Archive for June, 2010

PostHeaderIcon 1 on 1 Defensive Strategies from Blueline to Blueline

By Paul O’Donnell

Attaining the physical skills, as well as gaining a basic understanding of the intricacies of playing the 1 on 1, isn’t like learning a stickhandling move or practicing your backhand shooting skills. In addition to the hand-eye coordination and muscle memory required for your average backhander or stickhandling move, understanding the intricacies of playing the 1 on 1 effectively involves developing the experience and intuition that only comes with hundreds, if not thousands, of 1 on 1 practice and game situations.

As players reach certain ages and attain higher skill levels during their hockey development they will become exposed to more complex hockey systems, tactics and concepts which, as time goes by, they will need to become familiar. Any player who chooses to defend the backside will surely be introduced sooner or later to the full scope of concepts and strategies to contain or defend against a 1 on 1 assault.

Establishing Gap Control

Between the two halves of the neutral zone, from blueline to blueline, there are two important points of reference that every defenseman needs to take note of in order to successfully defend against a 1 on 1 or even-man offensive assault into their own zone.

The first essential part of the ice surface to be aware of is the area just inside the opponent’s blueline. Before the defenseman even begins to move his feet, he should be anticipating the 1 on 1 situation and formulating a successful exit strategy that will allow for enough time to establish a tight enough gap which will match his hockey abilities.  Gap control or gapping is the distance between the puck carrier and the closest defender or teammate at any given time during any hockey game or practice situation.

If the defenseman exits the offensive zone a tenth of a second too early he runs the risk of beginning the battle with a sloppy preliminary gap that allows the attacker more room to maneuver and a better chance of establishing a presence in his offensive zone.  In allowing an extraordinarily wide gap as he begins the slowdown process, the defender may not be able to confront the puckcarrier at a position on the ice of his choosing.  During this scenario the defender is usually forced to surrender the blueline without a fight.

On the other hand, if the defenseman cat naps or misreads the puckcarrier’s speed or ability and incorrectly leaves the zone a fraction of a second too late, the defender may not have the chance to match the stickhandler’s speed or even establish a proper gap before he is overtaken by the opponent who can then turn the corner and pass him by.

Matching Speed

The next part of the 1 on1 process may be the most crucial to the success or failure of any and every individual battle. From the point at which the defenseman starts moving his feet and begins exiting the offensive zone he needs to accomplish two very important goals before the back of his skates touch the redline. He needs to begin generating a significant amount of momentum to match his challenger’s speed and he also must establish an initial gap to work with for the remainder of the battle. If the defender is incapable of accomplishing this, in this particular area, chances of successfully fending off the 1 on 1 onslaught will be greatly reduced.

Where young developing hockey players are concerned, the vast majority have neither the strength nor skill to match speed going backwards with other players of their own age or skill levels who are moving forwards. Instead of cross-unders and C-cutting your way out of the offensive zone to generate the necessary speed – why not just turn and burn!

Turning and burning is the phrase I use when I want my defenseman to generate speed quickly going the other way. This technique is not only simple, it’s also extremely effective in allowing the point man to hang in the zone a little bit longer, as well as, giving the defenseman the ability to establish a much tighter gap control.

When it’s time for the defenseman to back out of the offensive zone, just turn and take 3 to 4 quick hard strides, with the defensive player’s head on a swivel, looking back to face his attacker until he can establish a significant enough momentum to resume his backward skating posture.

By the time the defenseman has reached the red line, if he has accomplished the previous task effectively, both skaters should be completely inside the opponent’s side of the neutral zone. The distance between the two combatants will depend on the speed and skill, as well as, each player’s knowledge and understanding of the 1 on 1 process. While an initial gap can be as wide as the total distance between the redline and the blueline, the average distance is usually 1 to 2 stick lengths between the offense and defense players’ stick blades.

In this area, the defenseman should be quickly sizing up his opponent’s physical skills, speed, direction and possible passing options. He also needs to begin establishing an inside presence on his opponent, placing himself in-between the puck and his own goaltender.

Narrowing the gap prior to contact

As soon as the player defending the backside crosses the redline, he needs to begin slowing his speed down, gradually narrowing the space between him and his attacker until the point of contact. If the defender has equal momentum, a tight gap and the inside position on his attacker, this speed reduction should be almost imperceptible to the stickhandler as they both approach the blueline.

As the defenseman prepares for the inevitable confrontation, he needs to be acutely aware of his situation prior to contact. In addition to the puckhandler’s available passing options, the defender also needs to be aware of the offensive player’s body language, as well as which way the stickhandler shoots.

As the offensive player begins his attack run the defender must ask himself, what is the attacker’s body language saying? Is the opposition attacking straight at the defender or does he appear to be angling to the inside or outside slightly? Is he approaching at maximum speed or beginning to glide toward the defenseman for a deking move?

All of these factors become extremely important when it’s time for each individual defenseman to sum up the situation and plan his defense.  How each individual player accomplishes this task effectively will depend on his physical ability and ice awareness; but most importantly how much 1 on 1 practice and game experience he has accumulated up to that point in her career.

Another important factor for the defenseman to pay close attention to, while the puckhandler’s attempting to break into their zone, is which way the opposition player shoots, right or left handed. Inexperienced defenseman tend to take little notice of which side their opposing stickhandler shoots as the gap narrows ever closer towards his blue line;  but shooting-side is actually one of the most important factors that every defender must closely monitor.

