Every NHL team has its own group chat, in which players will throw out dinner ideas on the road, check what time the bus leaves the hotel, talk a little smack, share a few memes — the usual stuff. But for a few years, Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome had to create a side chat of their own because nobody else was interested in their hockey-nerd discussions.

The three former Blackhawks frequently would pick a game to watch together from their separate homes and spend the evening texting each other observations, their own running commentary to partner with the broadcast.

Did you see that pass by So-and-So?


Keep an eye on the power play. They moved So-and-So from down low into the bumper spot.

When did So-and-So switch sticks? Wasn’t he with Bauer? That new stick’s way whippier.

“It makes the game more fun,” Strome said. “And you’re always learning something from those two guys.”

Said Kane with a shrug: “We just like watching hockey.”

We can all relate.

Now, that trio is a little rare in hockey circles. Some guys watch the game critically. Most watch it casually. A whole lot hardly watch at all. But when they do watch an NHL game, all of them see it with a deeper understanding of the speed, the skill, the schemes and the nuances than any mere mortal can hope to. Any hockey fan could learn a lot by seeing it through their eyes.

To get that perspective, The Athletic has spent the past few months asking NHLers what they focus on as viewers.

Here’s how the pros watch the game.


The thieves

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then NHL players are relentlessly pumping each other’s tires — by stealing their best moves.

Sidney Crosby, Penguins center: You’re always watching guys and seeing tendencies. Some years have trends and there’s no real explanation for it, but it works out a certain way. You kind of process that sometimes. If you’re watching guys, especially with the creativity that guys have now, the more you can learn, the better.

Robert Thomas, Blues center: You’re always stealing. You can always learn stuff from other guys. I like just looking at little things, whether it’s the way someone shoots the puck, the angle they use, or just plays that they’re looking for on the power play. The league’s always getting more creative, and people are coming up with new ways to score, so you’ve got to stay on top of it. There’s always stuff to learn. That’s why I love watching hockey.