Puck protection: The most underrated skill in hockey
Posted by Dean Holden at December 12th, 2013
by Jack Blatherwick, 7 November 2013
Puck protection is the simplest skill to learn, and one of the most important in hockey. But as I watch all levels of play these days, puck protection is apparently the most underrated skill, because it seems no one is teaching it.
One of the biggest differences between the NHL and every level below, is the use of the body to gain possession of the puck and then protect it. The top three lines of NHL players skate hard to body position when the puck is along the boards, while the fourth-liners skate in and hit. Top players rarely hit. Oh … maybe once in a playoff game, because of peer pressure when everyone says, “Take the body.”
The smart players skate hard into the hands of the opponent, cutting him off from the puck. The fourth-liners think their job is to hit, so they waste effort bouncing off the opponent and ending up without the puck. The TV analysts, of course, were not Wayne Gretzky or Pavel Datsyuk, so their expert opinion is that the losing team after the first or second period is not physical enough. What would Gretzky say about the team that has fewer goals?
Off-ice warm-ups should all be replaced with drills for ball-protection and stick skills, because ice time is not necessary for learning puck protection. Add in a couple squats and finally some lunges, and the warm-up has players ready to go – for a hockey game that is, not a track meet. Basketball coaches get it. Their warm-ups look and feel like basketball.
Consider how many years it would take to help the least-confident, least-skillful PeeWee player do something consistently in games that would help him play with more poise. But by teaching him to protect the puck until he sees a play, you have helped him practice something he is capable of doing well in a couple weeks. At present he is probably patted on the back for hustling north, hustling south and hustling off the ice to let the good guys on.
<I have been watching U19 ringette players the past few weeks. They are amazing at protecting the ring; deceptively turning and twisting and accelerating out of small areas far better than most male players their age (and older pros too!) Maybe it is a combination of the shorter stick to force a better hockey stance and the rules, but these gals can turn on a dime and explode! I spoke with a former Canadian Women’s National Team coach. He said those girls are better skaters on the whole than the current Women’s National Team that is centralized here in Calgary. Hockey coaches, are you policing the height, flex, lie and curve of your players sticks? Are you teaching proper skating mechanics, individual tactics? Are your players preparing off the ice properly to help enhance their first few strides? – DH>