Why not practice skills as they do in other leagues?
Posted by Dean Holden at April 26th, 2013
by Jack Blatherwick, 27 May 2012
There’s an old tradition in hockey — left over from the days when we needed a deep winter frost in order to skate. There were no refrigeration plants — no Zamboni’s — and no summer ice. So hockey players threw their skates in the closet in March and dusted them off in late November.
Unfortunately, part of that tradition continued into the 21st century: hockey players — after their 10th birthday — don’t’ practice skills the way athletes do in other sports.
Imagine for a few seconds, that you’re a young professional golfer trying to make it on the tour, but you just don’t have the game. You’re pretty darn good — the best from your state, in fact — but not good enough to make money.
You’d spend hours on the putting green, hit balls on the range till your hands bled, practice sand shots and chips around the green well after the sun went down. And you’d do this 12 months of the year — or you would never make it to the PGA tour.
If you wanted to play tennis for a living, and your serve was not good enough — if you played basketball, but weren’t scoring — if you were a baseball player and wanted to move up the ladder — you’d practice skills by the hour.
But a young professional hockey player who isn’t scoring enough goals to crack the lineup of his NHL team is not likely to rent ice and work on shooting — not seven days a week like a golfer — not three days a week all summer — not even one day a week.
If you don’t skate well enough, do you rent ice and skate by the hour like a figure skater?
Many hockey players take lessons from a power skating instructor, and this is a great idea — just like a golfer takes lessons from a pro. But the golfer follows up with 20 hours of practice for every lesson — repeating over and over what was learned in the lesson.
How many hockey players rent ice for 20 hours in the summer, and do nothing but practice hockey skills — stickhandling, shooting, skating? No coach — no one to organize — just a bunch of friends who want to improve skills.
Scott Bjugstad — who scored a ton of goals in college and the NHL — teaches youngsters to shoot pucks in game-like situations — not comfortable shots, but one-timers when the puck isn’t passed in the perfect spot between the feet — or shooting immediately after cutting sharply to the inside, like Alexander Ovechkin — shooting while moving the feet — shooting from the slot when you’ve just gotten up after a check, and you’re not ready — shooting quickly off a bad pass.
Do we really think that athletes in other sports can improve from practice — and, somehow this doesn’t work in hockey?
How about a team basketball practice where they stop the team drills periodically, and go off to the six baskets in the gym and work on free throws or jump shots for 10 minutes? Then, they come together again and resume team practice.
Can’t we do that in hockey? If we had stations — four extra portable nets or targets, each one designated in advance for a particular kind of shooting practice — would players not improve from 100 extra reps per practice?
If we broke up for five minutes and worked on various stickhandling drills while moving the feet, would this not make us better stickhandlers?
I’ve asked these questions around the country, and the first response is that hockey players would just go off to their stations and screw around. So — basketball players are more disciplined? Basketball coaches more organized?
Could a tennis coach send players off to work on serves in various corners of the courts — or would they just screw around? Can a golf team split up and practice wedge shots on their own?
What is it about hockey in our country, that we can’t work on individual skills? They do it in Europe and Russia.
Do we think Ovechkin was born with a great shot — that he inherited his uncanny ability to stickhandle in traffic while his feet are moving at top speed — and, without coasting, he rifles a quick shot on goal? Is this not developed in practice?
Dean Talafous, who promotes the concept of skill practice off-ice at his Total Hockey facilities, makes a good point. “Would a young piano player improve without practice? We can’t just play hockey games, and think our skills will improve — especially when we touch the puck for such a short time in a game. We must practice hockey skills as they would in any other sport.”
We can do better. It is possible to get a group of friends together — rent ice without a power skating instructor, without a shooting coach, or a stickhandling guru — and just repeat, repeat, and repeat.
And — you will get better — whether you’re a peewee or an NHLer. Repetitions work in hockey, just the way they do in every sport. We just have to change our tradition.