Can you imagine what school would be like if they tried to teach sentence structure before spelling?
Or if math teachers went straight to multiplication and long division, rather than starting with simple addition and subtraction?
The same goes for hockey.
“When you’re learning different things, the order of how you learn them is crucial,” said Grant Clafton, USA Hockey Associate Coach-in-Chief for Minnesota Hockey District 12. “It’s skills and then concepts. If you can get the skill set and then understand conceptually how you need them, then you’re going to be good to go. It all starts with the basics.”
The current Greenway High School coach and former St. Cloud State University defenseman believes there are certain key skills and concepts young players should be working on if they want to be a good defenseman at the high school level or beyond.
Building a Foundation
While the most vital hockey skill is undoubtedly skating, it can be easy for some to gloss over the critical building blocks that lead to good skaters.
For Clafton, it all starts with teaching kids the proper stance or hockey position, in which players should have their knees bent, butt down, face and chest up.
“Everything you do in hockey, whether it’s playing forward or playing defense or even goalie for that matter, is out of that position,” said Clafton. “You need to certainly make sure kids are revisiting that every time they’re on the ice so they’re getting their form down.”
Once players are comfortable in the hockey position, then they’re ready to begin working on a proper stride and learning their edges. As players get older and become proficient in those basic skating skills, the next step for defensemen is to begin honing their ability to pivot and move laterally.
“Learning how to do a mohawk turn and just turning your heels in together is huge,” said Clafton. “That’s how you ultimately end up pivoting. That’s how you move laterally. That’s how you angle.”
“It all starts with the basics. I can’t overemphasize how important getting good at the hockey position is and getting good at being able to move laterally with and without the puck.”
“I think once you get older, when you get into the Squirt levels or Peewee level, that’s when you start focusing more on the habits and concepts,” said Clafton.
Over the course of his time in junior and college hockey, Clafton had the opportunity to play for current NCAA coaches Bob Motzko and Mike Hastings. While each of the coaches had their own style, both of them re-iterated many of the same concepts over and over, to the point they still ring clearly in Clafton’s mind and are the foundation of what he teaches his defensemen today:
“He (Motzko) had three rules. It was heels to the net, head on a swivel and stick on puck.”
A Good Stick
Stick positioning is one example of habits and concepts that can start being taught at an early age. However, Clafton also notes it’s critical that coaches understand how the habits they teach will impact players at higher levels.
For example, it’s not uncommon to hear Mite/8U and Squirt/10U coaches telling kids to always have two hands on their stick. While their intentions are good and there are many instances, such as handling or battling for the puck, when having two hands on the stick is critical, there are also times players should utilize one hand on their stick.
“Ultimately, when they get to high school and they’re playing defensive zone coverage, whether they’re a forward or a defenseman, you teach it with one hand on your stick because you want them to have stick on puck,” said Clafton. “Even the forecheck is done by forwards with one hand on your stick to try to create turnovers.”
By having one hand on their stick in these situations, players are able to cover more area and make it harder for the opponent to make a play.
Youth players can begin to develop good defensive stick habits by using their stick to shadow the puck when guarding an opponent who has it.
“It takes away time and space from the forward, makes him panic a little more, and forces him to make a play he maybe doesn’t want to make or quicker than he wants to make it,” said Clafton.
Heels to the Net
Many coaches at older age levels talk frequently about being on the defensive side of the puck. While this may seem like an advanced concept on the surface, it simply refers to being in between the opposing player and your own net.
“It basically comes down to one of the rules I was talking about, heels to the net,” said Clafton. “You never want to get caught on the wall as a defenseman with the opponent on the inside because clearly you’re out of position at that point.”
Most players naturally want to watch the puck so the play is typically in front of them. By encouraging players to have their heels to the net and be able to see the play at the same time, players will be forced to be on the defensive side of the puck without realizing it.
In today’s game, defensemen also play a key role in helping their team generate offense. Certainly, defensemen need to focus on defense first, but one of the best ways to generate scoring chances is using good defense and quick transitions to capitalize on turnovers.
“The number one thing is moving the puck,” said Clafton. “You want to make that first pass."
Whether you’re breaking the puck out or transitioning in the neutral zone, your goal should be to beat the first forechecker by turning up ice and making a hard, accurate pass to a teammate.
“Take the extra time to come out of your pivot and step into each one of your passes,” said Clafton. “At the very least, even if it gets tipped, you’re making it hard enough. A lot of times if you’re passing the puck while on your heels, it’s not going to be a very hard pass, and it’s going to be more susceptible to getting picked off or turned over.”
While skills like making hard passes, or having stick on puck may seem elementary, they play an increasingly important role as players progress to higher levels of hockey.
“Regardless of what you are doing at the Peewee level or the high school level, the only difference is that you’re doing it faster,” said Clafton. ”You are still doing the same skills that you learned when you were younger. You’re just doing them a lot quicker.”