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When the stick is a magic wand

March 3, 2011 Hockey Tips No Comments

By Bob Cunningham

Rick Kehoe. ©BBS

Some players, like Brett Hull and Al McInnis, are known for their blistering shots. Others, like Scott Stevens and Marty McSorley, are known for their punishing physical play. Still others, like Mike Gartner and Alex Mogilny, can skate like the wind. But the players who go end-to-end, and make the big play around the net, are most often those who can stick-handle like magicians.

Mario. Pavel. Federov. Jagr. Oates. And, of course, The Great One.

These guys weave through traffic, pushing and pulling the puck, offering up fakes that leave jocks and disoriented players in their wake, all the while maintaining control of the puck and heading for the net. Whether they finish the play themselves, or dish the biscuit to a Hull, a Gartner or a Neely, their magic wands are what makes the play.

Wayne Gretzky is who he is because of, more than any other single factor, his talent with a hockey stick. Is he the biggest and strongest to ever play the game? No. Is he the fastest or the quickest? Nah, he’s a little faster than the average NHL forward, especially at this stage of his career.

But he is, without question, the best at manipulating his stick and the puck at the end of it.

“It’s all about quick feet and keeping control,” says Rick Bowness, the head coach of the Ottawa Senators. “Being able to go any direction at any time with the puck without having to stare at it. Look at Gretzky. He does it by feel. That’s why he never gets hit, because he can avert anything he needs to while keeping control.”

Bowness also singled out Vancouver’s star forward Pavel Bure as someone who can “move sideways as quick and easily as he can move straight ahead. And he never leaves the puck behind.”

For younger hockey players just beginning to get comfortable handling the puck, there’s no sense in dreaming of being a Gretzky or a Bure. Unless, that is, you’re willing to put in the time and effort, in the form of practice, that it takes to become “automatic” with the puck.

Heads up

The most common but critical fundamental lacking among younger players is the ability to skate and carry the puck without looking at it. Keeping the head up and facing straight ahead is crucial. Plays simply cannot be executed if the puck-handler can’t see what’s developing around him.

“A lot of kids who are really pretty good young players still skate with their heads down,” says Bowness. “If they don’t get to the point where they can feel the puck on the end of their stick, and be able to move the puck to different planes on the blade, they won’t have real offensive potential.”

Plus, with his head down, a player is more likely than not to take a big hit.

“The most basic drill for practicing control,” points out Rob Laird, the head coach of the International Hockey League’s Phoenix Roadrunners, “is to set up an obstacle course, and vary the pylons or whatever you use. You don’t even have to have ice to practice this. A stick and a ball in the backyard works. We did it in a back alley near my home when I was growing up.”

Rick Kehoe, an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has a variation of that practice drill, with one added element.

“I like to have chairs set up, and have players attempt to move the puck through the legs of the chairs,” he says.

My, what soft hands!

Walt Kyle, coach of the IHL’s San Diego Gulls, emphasizes “soft hands.” In a game as physically demanding as hockey, finesse still comes first.

“The biggest thing is to have the ability to handle the puck with soft hands, yet maintain strength on your stick,” Kyle says.

While recognizing that soft hands are often a natural gift, Kyle nonetheless has a favorite activity for developing that feathery feel—and for keeping the head up. And it doesn’t even involve a rink.

“Let them play street hockey with tennis balls,” suggests Kyle. “It’s the best thing for developing so many of the stick-handling skills. It’s actually harder than handling a puck because the balls bounce. That requires you to have a good touch.”

Most coaches agree that a deft touch is developed only through loads of practice. But a player needs to have strength in his hands and wrists in order to maintain fluidity. And for that, Kehoe suggests wrist curls.

“They make you stronger, and that helps improve your ability to gain that feel,” Kehoe notes. “And that can be the difference. Some players can make plays, and some can’t.”

Laird agrees that stick-handling can often make up for other deficiencies. “Those who can stick-handle can survive in this game,” he says, “even if they are lacking in other skills or physical gifts.”

