Here are three facts about hockey players: They have no teeth, they are all from Canada or Russia, and they love to play golf. Okay, maybe the first two aren't facts, but it's hard to find a hockey player who doesn't like golf. Golf seems perfectly suited to a hockey player. After 82 games on ice, and traveling from rink to rink, a golf course is a welcome change. The object is still basically the same: swing at something at your feet and get it to go into a goal (in this case, the hole). And even on a bad day, they can still work on their tan. So is it true that hockey players make the best golfers? And are they as competitive with each other on the course as they are on the ice? We tracked down some Tampa Bay Lightning players at the Lightning Foundation Golf Tournament at Saddlebrook on Monday to get some answers.
Why the stereotype?
To an outsider, it's only logical that a hockey player would pick up golf easily. The swings appear to be the same, so the adjustment from hockey stick to golf club is not a big deal.
"There's the same weight transfer,'' Lightning forward Marty St. Louis said. "We've hit so many pucks in our lives, just like pro golfers hit golf balls. It's all about repetition, which we don't get once we get back playing (hockey) again. We work on our game in the summer, and then when it gets good again our season starts.''
Forward Adam Hall agreed with the similar swing theory.
"I think it's basically true,'' Hall said. "I think it's because of similar swings. It's a hand-eye coordination type thing. Also, we have extra time in the summer.''
Lightning television analyst Bobby "The Chief'' Taylor has been around hockey most of his life. He thinks hockey players are made to play golf.
"It's that same inside track swing,'' Taylor said. "They do it over and over again. I think that's why it's an easy transition.''
So consider that hockey players use their sticks like golf clubs and have the summers off, and it's a recipe for success on the course.
"I think it's that we get the summers off,'' goalkeeper Mike Smith said. "You're training, but there's a lot of free time. We don't get much time off during the season, but sometimes there will be a few days between games and we'll go hit some balls. It helps take your mind off hockey.''
Their minds may be off hockey, but competitors are competitors. That switch doesn't shut off on the golf course. The consensus among players is that the best golfers on the team are St. Louis, forward Vinny Lecavalier, forward Steven Stamkos, Smith, forward Ryan Malone and forward Steve Downie. Their handicaps hover between 5 and 10.
And if paired together, they better have some thick skin.
"We get into it pretty good,'' Smith said. "I want Downie. I'd get right in his grill. He's a mental midget out there. I can get right into his head. He tries to give it back, but it doesn't affect me.''
Two of the Lightning's marquee players, Lecavalier and St. Louis, don't let up on each other on the course.
"Me and Vinny always have good matches,'' St. Louis said. "There's a lot of good athletes on this team, but if you can beat Vinny you played well.''
Hall doesn't consider himself one of the top golfers on the team, but he'll be right there with the smack talk.
"There will be some friendly insults,'' he said. "That's how it goes with this group.''
But which player would be most clutch with a 5-footer for birdie on the final hole while teammates try to rattle him?
"Marty (St. Louis) putts with a kid's putter, so I'd want him over it,'' Smith said. "He uses his 4-year-old kid's putter. But he makes everything, so you can't rip him about it.''
"I do use my son's putter, but it's effective,'' St. Louis added.
Which athletes are the best golfers?
Every sport seems to have an elite golfer. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo may be at the head of the pack. Romo made it through regional qualifying for the U.S. Open this summer but failed to get past sectional qualifying.
Former pitcher John Smoltz also tried to qualify this year, but fell short. Still, those guys are scratch golfers and didn't embarrass themselves against players who practice every day.
"You do see a lot of other athletes who are good at golf,'' Hall said. "You know what would be fun? Get the best hockey golfer, the best baseball golfer, the best basketball golfer and have a little tournament.''
Actually, there is something like that.
The Tahoe Celebrity Golf Tournament is played annually during the summer in Lake Tahoe, Nev. It has a field of elite golfers including several current and former athletes. Former quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver won the three-day event with 84 points (one point for par, two for birdie). Right behind him were Smoltz, Romo and former quarterbacks John Elway and Mark Rypien. Former hockey player Jeremy Roenick was seventh, the highest finishing hockey player.
Other hockey players who fared well in the tournament were Grant Fuhr, Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Dan Quinn and Joe Sakic.
So does that settle the argument about which sport has the best golfers?
"Hockey players in general are the most athletic people,'' Smith said, only slightly kidding.
But would Smith trade in a career in the NHL for a career on the PGA Tour?
"I'd rather be in the NHL,'' Smith said. "On the PGA Tour you're standing over a 10-foot putt for a million dollars. That's a lot of pressure. I'd rather be going for the Stanley Cup.''