Don’t Skate To Where The Puck Is Going

Even though I’m in the sports & entertainment industry, I worry that using sports jargon in business can get in the way of clear communication. As I’ve written about before, not everyone has a sports background and some of the phrases can be confusing.

One of the most overused corporate clichés comes from hockey: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” Countless business people, including Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett, have cited the phrase to encourage people to concentrate on future market opportunities, instead of current ones. This is the heart of a blue ocean strategy.

While the quote might provide some inspiration in business, it doesn’t really make that much sense in hockey. The problems are multiple:

  • No one skates to where the puck has been but you frequently skate to where the puck is now.
  • If you’re playing defense, you often want to pressure the puck carrier. To do so, you’ll need to skate to where the puck is.
  • If you’re playing offense, there are times you want to chase after a puck which has been dumped into the offensive zone. You’ll skate to where the puck is.
  • If every player anticipated the puck was going to the same place and all skated there, it would be a pileup of players.
  • And sometimes you just want to plant yourself in front of the goaltender and hope the puck comes to you.

To give the quote the benefit of the doubt, it could mean to skate to open space so as to make it easier for a teammate to pass it you. In that case, it would be better phrased “Skate to where the puck could go, rather than where it can’t go.”

Many of you might be wondering how I could doubt hockey wisdom from Wayne Gretzky, the man who many believe is the greatest to ever play the game. I’m not doubting him – the Great one didn’t even coin the phrase. In fact, the only time I’m aware he used it was during the 2014 launch of the Blackberry Passport. Amusingly, Gretzky initially bungled the phrase, saying ‘Go to where the puck is’ before correcting himself.

So, if Gretzky didn’t coin the phrase, who did? Gretzky. That is, Wayne’s Dad: Walter Gretzky. And the advice wasn’t intended for professional hockey players or business people. According to Walter,

That advice is strictly for little kids. It’s just simple basics, like the ABCs […] Besides, I’d never give advice to a pro. I’ve never played professionally in my life.

In short, you shouldn’t always skate to where the puck is going. It’s a good reminder not to take sports or business clichés too seriously.

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