Some players seem to be blessed with more puck luck – where their sticks just seem to find the puck in a crowded area for a goal – than others. Are some players really luckier than others? Unlikely. But then why do some players find the back of the net more often than their teammates?
Aside from working tirelessly on their shot, having a quick release, good hands and grittiness, two Minnesota hockey legends describe how hockey IQ, reading and reacting, and anticipation set themselves and players with puck luck apart from their contemporaries.
“Some guys aren’t the biggest, the strongest, the fastest,” said former Minnesota Golden Gopher Pat Micheletti. “To me, it became, ‘How can I outthink my opponent?’”
“When you have high hockey IQ and good anticipation skills, it kind of leads to playing ‘in the zone,’ if you will, and the game slows down,” said Tom Chorske, who won a Stanley Cup as a member of the New Jersey Devils after his days at the University of Minnesota.
Read, React, Anticipate
“If you ever hear someone say, ‘Man, he or she always seems to be at the right place at the right time.’ That’s puck luck,” said Chorske. “If you examine it, you probably say that player has high hockey IQ.”
Hockey IQ is a combination of reading and reacting, and even trying to anticipate what’s going to happen before it happens. Like Wayne Gretzky said, “You don’t go to where the puck is, you go to where it’s going to be,” quoted Chorske.
“People talk about play without the puck,” Micheletti said. “You have to be able to read where the player with the puck is and what’s the best spot to get to.”
“The higher levels you go, you start to develop the ability to watch and observe; you know what's going on,” said Chorske. “You can calculate a lot of different things both visually and mentally at the same time.”
Players who can get to areas where the puck is going to be before the puck actually gets there, are more likely to put it in the back of the net when it arrives. Does this seem a big like magic?
“It is almost like a sixth sense,” Chorske said.
Creating Time and Space
Players who get a lot of puck luck seem to be able to find the right amount of space between themselves and defenders and also get into open areas. Micheletti calls it a thinking game for a reason and creating space doesn’t always come in the form of breakaway speed. He said players can change their speed to make room on the ice with or without the puck.
“If you watch the great players today, you don’t have to go 100 miles an hour to be the best player. You have to use your speed appropriately. You have to know when to make a quick step. You have to know when to glide a little bit and react on a play. You've got to look around to see what's in front of you.”
Micheletti gives the example of another former Gopher, Phil Kessel.
“He does that so well. He’s got great speed, but he’ll also glide and look and read. He’ll know when to give a pass or get into a position to receive a pass,” he said. “When you can do that, it’s going to make you a much better player than going 100 miles per hour and not know what you’re doing.”
Chorske agreed and added that it’s not always a straight line to an opening: “Sometimes it’s the path you take that shows you're thinking the game at a little bit higher level.”
Front of the Net
When in doubt, the front of the net is a good place to score goals. However, get too low and you might get tied up by an opponent. Some youngsters may not have a strong enough shot to drift out into the high slot area even if it’s open. There is a balance to finding soft areas in the offensive zone. There’s nuance in crashing the net too.
“Some of that is just data. You go to the net because that’s where the puck is going to be. The goalie makes the first stop, and then there’s going to be a rebound,” said Chorske. “But even more telling is the player that can time it. If you get there too soon, then the defenseman might tie you up. You get there too late and the defenseman is going to clear the puck. The real art is getting there just as the puck is bouncing off the goalie, the defenseman hasn’t batted it out and you arrive just on time to bang it in.”
Players need to be available to teammates in order to receive a pass but not just in the offensive zone. Chorske is coaching a Bantam team and gives an example.
“I'm constantly telling some of the players that are getting too far ahead of the puck because they see that we get possession and immediately their brain flips – they're so excited to go score a goal – that they just take off, like ‘OK, we got the puck. We're going to go score a goal.’ They aren't thinking, ‘Oh wait, we're still in our own end, I need to be available’ and that it's going take a second or two for my linemate to get control and get it to them.”
Take It Outside
So, how do players increase their hockey IQ? Not everyone can pick the brain of two former pros. Both men had resoundingly similar answers.
“Hockey IQ is kind of a tricky thing,” Chorske said. “I think that really can be done with small-area games. If you go back to the golden olden days of pond hockey, when players seemingly had a lot of creativity and made plays, that was because they were doing it in an unstructured environment. There are no coaches on the ice, there's sometimes no boards around the rink. You had to hang on to the puck as much as you could and make passes as well as you could otherwise the puck went in the snow bank or it sailed down the lake.”
“Sometimes we over-coach kids and we take away the creativity of the player,” Micheletti said. “You know we see so many straight-line guys – go, check, be here, point A to point B. I'd like to give a little bit more leeway to get out of point A and point B and let guys be a little bit more creative and take a little bit more of the structure out of the game. Especially when kids are young because I think you could always, always teach systems but you can't teach creativity and flair and how to work your way around the ice.”