By Rob Sedia
The dictionary defines the word habit as: “An acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.” This definition, as it relates to ice hockey, implies that what we do in practice has a direct impact on how we play. That’s why we must pay extra attention to some bad hockey habits that I call “game changers.”
Bad Habit #1: The Fly By / Net
How often in a hockey game have you seen a scramble in front of the net and a crew of puck-hungry players battle for the puck, as the intensity from the crowd starts to build? Moments like these can get pretty crazy and when the battle results in a goal, the crowd can really go wild! Even though these are not the prettiest of goals (often referred to as “garbage goals”), they make up the lion’s share of lamp-lighters. The beginning player needs to create a habit of getting to the net and pouncing on rebounds. Coaches and instructors will often make this part of their pre-game and game-time talk, but do enough coaches and instructors make this part of their practice agendas?
Following shots and attacking the net is a pretty basic hockey tactic, yet time and time again I watch players (at all levels) fly by the net when a teammate takes a shot or after they take a shot themselves. Most of the time they end up curling into the corner or behind the goal line, allowing juicy rebounds to sit there until gobbled up by the opponent. The only way to score on a rebound is to be there; so creating a “Follow, Stop, Jam” habit is critical. Unfortunately, most practice drills that include shooting promote the “fly by” simply because it is not recognized that it’s happening.
For example, I was watching a team practice the other day and they were doing a great half-ice drill that incorporated an open pivot, a direction change, receiving a pass and taking a shot. The coaching staff paid a great deal of attention to the pivots, direction changes, and passing, yet allowed the players to “fly by” the net after EVERY shot! The number of rebounds left untouched far surpassed any other shot result. Although this is just one example of bad hockey habits, this scenario happens all too often. Every time I see it happen during a game, I cringe and can’t help but wonder how many times this player did a fly-by during practice!
In my opinion, most coaches preach “go to the net” during games in an effort to maximize rebound opportunities, but without constant reinforcement of this action during practice (where the most repetitions occur) the likelihood of compliance at game time is drastically reduced. If we refer back to the dictionary’s definition of the word habit, we can easily see how fly-bys in practice can lead to a bad game-time habit. It’s no coincidence that even at the highest levels of the game, the number of goals scored as a result of rebounds makes up the largest percentage of total goals scored (as high as 75%, according to some sources).
This tells us that the most talented and disciplined players on the planet have the Follow, Stop, and Jam habit. With limited space and defensive coverage in front of the net, scoring on a rebound requires good timing, quickness, and strength; you must be strong on your skates and work your way to the puck. Make the Follow, Stop, and Jam a mandatory part of any drill that incorporates shooting (when applicable), and enjoy the additional game-time scoring opportunities that come from forming this good hockey habit.
Bad Habit #2: The Shutdown
Hockey is a fast game and as you continue on to higher levels of play, it just keeps getting faster. As fast as any one player or stick can move, the puck can and will always move faster, so being “receive ready” is critical. Turning away from a teammate when he or she has the puck is a bad hockey habit that happens all too often. Whether it happens during a breakout, a regroup in the neutral zone, or during an offensive press, “shutdowns” cause a large number of broken plays and turnovers. Opening up to a passer is a very important tactical skill to have as a hockey player, especially when it comes naturally. We have all heard the hockey phrase “time and space,” but do you truly understand what it means?
Time creates space; space creates opportunities. For example, the quicker and more accurate (time) a pass is, the more space the receiver has, which in turn gives the receiver more opportunity to do something positive (shoot, pass, skate, etc.) Shaving one second by opening up to a passer and being receive-ready can help create the time-space domino effect. Obviously tape-to-tape passes are the end-all, be-all of the time-space theory (note: I did not include passing as one of the bad hockey habits because it is a skill and not a tactical skill). The bottom line on this one: FACE the player with the puck, always be open toward him/her, and present a target (stick presence—where you want the puck or move to open ice for an indirect pass).
Bad Habit #3: The Fly By / Player
We mentioned about creating time and space, so let’s now touch on taking it away. Gap control is not just limited to a line rush on a defenseman; gap control is a tactical skill needed by all players as it occurs in all three zones. Attacking a puck carrier requires gap control, therefore taking away or limiting their time and space is key to creating turnovers.
More times than not I see players skate at a puck carrier in a defensive attack mode and when the carrier makes a move or changes direction, the attacker rolls off, makes a big C turn and re-attacks. Defensive systems like the 1-2-2, for example, will never work because the “1” player is not completing their job! This one example of bad hockey habits gives the puck carrier the time-space advantage. Be a pest to that puck carrier and close the gap with stops and starts, and have an active stick. Playing “big” with your stick takes away passing lanes and puts additional pressure on the puck carrier. Pressured players have to move the puck out of desperation, not intention. And desperate puck movements usually result in turnovers.
Bad Habit #4: One-Dimensional Retrieval
Proper puck retrieval is another critical tactical skill that all hockey players should improve on. Many players have the habit of collecting the puck and then looking for options. You need to reverse this thought process so that you’re prepared prior to puck acquisition. When skating after a loose puck, you should focus on two main elements: speed and preparation. It is simple in theory; the faster you get to the puck, the more time you have to do something positive with it. And the more prepared you are before you get to the puck (shoulder checks, if legal, and scanning the ice), the more options you will have.
