Ice Hockey Essentials: Puckhandling 101

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You may recognize this request situation: The puck comes to you on the ice during a scrimmage shift in Open Hockey or a team game. What do you then do with the puck?

Whether you're on defense or forward positions, here are the available options, and your optimal choice depends on:

First, remember that a position does not mean "stationary" in hockey, as with other sports. Almost 100% of the time, you will be making choices of action as you are moving around the rink.

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You may recognize this request situation: The puck comes to you on the ice during a scrimmage shift in Open Hockey or a team game. What do you then do with the puck?

Whether you're on defense or forward positions, here are the available options, and your optimal choice depends on:

  1. Your momentary place on the ice
  2. Your location on ice, i.e., in the opposing-side zone or your zone
  3. Your team leading in score or trailing in the score

First, remember that a position does not mean "stationary" in hockey, as with other sports. Almost 100% of the time, you will be making choices of action as you are moving around the rink.

Typically you're in your coverage zone, but there are opportunistic exceptions, i.e., with unexpected puck possession, for a "breakaway" toward the opposing goal. In no particular order here, even though numbered within this article, consider:

  1. Pass upward / up-ice. That takes form by either caroming the puck diagonally off a near-side board; or projecting the puck laterally forward without using the rink's sideboards, called a "cross-ice" pass.
  2. Pass back: When opposing team pressure is strong, this is a very wise option. Better to lose some "forward territory" on the ice than lose the puck possession altogether. The puck possession time percentage in a game is the primary objective with scoring goals toward a game win.
  3. Pass lateral: To which side depends on which teammates are "open," i.e., distant enough from any opposing player, to assure that the puck pass is not intercepted.
  4. Skate it up, aka headman the puck: Carrying it until a teammate is open "upward" for a pass to, or yourself making the rush toward the opposing net for a highlight-reel play.
  5. Skate it back, i.e., "cycle back.": Truly savvy players have their heads up after they get the puck, and can see better where more space is: forward, either side and even back.
    This option is similar to the soccer or football field move of temporarily losing one's advance to gain it back by using lateral open space to bring the puck forward. This is usually a better option than dumping it ahead into the negative zone because you don't lose puck possession.
  6. Shoot: Around the boards, or if it's in range of accuracy--shoot on goal! You'll make the opposing goalie do his or her job. And their netminder may not be expecting any attempt to score. Sometimes this is the best option, where you also see your open teammate "up-ice" who can advance or protect the puck. If you shoot on goal, your teammate can pick up a goalie's save rebound from scoring for your team.
    Sub-Options
    a) on-ice shot (easier for deflections)
    b) shooting at a particular height/trajectory not higher than the four-foot-tall crossbar. Higher courses than that indicate a need for that player to develop more shooting control. Too-high shots also pose a risk of face-injuring teammates or opposing players.
  7. Hold steady: This option of delaying a pass and staying stationary for a few seconds with the puck has limited purposes, e.g., to slow down the pace of play, penalty kills time or time-on-clock assessment for your passing options. They are used only when no one is "on you."
  8. Dumping: NO, unless it's for the penalty kill and an opposing jersey has gotten closer to you.

In general, any pass needs to be "crisp" or firm to your intended recipient's stick blade. You have to decide: is it an on-ice pass, or are you lifting the puck about six inches, where the odds are better against potential stick checks?

With any pass, the actual point of contact needs to be several feet away from where your teammate is to anticipate the play's motion. Pass where they're going to be, not where they are when you spot them. They're moving targets!

My friend Coz, who inspired this writing by initially asking the subject question of this article, then asked me a good follow-up query: "So, how do you remember all this when on the ice?" The answer was: in his fingers!

How to help remember your puckhandling options:

  1. Pass (index finger) - refer to the sub-options above
  2. Skate it (middle finger) - see also the sub-options
  3. Shoot (ring finger)
  4. Hold (pinky)
  5. Dump (thumb)

The recommendation was to imagine a control panel in the finger-tips of one preferred hand. "Use your fingers as your decision tree" before pressing your 'action button' during actual playing conditions.

Supportive Practice Tips

  1. Practice with a weighted stick or wrist weights. Feel the difference afterward!
  2. You can either fill your practice stick with sand (reportedly a Canadian approach) or extra-tape on metal bars on the lower half of the stick shaft. Flat metal bars from cyclone (wire mesh) outdoor fencing works well. This goaltender has these bars taped onto his practice goalie stick, as this item is nicknamed the "sledgehammer"!
  3. Practice off-ice with the puck and the stick blade (preferably your weighted stick) to try to emulate the tricks you see the professionals do for "stick agility."

In closing, make sure you keep your puck options in mind for your smarter split-second decision-making on the ice. So when the puck comes to you in gameplay or practice scrimmage, you are more actively aware of--and can act on--your options.

Share this STACKsports article with a friend who is learning the game or who likes to analyze this game of hockey that is often called "the greatest sport," in part because of its human & physical complexity.


Topics: HOCKEY | HOCKEY DRILLS | PUCK