Hockey is a game of small-area wins. Win the little battles around the ice and you improve your chances of winning on the big scoreboard.
Former Blaine Bengal, St. Cloud State Husky and 11-year NHL pro Matt Hendricks knows the importance of winning and keeping possession of the puck along the boards. In fact, it’s those one-on-one wins in the hard areas of the ice Hendricks believes influence the outcome of most hockey games.
“Board battles are a huge part of the game,” said Hendricks, now in his second year as assistant director of player development with the Minnesota Wild. “It’s how games are won or lost. The number of battles that take place during one shift, one period, one game, it’s a lot. That’s why they’re so important.”
Did Someone Say Small Areas?
Small-area games are used in practices because they’re effective developers of quick decision-making, puck protection, body contact and more. The bumping, the rubbing, the one-on-one battles mimic game play.
Small-area games are utilized because, frankly, they work.
“You can go watch the Minnesota Wild practice, the Iowa Wild practice and some of the small-area games they’re doing are the games that my son’s 10U team are doing because they’re valuable,” Hendricks said. “Board battles and small-area games are all about being able to have that possession in very small areas. Being able to make those 2–3-foot passes and being able to defend when there’s not a lot of time and space and things are happening much quicker.”
Big vs. Small
You might think that the bigger the player, the easier a board battle is for him or her to win.
Not so fast, said Hendricks.
“Jared Spurgeon is smaller in stature versus say Zdeno Chara. So, Jared Spurgeon has to play a battle a little bit differently. He has to stay on the outside because he doesn’t have the size and the strength. He doesn’t have the leverage that a bigger player would have. For Jared, it’s all about body position and staying between the net and the puck when he’s defending, and then with him there’s tactics on how to win those battles. You’ll see a lot that he’ll take out an opponent’s hands instead of taking out a person’s body. If you take out an opponent’s hands, now the puck’s available to retake possession.”
Puck Possession and Awareness
The goal of any board battle is to win the puck. But what happens next?
“The biggest thing for me is you’ve got to practice abilities to pick up pucks on the wall, rimmed pucks, because a percentage of the time over the course of the game the puck is on the wall or the boards, it’s high, so you’ve got to be good at that,” said Hendricks. “A tactic for winning battles is picking pucks up and then knowing what you are going to do next and have an idea of what your next play is going to be and how you’re going to get pucks.”
The best way to know what your next play will be before you get the puck, regardless of where you’re at on the ice, is by checking your options frequently as the play develops.
“Defensemen are taught from a young age to shoulder check,” Hendricks said. “When the puck is tossed in your end and you’re going back to retrieve a puck, you’ll see clips and they’re constantly going back and looking over their shoulders. They’re trying to see what’s available; they’re trying to see what’s coming at them and their position. In a very quick amount of time they’re thinking, ‘OK, what’s next? Where’s my partner? Where am I going to put this puck to relieve pressure?”
Board battles are all about engaging physically. Committing to winning the battle and knowing how to be advantageous with your body positioning.
“You want to make sure your body is over the puck versus just playing it with your stick,” said Hendricks. “If you’re just out there waving your stick around, you’re not going to have a lot of success. You need to actually work to get your body over the puck. For younger kids that’s great because it helps build confidence in the corners when they’re battling and being introduced to that physical side of the game and getting more comfortable on their skates.”
Speaking of skates, Hendricks credits edgework to being one of the strongest tools a player can have heading into a board battle.
“Skating is so important for all the obvious reasons but really being able to utilize your edges and learn your balance in the corners is huge,” he said.
According to Hendricks, how a player battles along with boards is one of the most important skills he evaluates. Not for what it speaks to about his or her physical play or stick movement and edgework, but because of what it says about a player’s compete level.
“A player’s ability to battle in the corners tells me what their competitive level is at, which is extremely important,” he said. “I look at a guy like Kirill Kaprizov who is a lot of flash and a lot of skill and a lot of scoring abilities but what makes him extra special is the way that he works and competes. It’s off the charts for someone of his pure skill level. He just doesn’t stop. You watch him in practice for a 3-on-3 down low drill and he always has the puck, and if he doesn’t, he’s getting it back. He’s competing and competing to get pucks back.
“That’s something that [Wild player development director] Brad Bombardir preaches all the time in development with our high-end skill guys. You need to have more tools. When the puck is on your stick, you look great, you make great plays, create scoring opportunities, whatever, but when the puck’s not on your stick, you need to be engaged and always trying to get pucks back and doing other jobs whether it’s on the forecheck and getting engaged in those battles, winning board battles in the defensive zone.
“For me, board battles are all about the competitiveness and where that level is at. Without it, you’ll hit a ceiling.”