Choose the right angle when approaching the puck—one that allows you to protect it and collect it. Use deception and “look-offs” when defenders are on your heels, as one small move (a fake ring) can buy you just enough time to find an open teammate or create just enough space to skate with the puck.
Bad Habit #5: Standing Still
The game of ice hockey requires movement and flow. Outside of a face-off, you should never be standing still; that is one of the classic bad hockey habits. Players in motion have the advantage when it comes to effective breakouts, efficient neutral zone play, and of course offensive pressure. When you stand still in front of your opponent’s net (and it is not an intended screen or back-door decoy, etc.), you make it very easy for them to defend you. And when you move to open ice, you either pull a defender toward you (creating a lane to the net for a teammate) or you become a viable outlet.
The same goes for getting out of your own zone—stand still and you are easy to defend, easier to get to, and good luck trying to collect the puck and skate up ice if you do receive a pass. Players who move without the puck create passing opportunities for their teammates, and when your team learns the art of indirect passing (passing to an area where a teammate is headed), the number of turnovers by your team will be drastically reduced (fewer forced passes into traffic, fewer forced rings, etc.)\
Bad Habit #6: High Shots
Being able to “lift” the puck is milestone achievement for the beginning hockey player, but shooting high has almost become an obsession for most of them! To be effective, hockey players must possess an arsenal of shots, and yes, being able to shoot to higher areas of the net is one of them. The problem arises when players shoot high as most of those high shots fly over the net, giving the team a zero percent chance of scoring and a zero percent chance of a rebound.
There’s a lot to be said for hitting the net with your shot and giving your team a true scoring opportunity. A shot that is “on net” can go “in the net”; a shot that is on net can result in a rebound, which ultimately gives your team two chances for the price of one.
Missing the net can also result in a quick out and up for your opponent. This usually occurs when a player takes a hard, high shot from a bad angle and the puck rips along the glass or boards and up the wall. I have seen too many odd-man rushes come from high or missed bad-angle shots! Consider the math over an entire season: how many legitimate scoring chances are you giving up? I assure you, it’s more than you can afford.
Bad Habit #7: Programmed Passes
In some cases, this bad hockey habit stems from a bad coaching habit, not one of the bad hockey habits. Early on, some coaches and instructors instruct players to pass to a “place” when in certain situations; for example, sending the puck to the front of the net when in the corner of the offensive zone (or below the goal line). What you end up seeing are players randomly sending the puck to an area, not a player.
If you must send the puck to an area, make sure that area benefits you instead of potentially hurting you. In more cases than not, randomly throwing the puck toward the slot turns into a breakout pass from you to your opponent(s). Know what is going on BEFORE you get the puck—scanning the ice and having a general idea of where your teammates are—is critical.
If you can’t find an open teammate or don’t have the time to find one (in reference to the example above), don’t help your opponents. Make it harder for them and give your team another opportunity to control the puck and/or create a legitimate scoring opportunity. You can do this by keeping the puck low. A soft chip behind the net moves defensive players (which can create lanes) and IF they are able to win the new puck battle, they have to go a full 200 feet, which we know is very difficult to do.
I also believe in teaching beginning players how to cycle in the offensive zone, which REALLY helps deter programmed and “panic” passing. There are many examples of programmed and panic passing, and they happen in all three zones. When teammates are not open or you don’t have time to find one, knowing where to send the puck (and where not to) will help your team tremendously.
Bad Habit #8: Reactive Stick
This one is simple in theory yet is one of the most common bad hockey habits with hockey players at all levels—including those who get a paycheck to play the game.
Example 1: While in the defensive zone, a defenseman approaches an opponent who is in the corner and has the puck. The defenseman is taking a good angle to the opponent, taking lane space, and keeping his or herself between their net and their opponent (all good things). Unfortunately, he or she is carrying their stick across their waist as they skate toward the puck carrier. The opponent takes full advantage of the space on the ice and makes a quick pass through the oncoming defenseman; the defenseman “reacts” to the pass by trying to get his/her stick down to the ice to stop it.
As we all know, the puck moves much quicker than players can so the puck gets past them. This defenseman was “reactive” with their stick. He or she would have increased their chances of breaking up the play had their stick been ON THE ICE. This defenseman took away their opponent’s time by approaching that player in the corner, but failed to use their stick as a tool to take away space and have it in an active position.
Example 2: Using Example 1 as the setup where D1 missed the pass, the forward in front of the net (intended receiver) is battling D2 for space. In his/her efforts, they use their stick to push D2. Although he or she creates a little space, they can’t get their stick down (reactive) quick enough to get a shot off. I was always taught that you should be a “tripod” in front of the net, to use your stick as a third leg to stabilize yourself from the beating you are taking from the defenseman. This tripod method helps keep you up and your stick down on the ice.
It is easy to make offensive and defensive examples of reactive sticks, but the bottom line is that the number of missed or mishandled passes, missed or mishandled shots, and missed defensive plays stem from reactive sticks. Offensively, we must be ready; having your stick on the ice and/or giving your teammates a target increase your chances of receiving the puck where you want it, and controlling it or getting a decent shot off. Defensively, take up MORE space with your stick on the ice and in good defensive position. Play big with your stick and make it harder for your opponent to get the puck through you
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