Of course, before a player can expect to properly harness a slippery puck with only a slightly curved stick, he must know how to hold the stick, as well as when and how to manipulate it for different purposes.

“I would say that a good rule of thumb is to have your hands about 8-to-12 inches apart,” says Laird. “Of course, they’re going to be a little further apart when you’re shooting.”

Kyle notes that the strength of the grip, “allows you to rotate the stick as you need to without losing control, either of it, or of the puck.”

And don’t forget having a stick that is the proper length.

“Generally, it should (measure) somewhere from the ice to your chin or your nose (when on skates),” Laird says, depending on an individual’s preference.

Another aspect of successful stick-handling has to do with positioning the stick while handling the puck.

“It’s a good idea to position it slightly toward the side of your ‘good’ hand as you move,” says Kehoe. “Some passes get there in a hurry, and some have you questioning why there was nothing on it. A little difference (in positioning) can make a lot of difference (in result). And (with the puck on your strong side) you can always adjust to make a backhand pass.”

Three’s a crowd

A commonly used drill that requires all the fundamentals of stick-handling, especially with regards to ice vision, is to allow several players to skate about the ice with a puck simultaneously.

“You can put three lines facing each other at opposite ends of the rink,” explains Kyle. “The first man in each line skates off with a puck and is to remain within the neutral zone for a designated amount of time. They are forced to keep their head up while maintaining control of the puck because otherwise they would run into each other. When they get better, you can increase it to five lines at each end.”

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a designed drill, points out Laird, who likens it to when “skinnies”—pick-up games with little strategy—are formed.

“It’s kind of every man for himself.”

Not only does a player have to deal with his own ability to keep the puck under control, he must also be able to maintain it as defenders try to poke it away or knock him off the puck. Under those circumstances, which are routine under game conditions, a player is forced to do all he can to keep his body between the puck and the defender.

“It’s the best and most simple way to keep possession and keep the ability to make a play,” Kyle says. “Simple is almost always better. Keeping your body in proper position as you go down the ice or make a pass is always better than trying to thread a pass between a defender’s legs.”

A drill Kyle likes for puck protection comes down to one-on-one.

“Put two players in each (faceoff) circle, and give one guy a puck to protect,” he explains. “The guy has to protect the puck from the other guy within the circle for 15 or 20 seconds. So he wants to get his body in the right position, not (be) chest-to-chest.

“After about 20 seconds, switch off.”

Kyle also talks about the myth of body fakes as a player makes a rush with the puck. “The one thing that is really neglected—kids think (about) upper-body faking—but it’s more important to utilize the lower body. You have to be able to move the upper body over the legs. That way, you’re setting your weight so that you can move the other way quickly.

“Defenses focus on the upper body,” he says, and you stand a better chance of beating them if you don’t let them read from it.

Faster, faster, faster

Once a player is comfortable controlling the puck under “safe” circumstances, he needs to take the same practice to a new level.

“Lateral movement. Quick feet, up on the edges of the skates,” says Bowness. “Set that obstacle course up and blow through it faster and faster each time while keeping control and vision.”

Bowness says a good drill is to “put all the players at one end, and have them take off with a puck.” Keeping control while not colliding or mixing pucks with a teammate equates to success.

“At this level,” said Bowness, referring to the NHL, “the players’ puck-handling skills should be developed. But we continue to work on it because we conduct high-tempo practices most of the time.”

Kehoe agrees. “You can always improve stick-handling. Just because a player reaches the NHL doesn’t mean he’s got it down pat. Up here,” he says, “it’s more demanding—a lot faster than anything they’ve encountered at any other level.”

“Always try to go at it at top speed,” adds Laird. “Place your obstacles, stagger them, then go at it full throttle while keeping control.”

The practice formula in all this is clear: speed plus control equals success.

You have to go at it fast in order to play a fast game.

This first appeared in the 02/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2011 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®

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