Even if you’ve started playing hockey from a young age, there is always lessons the game will teach you. Whether it’s fundamentals of your positioning, how to improve your shooting, or how to prepare for a game, being a lifelong learner in hockey will bode you well. We spoke to 96 hockey players, from recreational all the way up to professional level to see what really helps them perform at their best. Here are some tips that many hockey players wish that they had learned earlier in their careers.
Respect your opponent.
Every player is different. When you’re defending, you don’t treat Brian Boyle the same as you treat Connor McDavid. They have completely different play styles and will try and beat you in different ways. It’s important to know how the player will attack, in order to know how best to handle them. If they have blazing speed, back off. If they like to deke, play the puck. If they like to skate in a straight North-South fashion, play the body. Knowing your opponent and respecting the skill that they have will go a long way in learning how to defend them more effectively.
Confidence is paramount.
When professional hockey players speak to the media, often their responses are very humble. They speak about how great the team performed and give praise to their opponents. The truth behind it all is that pro hockey players are incredibly confident in themselves.
Once a player begins to doubt himself, he loses his edge. If he doesn’t have confidence in what he brings to that team, he no longer performs to the level in which he has in the past. His dekes aren’t as calculated, he passes too quickly, his shots are forced. Without confidence, you typically rush your play, because you want the puck off of your stick as quickly as possible; you don’t think you can handle it. Having confidence in your play will let you play to the best of your abilities.
Don’t be over-confident.
While confidence in your skill is important, over-confidence gets you into trouble just as easily as under-confidence. If you are an over-confident hockey player, you try things that are out of your skill range, and you begin to play with less intensity, because you feel like you don’t need to try as hard.
Along with a dip in your play, over-confidence also typically leads to something else: waking the sleeping giant. When teams get over-confident, they typically begin to chirp more often, they poke the bear that is the opponent, and the opponent gets motivated to shut them up. That sort of over-confidence is what awakens your opponent to play better than they have previously. Good teams will always jump on those opportunities, and make you pay for it.
Consider the angle of your shots.
When you don’t shoot, you don’t score, that’s the simple truth of hockey; however, just putting pucks on net won’t win you games either. With the skill that goalies have, throwing a puck at the middle of their chest is likely to result in a save, a stoppage in play, and an end to your scoring chance. You could have the best hockey stick on the market but learning to change the angles of your shots can add some variety to your shot arsenal, as well as fool the goalie.
If you hold the puck out to the side in a shooting position, try pulling it in about five or six inches, and then shooting. Notice that it feels different, but it also creates a new lane for the puck to travel, which means the goalie needs to readjust. If you can learn to do this quickly, it means less time for the goaltender to react to where the shot is originally coming from. You can also use this slight toe drag to avoid poke checks, or the shin pads of the defensemen in front of you as you line up your shot.
Perfect your backhand.
More than ever in hockey, there is less and less space for offence on the ice. If you have the puck, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be able to find your preferred spot on the ice, have time to load up a shot, and fire it on net. The reality is, the defensemen will likely be forcing you to the outside, and if you’re on your off wing, that means you have the puck on your backhand. Unless you can pull up, put the puck on your forehand, and get a good shot every time, you need to spend time working on your backhand.
Joe Sakic was famous for his killer backhand that mystified goalies. Because of the mystery of the backhand, it’s hard to know the direction the puck leaves the stick from, and the trajectory that it’s traveling in. If you can learn to place your backhand well, you can constantly be surprising goalies with how quickly the puck blows past them.
Speed is everything in the NHL but getting up to that top speed is second on the list. You might be wearing your new Bauer skates and shiny new CCM helmet, however, if you’re not able to move quick with the ball on your stick, you will get found out quick. Elite athletes are not only able to do this but they can maintain this over a long period of time while being able to react to all situations which might come up. Practicing your T starts, your mountain climbers, and other drills like pushing the net to force resistance on your feet will help you work on the short twitch muscles that will improve your acceleration. Creating a gap between you and the opponent closest to you is incredibly important to your success in hockey. If you can begin with a larger gap, you can increase that gap as you get close to your top speed. So many junior players, once having played some preseason or regular season games in the NHL mention the difference in speed between the leagues. Every one of them says that they need to improve their “first few steps” or to “be more explosive”. That’s all acceleration. Now, all of these drills start you from a dead stop, to a full-on sprint. To replicate a game situation, throw in some sprints, starting from a glide. In a game, you are only at a full stop at a face-off, so practice quickly getting to your top speed from a gliding position, like you would in real game.
Use your edges.
While skate blades haven’t really changed in the last 20-30 years, how players use them has changed. More than ever, you see NHL players using the edges of their blades for mind bending skating. It could be Patrick Kane making a deep turn while having incredibly sharp edges, or Sidney Crosby putting his heels together, and getting position on a player, while barely expending any energy. Regardless of who is using it, being a player who can use your edges to your advantage can put you heads and shoulders above your competition.
Study your opponents.
In 2018, hockey players have more video at their disposal than ever before. Some Atom teams even film their games so that the coaches can watch tape and teach their players. If you have access to video, study your opponent. You need to know how they function, what their tendencies are, and how they operate as a team. Even if you don’t have tape of your opponent, if you can make it out to a game of theirs and study them, you will have a leg up on them. It also shows your coach that you’re in it to win it.
Play other sports in the offseason
Countless studies have been done in recent years about the effects of year-round hockey verses other sports in the off season; the results are clear that it is in the athletes benefit to engage in other sports than their main one. The muscles that you use in hockey will be strong if you play lots of hockey, but they can get over worked if you play all year long. Plus, if you play other sports that engage slightly different muscles (or the same muscles in another fashion), not only will you give rest to your “hockey muscles”, but you will strengthen your lesser used muscles as well. They will build around, and strengthen the bond around your “hockey muscles”, while also increasing your overall strength. On top of all that, you lessen your chance of injury if the muscles around your “hockey” muscles are also strong. If your legs engage in the same motion of skating (motion A) 95% of the time, but that other 5% is a motion they aren’t used to (motion B), you can injure your leg. However, if baseball engages the secondary motion (motion B), and you play it in the offseason, your body will be prepared to handle that motion (motion B) when it encounters it during the hockey season.
There you have it. 9 tips that 96 hockey players wish they had learned earlier in their career. If you’re a hockey player early in your career, put these tips to good use. It means that you will be more prepared than your opponents, and be ready to outplay they when the time comes.