In addition to the more obvious, basic skills to work on such as skating, stickhandling, shooting and passing, there are more precise, intricate competencies – hockey’s “unsung skills” – that players can and should incorporate into their practice routines when they are ready to be challenged.
“At some point players will want to create a complete game and be a more complete player,” said Jeff Giesen, associate head women’s hockey coach at Minnesota State University. “A lot of these skills can be incorporated into practices by coaches and some can be done at home. It doesn’t mean practicing seven days a week. But if a kid shows interest and is willing to do the work and it gets them off their screen for an extra hour, there’s definitely a benefit.”
Giesen shared a short list of some of these often overlooked, but certainly important, skills that young players can work on to improve their games.
Awareness – It’s important for players to work on their hockey IQ. Small games are huge because you have to think the game quicker and see it quicker and then hopefully when you get to the full ice everything slows down for you, as you’ll have more time and space to react. In small games, in any kind of breakout/regroup situation, you have to look at different options before moving the puck.
Underhandling – Kids will often over-stickhandle the puck, ‘heel-toeing it to death,’ which can result in turnovers. This is something that can be worked on in practice quite a bit. When going around a cone, ‘push’ the puck rather than stickhandling it. By using skating skills and body positioning, you can actually protect the puck by not touching it so much.
Angling – Any player can and should work on angling. That’s how you will create turnovers, separate a player from the puck and gain possession of the puck. In practice, when playing small games, be conscious of playing through people, using your hands, lifting sticks, etc., to gain control.
Edgework – This is really about fine-tuning your skating. Edgework can be incorporated into drills at practice or maybe take a few minutes on your own right when you get on to the ice, skate in circles, bend the knees and skate on both inside and outside edges. Rather than just skating laps ‘ho hum,’ do some pivoting, work on agile movements, quick turns. Skating is one of the most important things you can improve. If you can get faster on your edges, it will up your game.
Hand skills – Puck control and shooting have a lot do with hand skills. You shoot at practice, but not as often in games (if you get one shot a game as a 12U, that’s pretty good). More can be done off the ice to gain strength and muscle memory. Work on a ‘pull shot,’ quick release. You can get 100-200 shots off in an hour in the garage. Fakes are a part of this too. Work on stickhandling backhand to forehand, pull drags.
Giesen suggests that coaches at the younger levels recognize the importance of these more precise skills and work them into their practice approach.
“Before heading out on the ice for practice, remind the kids to work on edgework while they warm up,” Giesen said. “If you’re doing skating, cone drills with pucks, talk about underhandling before you start. Work angling into small games or a forechecking drill. These things are easy to incorporate and it’s like getting double the reps.”
These often undervalued skills only get more important as players progress to older or more advanced levels of play. In fact, Giesen says his Minnesota State players practice many of the skills listed above on a regular basis.
“We do a lot of puck handling and shooting drills as part of our warmups,” he said. “During split time (forwards at one end, defense at the other) we’ll work on agility, moving laterally on the blue line, under-handling the puck around a tire or a 2x4 and then shooting it. We work on catching the puck on our backhand and then moving to our forehand to shoot or make a pass. They’re always working on fine-tuning their game.”