With ten active players on the ice, a regulation ice sheet of 200’ x 85’ and with just four or five shifts per period that last less than a minute, where do players find extra time and space when playing?
In this blog I will discuss skills and tactics players use to gain strategic advantage by managing or developing time and finding and creating space. Extra time and space on the ice translates to becoming a constant threat and a group that is hard to defend against. For coaches I will provide a few examples and cues to be used in practices with the goal of developing timing, evasion and deception concepts with your team.
Let’s look at few essential physical abilities first. These fundamentals are an immediate priority for coaches to nurture and for players to develop because these building blocks are required for more refined and precise hockey skills. In fact, I would suggest that they are the main currency that buys on ice time and space.
The first quality is the physical skill of agility. Agility is simply the ability to move with ease and with quickness in multiple directions. For example, we see agility demonstrated by hockey players as they deke, dip and dangle.
The second physical quality is balance. Balance is derived by a player’s equal distribution of weight and an ideal alignment of the body to maintain stability. In this video balance is achieved through the “power position.”
Balance involves both posture, and an understanding of where the body’s center of balance/mass is found. The center of balance is approximately located near the belly button and is known to shift slightly depending if one or two feet are in contact with the ice and depending where the arms and head is located.
The third physical quality is coordination. Coordination is the ability to use multiple parts of the body together efficiently and effectively. Imagine skating heads up, carrying a puck up the ice, expertly cradling it and then using a tight power turn towards the boards (a delay) deep in the offensive end. When a player has the ability to use their body with nimble and astute proficiency fluid and strong movements occur over a stable base of support. These qualities define a special player. Fortunately, in hockey these qualities are developed; you aren’t born with them, so rest assured, through practice, a solid set of ABCs (Agility, Balance & Coordination) emerge.
Next, a player’s ability to find space on the ice is predicted by their forward stride and glide ability. The ability to stride with sufficient propulsive impulse or amplitude is key in getting to an open area on time. The player’s ability to glide to maintain speed and read the play is of equal importance. Maximum stride length to generate long and powerful strides can be heard and seen in great skaters. Strides that begin with cocked hips, loaded knees and primed ankles deliver energy to the ice that in turn propels the body forward.
Speed (distance/time) can also be generated via rapid and a high stride rate or frequency. Therefore, length of the push and the amount of times you push translates into direct linear speed and will garner a defenders respect. Take a look at this skating brilliance demonstrated by Edmonton Oiler player Ryan Nugent-‐Hopkins.
Notice the glide and then rapid but powerful strides. In this clip Kane uses his stride to full advantage.
In addition, to generating speed in straight lines, the game, as it is played today requires players to generate speed in curved paths and directions. To do this players must practice the use of the inside and the outside edges of their skates. In fact, it is players with the capacity to vary north and south skating with quick east and west movements that easily shake defenders. And being hard to catch is part of the formula in creating space because it creates separation between the offensive player and defenders. Power turns and accelerating out of a circular skating path also create separation. This is where powerful cross-‐unders and tight turns require mastery. Cross-‐unders, for example, use both inside and outside edges for maximum effect. Check out the great Denis Savard showing us how it’s done in this clip.
Fundamental skating skills give players the capacity to get to open ice faster, arrive early and the discovery of free areas on the ice well ahead of checkers. Coaches call these areas “free ice”, “white ice” or “quite areas”.
Proficiency in puck handling is also a basic technical skill required as a foundation for a player to discover timing and open ice. Proper hand, wrist, elbow and arm position on the stick follow a player’s power body position. An upper body arm placement that is away from the body with hands away from the body allow for wide sweeping puck movement and simultaneously quick in tight puck handling. A player’s understanding as to when to use a free carry (in open ice) and when to stickhandle or protect the puck must also be taught. Add to that body and head fakes and feints to a player’s tool box and they will confuse most defenders.
The application of skills, intelligently and in a manner that is linked to the on-‐ice play situations is perhaps the next skill set to develop in players. This application of skill includes, the evasion of checkers, to be deceptive or a decision to invade vulnerable areas on the ice. For example, when a player changes direction or speed at the right moment, opponents are forced to guess how to defend, or they are thrown out of stride and off balance. This is an “intelligent skill” choice and they typically include a change of speed or a change of direction. Coaches, I suggest practicing acceleration, deceleration and turns with every practice. Have players vary speeds in drills and activities by adding a chaser or by getting players to beat their last effort. Make the skills come alive and challenge players to implement the right skill at the right time. To do this player’s must be thinking and experimenting. Often to practice these skill clusters small area or low organizational type games are best. Please see IHS’s page on Small Area Games.
Choose games that are developmentally appropriate to your players and that establish players awareness of the skill. Also use games that are sufficiently difficult yet allow for success thereby building a player’s confidence. Tag games and contests like 2vs2s; 3vs3s and 4vs4s or odd man combinations are very effective in this regard.
In the final analysis most plays in hockey come down to 1vs1 situations. Players who get good at reading a defenders body for subtle cues develop clear advantage and more time and space on the ice. For example, a defenseman’s stick placement dictates whether an inside path of skating is open to attack or if it is a lesser option. Coaches who teach the offensive triangle – the three points of contact with the ice (feet x2 and stick) teach players to read body position and take opportunity when a defenders body position is askew.
Players that are able to create and find time and space through the application of refined physical and technical skills and creatively applied tactics stand apart. By using individual skills, tactical knowledge and on ice awareness/understanding players will take the game to the next level and use time and space in exciting ways.