Before he won the Mr. Hockey Award in 2001 as the state’s best high school hockey player at Roseville and the Hobey Baker Award in 2005 as the nation’s best college player (one of only two men to have ever won both) at Colorado College, Marty Sertich was like any other kid growing up in hockey-mad Minnesota.
He loved the game, and he worked on it.
Away from the rink, that meant stickhandling, and Sertich, motivated and energized to have some fun with it, went to moderate lengths to work on his hands in a time void of social media, YouTube, and the internet.
Unsure of how he got it, Sertich repeatedly watched a video made by the Cullen brothers in Moorhead. It laid out the core fundamentals of stickhandling as well as a rudimentary tool that Sertich came to cherish and use to this day.
A wiffle ball with sliced-up pieces of tennis ball stuffed into the ball to weigh it down. A basic tool that made a lasting impression.
“It sounds funny, and there are probably a ton of things out there today that might be better or equally as good, but that’s what I still use,” says Sertich, now the assistant women’s hockey coach at the University of St. Thomas. “To this day, that’s what I use the most when I am working with kids.”
Hockey is expensive, but dryland stickhandling is free, and it’s a legitimate developmental tool.
It’s natural for parents to encourage or tell their player he or she needs to be out in the garage working on their stickhandling, but balance is important.
“The player has to want to do it; otherwise, it doesn’t really matter,” Sertich says. “But so many kids today who are passionate about hockey love to do that, so it’s making a big difference.
“Do it on your own and have some fun with it. In the garage, basement, or at a tennis court, it’s a great way to improve your hands and increase your comfort with having a ball or puck on the blade.”
What are some things to be mindful of when working on stickhandling?
“Keeping your head up is important, especially for the older players once you get into checking, or else you’re going to learn that the hard way,” Sertich says.
“But I like to work on stickhandling with your eyes closed because it gives you a sense of feeling. Just feeling the ball on your stick and developing that sense of touch is important, and it becomes greater and stronger with practice.”
Sertich added that repetition is important, especially for younger players, as is training yourself to stickhandle with your knees bent and engaging your legs.
“Use your imagination like you're playing and skating,” he said.
How often and how long should a “session” take to be effective and beneficial?
“Even just 10 or 15 minutes a few times a week will make a difference, but you don’t want to have a kid doing it so long that they are getting tired and losing their habits, getting sick of it, or dreading to work on their stickhandling,” Sertich says of younger players.
“As you get older and a player is doing it on their own, I don’t see why you can’t carve out 10 minutes into a workout to work on stickhandling. If you can create a consistent schedule, a player is going to get so much out of it. Start by creating a small goal, and build from there.”
Some routines are common, like reach, quick hands and on the front and side, as well as movement. Obstacle courses are fun as well. What should you be working on if you want to become a better puck-handler?
“I think the best puck-handlers are the players who are comfortable handling the puck on the side of their body. Most of the time, you are going through traffic. Look at the best players in the world, the puck is rarely right in front of them. The best stickhandlers are able to keep the puck way back and away from their bodies so that it’s always protected.
“That’s perhaps the most important thing to include during any routine is to practice stickhandling on the side of your body. That also creates good habits to keep your head up because you’re not able to see the ball, and it develops your peripheral vision as well.”
Any advice for older, more advanced players?
“I think older players should emphasize how they use their body a little more,” Sertich says. “Add in some fakes by using your head or your shoulders. You look at some of the best, and they’re not even really stickhandling but rather using their body to fake somebody out.
For younger groups?
“It’s not always possible, but in a perfect world, groups are best for younger players,” he said. “Having two or four together can have a relay race or play some kind of game. Then, they don’t even realize they are developing their hands, they are just having fun with each other.”
Today, there are endless resources available through the internet and social media. How did you develop your plan as a kid growing up in the late 1990s?
“I had a VHS tape from the Cullen brothers,” Sertich says with a laugh. “I don’t know how I got it or how they made it, but that’s how I got all my ideas. They were so simple, yet so effective. There were no hidden secrets or magic tools they were using. No props. But it included the fundamentals like quick hands, expanding your reach and handling on the side of your body. Keep it simple.”
YouTube has a lot of ideas, but it’s also engineered to lead you off course. How do you keep it simple and concise while trying to develop a plan or routine?
“Today, it can be overwhelming, and you don’t know where to start or where it ends. You start looking for ideas on YouTube, and suddenly 40 minutes have passed and you’re not even looking at hockey anymore. Technology is good because there is a lot of information out there, but the basics and fundamentals are the same. There is no secret to becoming a better stickhandler other than to like doing it, and then do it.”