped to give his opponent something to think about on subsequent draws. Or Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt, a lefthanded shot who would wink at his goalie as a signal that he was going to pull the puck back to him on a face-off in the right circle. Or Carbonneau, a resolute backhand artist who can win a face-off on the forehand or by tying up his opponent's stick and kicking the puck to a teammate.
"There are some guys who are better on the left side, some on the right," Hitchcock says. "What makes Carbo so good is he can win anywhere on the ice."
Earlier this season, after a night of face-off futility against Messier, Carbonneau faked going backhand and won a draw on his forehand in the last minute to help preserve a win. If nothing seems to be working, Carbonneau will have the team's video coordinator splice together a tape of that night's face-offs so he can have a quick tutorial between periods. "Some nights my reflexes aren't there," Carbonneau says, "but if it's mechanical, I'll try to find the flaw. On the nights when nothing's working, I don't worry as much about winning [a draw] as making sure the other guy doesn't get it clean."
Craig MacTavish took the most celebrated face-off in New York Rangers history. The Rangers were protecting a 3-2 lead with 1.6 seconds left in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals when MacTavish squared off against Vancouver's Pavel Bure to the right of New York goalie Mike Richter. "All the Canucks could do was try a desperation shot off the draw," says MacTavish, now a Rangers assistant coach. "I just wanted to tie up Bure's stick and stop him from getting a clean shot-block his stick instead of the puck." MacTavish did that, the puck trickled behind him and the Rangers won their first Cup in 54 years.