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Soft Hands and Silky Mitts: Tips from a D-I Coach

By Steve Mann, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 04/18/22, 4:30PM CDT


As the Minnesota Wild march to the playoffs, more often than not we find ourselves saying, “How did they do that?”

And the question young players should ask themselves is, “How can I do that?”

The offseason is the perfect time to start answering these questions.

University of St. Thomas women’s hockey assistant coach Bethany Brausen says the players who are committed to improving will benefit the most.

“If players can make it habitually a part of their routine to develop stick skills and shooting pucks, they will grow tremendously,” she said.

Master the Fundamentals First

As a player, Brausen was a two-time captain for the University of Minnesota and part of back-to-back NCAA National Championship teams in 2012 and 2013. Following her playing days, Brausen embarked on a coaching career that gave her the opportunity to impart lessons learned, and design and lead practices intended to advance individual skill and team development.

Her first piece of advice to young skaters? Don’t forget the basics.

“Some basic ideas of stickhandling include keeping your hands away from your body, avoiding staring at the puck and getting your eyes up, pulling the puck in tight strategically to protect it, light hands on your stick, and softly stickhandling the puck so you can be quick and loose,” she said. “You do not want the puck making a lot of noise and being aggressively handled back and forth. There is an old tradition in hockey that if you can stickhandle an egg without breaking it, you’re doing it correctly (remember Gordon Bombay and The Mighty Ducks?). You want to be light, loose and quick while practicing this skill.”

Brausen recommends players focus on include basic stickhandling in front of their body, on the side of their body, on both sides, and then introduce making basic movements while stickhandling.

“These are the most foundational levels of stickhandling and you can build out from there,” she said. “Another key is to keep your head up. I must have heard this hundreds of times from coaches while working on these skills. Once a young player is able to master the foundational skills, you can gradually build in components to make it more challenging and game-like. For example, the addition of cones to work around, more foot movement and building in shooting out of the stickhandling. The key is to master basic skills first, then graduate to harder drills as you go.”

The Importance of Underhandling

One underutilized skill, according to Brausen, is underhandling the puck. Brausen describes this as a player that has developed the skill to avoid “over-stickhandling” and being as efficient as possible with their movements with the puck. Unnecessary stickhandling can often lead to turnovers. Skating and body positioning can help protect the puck, buy time and space, and create opportunities.

“Many of the best NHL players use this skill repeatedly to keep the puck and increase their overall efficiency,” Brausen said. “Oddly enough, players often overexpose the puck or mishandle it because they are trying to do too much with it. Sometimes the best skill is keeping it in a consistent position on your stick and focusing on protecting it rather than making a fancy stick play.”

Build the Habits

Technology has made the availability of hockey training resources practically endless for today’s generation. USA Hockey offers a variety of stickhandling videos online.

Brausen doesn’t believe there is a magic set of drills that will unlock superstar skills. What it comes down to is commitment.

“When it comes to drill ideas, I encourage players to start with the basics, master those first and slowly build in complexity. I am a firm believer that there is not a specific set of drills that will lead to the ‘best development,’ but rather a commitment,” she said. “The player that spends 15 minutes a day on these skills will greatly outperform the player that spends an hour on it once a week. Creating the habit is the most important part.”

Add Variety and Complexity

Change it up, build in new components, and challenge yourself appropriately.

“It’s important to also be mindful of building in complexity appropriately, adding variety, challenging themselves in new and different ways and most importantly being creative and having fun with it,” Brausen said. “Players shouldn’t be afraid to implement unique ideas – like balancing on one foot, seeing how long you can keep your eyes closed while handling the puck, or calling out numbers as someone holds them up so you keep your eyes up. This can be done individually, with a parent/sibling, with a friend or as a team.”

Brausen reinforces her belief that making a commitment to development and building good habits is the most important aspect.

“The best players do all the above,” said Brausen. “My best encouragement is to start small, use the infinite ideas and resources now at our fingertips, learn and ask questions from a variety of people to hear different voices and keep the process fun!”

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