Within just about every hockey topic I address, there always seems to be at least one part that prompts a reader or listener to scratch or shake his or her head. And when it comes to presenting my Building Blocks Approach to Offensive skills, I know exactly where that will be.
No one ever disagrees that “skating is the name of the game”, and that it belongs at the base of my pyramid. And, while some of you will surely disagree with some of my feelings about passing and receiving, I doubt very much you’ll question where I’ve put those skills in reference to the others. Then, I think we’d all agree that goal-scoring is deserving of being placed at the very top, where all the skills tend to come together.
Okay, so I’ve skipped one skill, huh? And quite obviously it’s puckhandling, sitting just above skating in what I believe is its rightly place. Actually, I might even argue that this skill deserves to almost share top billing with skating, since we can’t be successful in our game without owning the puck. (How’s that for creating a little controversy?)
Really, though, my Building Blocks view of skills is intended to be of help in the teaching process. And I’m especially talking about teaching the younger, developmental levels of our game.
Of course, I’ll return to the premise that skating is the name of our game. I’ll even suggest that, although skating is important to moving on the attack, it’s THE major skill when it comes to defending. After all, one can’t cover an opponent if he can’t keep up with him.
Here’s the real gist of my Building Blocks approach, though… You see, each of the higher level skills can only be attained if a player has first mastered the skills beneath it. Said yet another way, solid puckhandling skills are a prerequisite to making and catching passes, and they’re also necessary to putting moves on an enemy goaltender. Soft hands — that come from puckhandling development — help one send nice, spinning passes. And, don’t tell me that a player can avoid checkers, hit a teammate’s stick-blade with a pass, or see the openings around a goaltender unless he can first handle the puck with his eyes up.
This aside… I have no idea where the phrase “Keep your head up” came from. I mean, many good puckhandlers actually tend to move with their heads slightly tilted, this to make it easier to glance upwards and downward — with the eyes. In other words, it isn’t the head that needs to be held any certain way, but instead it’s important to (mostly) have the eyes up to see what’s happening all around.
Then, while I said earlier, that a great passer needs soft hands, as well as the ability to handle the puck with his eyes up, he also needs to be able to send passes from both sides of his stick-blade.
As for pass receiving, I know that I’ve come to realize something… Players who are good with the puck — on their sticks and in their skates — tend to control more passes, be they good ones or not-so-good ones. Once again, soft hands come into play for making firm passes “stick” right on the blade, and guys who are good with their skates are usually able to gather in even more errant passes.
Yet another aside… I’ve noticed a trend in youth hockey whereby parents and some coaches get hung up on passing as a tactical ploy, and they seem to consider less how much skill is required to execute good passes and to catch them. I hear it all the time from the stands, “Pass the puck! Pass the puck!” All the while I’m watching and thinking to myself, “Most of these kids don’t even have the skills to play the passing game.”
As for passing technique, I usually teach very basic passing in a three step way: 1) dribble, 2) look at the target, and 3) slide the pass firmly with a good spin right to that target. And, when it comes to the other end, it’s necessary for a receiver to: 1) give a steady target facing perpendicular to the puck, 2) reach towards the pass slightly, and then 3) give with it in order to make the puck stick. Obviously, these skills must be practiced (and practiced and practiced) on both the forehand and the backhand.
On a roll with asides today… Years ago I did a video study of some older guys in my summer hockey schools, and I discovered that the ones having difficulties in either passing or receiving were also struggling with their balance. Yup, I mean that. Even though they might have been considered fairly advanced players, quite a few of them weren’t comfortable reaching outside their centers of gravity — to complete a long, sweeping motion, or to reach out to cushion a pass. What I saw instead was a chopping kind of motion to send their passes, or a stiff stick held tightly at mid-body in hopes the puck would stick. Of course, there wasn’t a prayer on the latter. In fact, both methods usually caused the puck to flip, bounce and roll. (So, you didn’t believe skating can influence the passing game?)
Then, with the latter in mind, I’ll suggest that the forehand and backhand sweeping motions gained in the right kinds of passing practice will help a young player be a far better shooter.
In closing, the reader might believe I’ve been a little harsh here and there. However, the steps I’ve outlined are absolutely necessary to developing a solid hockey player. And so is the order in which I’m suggesting they be mastered — building from skating to puckhandling to passing and receiving to finishing skills.
Then, lest you think things will all come out in the wash someday, let me tell you that they seldom do. I spend lots of time watching Junior, college and pro games, and I notice far too many players — even at those levels — with flaws in their game. The reason? I know it’s mostly because they were let down years before, by (well meaning?) coaches and parents who believed they would ultimately “get it” on their own.
If you’d like more advice along these lines, check out my latest book on “The Nature of Our Game: Ice Hockey“.