Developing Hockey Sense
Posted by Dean Holden at April 28th, 2012
By Dean Holden
One of the most coveted traits for hockey players is hockey sense. When combined with hockey’s fundamental skill set (skating, puck control, passing and receiving, shooting and checking), hockey sense is what separates the very best from the rest. Its essence lies in one’s ability to anticipate offensive and defensive transitions while under game conditions (pace/pressure/support/competition/fitness/accountability/consequences) and make the best decisions available. An elite athlete, then, is one who can properly execute technical skills and demonstrate tactical thinking (hockey sense) with the head up, at speed, under pressure, even while fatigued, and ultimately perform in a consistent manner.
Athletes are not born with hockey sense; it is a learned skill – and fortunately everyone has the capacity to learn! Is hockey sense teachable? Yes! So how does one teach it? Read on…
In the late 1980’s in Calgary, John McNeil coached a Midget AA team that had a stellar year. Halfway through the year, I watched three of his practices to see what wisdom I could glean. I was expecting to find `the ultimate drill’ but to my amazement, each shared the same routine: he did a 10-minute passing and shooting warm up, then he created two teams and played shinny for almost an hour! He operated the time clock (keeping score) and only provided feedback at the end of practice. The kids changed when tired and ‘policed’ the normal rules of the game themselves. For consequences, the losing team skated with pucks while the winners cheered them on.
To an outside observer, it looked like they were ‘merely’ playing shinny with little outside (adult) interference or teaching. I was disappointed because I expected the ‘secret’ to take the form of drills. “Weren’t traditional start-and-stop or flow ‘drills’ the ultimate truth? Was he crazy?” I wondered if he ever really ‘practiced’ in the traditional sense.
Years later, I came to recognize he was far ahead of the accepted coaching culture. I was too naïve to think there were ‘better’ ways to coach outside what I had experienced as a junior/university player and young coach moving through the ranks of the N.C.C.P. and Hockey Canada certification. McNeil had indeed found ‘The Grail’: ‘The Game was teaching The Game’ and his kids sure had fun honing their skills and hockey sense while practicing; reaping the benefits of improved performance… and winning!
In 1992, Colin Patterson (Gordon Jukes winner) taught me an activity with our Junior A team using a game-like sequence involving a series of line rushes (breakouts, attacks and regroups: 3 vs. 0, 3 vs. 1, 3 vs. 2). Twenty to thirty minutes each practice, Colin had two teams take turns competing against each other and kept score; holding the losing team accountable. An additional benefit to these decision training repetitions was the built-in (disguised) conditioning!
During my time with Team Canada’s men’s team in the mid-to-late 1990’s, we had long stretches of practice without any games (four to six weeks), so we had to create game-like activities to keep our competitive edge. Tom Renney and Mike Johnston were masters at designing games that included measurable competition and consequences. In addition to competitive 1 vs. 1 and 2 vs. 2 situations in small space, we played a lot of tournament-style games cross-ice (3 vs. 3) and modified full-ice games (4 vs. 4 and 5 vs. 5).
Around the same time, Erkka Westerlund (Finland) and Slava Lenar (Czech Republic) each did a one-year coaching exchange at Hockey Canada; resulting in two excellent applied coaching manuals emphasizing the principle of transition (“Transition: From Game to Practice” and “Transition: Defense to Offense”). See Hockey Canada’s “Breakaway Store” website: http://www2.hockeycanada.ca/breakaway/cbreakaway-p1.html
During the late 1990’s at U of C, Tim Bothwell designated the first practice of each week a ‘Red vs. White’ day; we kept score and the losing team bought the winners a Gatorade, or another fun outcome. The kids loved Mondays! During the Christmas break, Tim invited SAIT to come ‘play’ during our practice time. Each school took turns on the PP/PK (using the time clock and scoreboard). The coaches officiated and those days were hotly contested. It was a great way to elevate intensity/simulate game conditions (make decisions under pressure).
In 2007, Tom Molloy provided me with his coaching book, “Hockey Coaching ABC’s”, detailing a wealth of game-like situations incorporating anticipation/transition games. In my opinion, it is the current ‘Gold Standard’ of applied coaching manuals; specifically to replicate game-like transition situations. (www.hockeycoachingabcs.com). Tom’s website also provides a free forum to ask questions and share ideas.
Experience has made me a firm believer in the value of ‘playing the game’ as the number one teaching tool to train hockey sense. The more one can play under game-like conditions, making decisions under pressure, the better prepared they will be to cope with the stresses of real competition.
Moving forward, I challenge all coaches to provide at least one competitive game/situation per practice; lasting at least 1/3 of your total ice time… or better yet – even more!