When the hockey season ends, the desire to come back stronger the next year lies in the player’s hands – especially when it comes to improving stick and puck skills.
Former Golden Gopher and NHLer Lance Pitlick believes that you get what you put in when it comes to off-ice skills training. And there’s a lot you can do at home any time of year.
“Extra training is for players that want to improve and do something in addition to their regular team practices and game schedules,” said Pitlick, who is highly regarded as stick skills coach and started OnlineHockeyTraining.com. “If you want to improve your hands, you have to do more than just practices and games because it won’t be enough to get you out of the mediocre category.
“If you want more, you have to do more.”
Pitlick says the more a player works on these skills, the better they become and the more fun they’ll have doing them.
Pitlick takes us through four key categories he focuses on with every player when it comes to puck skills: dribbling, faking, cupping and toe control. These drills are a progression, so players of any age can begin to work their way up to more advanced drills.
His advice for younger players and those progressing to a new skill: “Players can acquire skills at a faster pace if they do things stationary. I have a line grid that I use that defines the different stickhandling areas around the body. We learn it stationary, and once they have the pattern down, we can start to add movement.”
Dribbling is the bread and butter of puck handling. Pitlick uses another analogy to explain the technical aspect of it.
“Stickhandling is all about the top hand. If the top hand is the engine, then the fuel is the top hand wrist roll,” Pitlick explained. “Loose grip on the bottom hand because it’s going to be changing placement depending on where the puck is – if it’s farther away your hands will be closer than when the puck is closer to your body. Always a loose grip unless we’re getting ready to shoot, pass or receive a pass. Otherwise, it’s a loose grip with the top hand doing a majority of the work.”
Pitlick gives players six positions to practice dribbling: Directly front of the body; on the forehand in front; on the forehand behind; directly behind; on the backhand in front; on the backhand behind.
Start out dribbling directly in front of the body. As you get more comfortable and can try it without looking down and then moving to different positions. However, if you’re just starting out, it’s OK to start by looking down.
“One thing that drives me bananas that we have parents and coaches instructing kids to get their eyes up all the time when they just don’t have the skills in order to do that,” Pitlick said. “They haven’t acquired that proficiency yet.”
If dribbling is the bread and butter, faking is the dessert.
“That’s the fun part of hockey, to make people look silly and end up scoring goals,” Pitlick laughed. “Goalies hate ‘em, defensemen hate ‘em.”
But making and selling fakes is more than just having silky mitts.
“It’s not just your hands, it’s your entire body,” Pitlick said.
Fakes can come in many forms, from head fakes and shoulder drops to change of pace and lateral movement.
“Every move, fake or deke has four components. Setup phase, where you’re going to position the puck wherever it needs to be. Part two is the move or fake. Part three is a lateral move for separation. Part four is an acceleration around the player,” Pitlick said. “Most moves that are made you try to stay out of the [opponent’s] stick zone, that’s why you need that lateral separation.”
Start with a quick one-two dribble on your forehand and then bring the puck over to your backhand. Pitlick suggests singing “one-two fake” in your head during the progression to get a rhythm.
“If I have the puck in front of my right foot, I do a quick one-two dribble, then I fake towards my left foot, hopefully to get the defenseman to lean and then go around back to the right.”
Players can then progress to the forehand and backhand sides of the body, pushing the puck forward or moving it back.
Cupping is done with two small objects in front of the player, which can be as simple two pucks spread out just past shoulder width to start.
Pitlick categorizes two types of cupping: easy and cool. Easy cupping is pulling the puck from the top side of one of the objects, through the middle, diagonally below the other object. Cool cupping is pushing the puck from below one object to the top of the other one. Once players are proficient at pulling and pushing the puck across the barriers, they can begin cupping around the barriers.
It’s called cupping because players cup the puck with the blade of their stick as they are moving it around a barrier. The key to cupping is to keep the puck moving using its momentum to move it around the obstacle.
When players are starting out, they may have to touch the puck more, and it won’t be a smooth movement. Get the hand of easy cupping – where you start the puck at the top of the figure 8 pattern and bring it down below the barriers through the middle and then up and around and repeat going the other way. Once you’re proficient at easy cupping, start the cool cupping pattern below the barriers.
Most players are familiar with sick toe drags. But to activate the toe drag, Pitlick said players should slightly alter their grip so, while the shaft of the stick rolls over, their thumb moves to the top of the shaft.
“The wrists will be rolled over so the toe end of the stick's blade is turned over facing downwards toward the ice,” Pitlick said. “The player then pulls or drags the puck back into their body to protect it.”
In order to expand the range of their toe drag and control, players can practice by making “W” and “M” patterns with the puck. To make it easier, players can tape “W” shape on the floor. Move through the pattern always using the forehand toe of the blade. After practicing the W pattern, move to the other side and practice your M.