A strong side attacker understands that his entry point into the offensive zone is limited because of the way he shoots. A right-handed stickhandler, for instance, attacking along the right side of the ice, will usually not attempt to move in-between two defensemen, while he also places himself on his backhand.  A player in this situation would much rather take what the defense gives him as he approaches the blueline while continuing to inch his way towards the middle.  By forcing the defensemen into the middle to cover him he’s also creating some wiggle room to the outside of the ice surface, towards the boards. This usually allows the attacker the space to alter his course towards the boards, which will be a much easier entry point into the offensive zone than attempting to enter the shark’s mouth up the middle.

On the other hand, some players prefer to attack the opposite side of the offensive blueline; that is, opposite from the way they normally shoot. These types of attacks, quite often, create a greater threat to the defensive stand than normal offensive attacks. Crafty attackers attempting these types of entries will usually angle their attack a lot closer to the boards than a defenseman would normally expect; but in actuality, they are just setting the defenseman up for a sharp lateral move towards the middle of the ice surface as soon as they gain entry across the blueline.

This type of attack can create a great amount of confusion and havoc between two defensemen as each one tries to decide who’s going to pick up this dangerous intruder who is stickhandling on their strong side, ever deeper into the zone.

Conclusion

As any player who has dedicated his hockey career to defending the backside can attest, the physical abilities and knowledge needed to gain even a minimal amount of proficiency while playing the 1 on 1 is a constant work in progress. This is true because while, at first glance, the fundamentals of effectively playing the 1 on 1 appear to be fairly basic and constant, the speed and intricacies of playing a 1 on 1 consistently evolves as the play itself proceeds.

For any young defenseman who is striving to gain 1 on 1 understanding and proficiency, it’s essential for that player to receive as much knowledgeable instruction from coaches who understand the nuances of this crucial aspect of defense. These educators should also appreciate the importance of establishing a solid 1-on-1 foundation to build upon through constant repetition. To accomplish this task effectively coaches must be willing to dedicate a certain amount of time during almost every practice to allow the developing player the chance to hone his or her one-on-one abilities by trial and error.

I look forward to your comments, good, bad or ugly at: paul@neckuphockey.com

PostHeaderIcon Shouldn’t Spring Hockey be more about Having Fun?

By Paul O’Donnell

With the regular hockey season over and spring hockey about to begin, many hockey parents are under the misconception that their child’s future hockey development hinges on their participation. I’m here to tell you right now – it does not! In fact, I believe in some respects playing spring hockey, the way it’s currently structured, brings little or nothing to the table for your hockey player’s development.

In the past, as a coach, whenever hockey parents have inquired about spring hockey, I would always be very honest with them. I would say to them that I think it’s great that their son still wants to play and that I would be happy to put together a spring team if there’s enough interest; but in the next breath, I have always told these usually anxious parents that I would rather have their sons play a different Spring sport or even, just go hang out with their buddies for a couple of months, to recharge their batteries.

It’s at this point, where I would always get the look. You know, that look that people give to other people when they realize that they’re talking to somebody, who isn’t all-there. Before moving on, I’d like to give you my impression of what these parents are probably thinking, from the looks on their faces, just after I’ve suggested that their child should skip spring hockey:

“What do you mean my son shouldn’t play spring hockey?  Are you nuts? How is my son going to get his D-1 scholarship, before getting drafted by the NHL, if he doesn’t play spring hockey? Are you under psychiatric care? Have you ever been held for a 72 hour involuntary psychiatric evaluation before? Do you take antipsychotic medication?”

If you’re laughing while reading this, you’ve probably met the parents I’m speaking of.

By USA hockey statistics, over 43% of all hockey players quit the game by the time the 9 years old and over 70% by the time players reach their teen years. Nobody can tell me that the way it’s currently structured, in many parts of the country, that spring hockey isn’t an important factor in these alarming statistics.

While many hockey coaches, directors and parents want to believe that playing a heavily weighted ‘game to practice’ spring league hockey schedule is fun for players; but really, aren’t they only kidding themselves?  I would like to know, what’s so fun about a player having to go through the anxiety of another tryout or having a coach screaming down the back of their young necks while playing a meaningless game that does nothing for the player’s development? Furthermore, for you parents, what’s so fun about schlepping your hockey player, 30 miles one way, on a Friday night, during rush hour, for a useless away game on a beautiful spring evening? My point is that there is a better way.

Decades ago European hockey authorities introduced small games hockey theory into their training practices and procedures. This philosophy embedded so early during young European hockey players’ development has produced many of the great European players that we see in the NHL today. Whether they’re moving to open ice without the puck or stickhandling in small spaces and traffic, the influence of small games training is clearly noticeable during every NHL game if you know what to look for.

More and more, our governing bodies have been trying to put more emphasis on integrating small games training into our coaches training regiments. And while some coaches have answered the call, many others in the hockey community have not. The reluctance of some coaches to implement small games theory into their regular hockey season is somewhat understandable. Almost every coach has too little ice time and too much to teach before the playoffs roll around, during the regular season, to have the ability to implement any meaningful small games regimen into their practice schedule.

This is why springtime is the perfect opportunity to introduce, in-house, 3 on 3 and small games theory for hockey players at all age levels and skill brackets. For those who wish to participate, spring hockey should be a time for young players to get some relief from the pressure of the regular season and have the chance to play a less formal style of hockey with their neighborhood hockey buddies – in an environment that’s fun!

What I love about 3 on 3 and small games is that there are no coaches telling players that they’re doing something wrong or screaming at them because they weren’t in the right place or doing exactly what the coach wants.

The beauty of small games, when introduced correctly, is that players actually learn so much more, in what appears to be an informal pond hockey style setting, than they ever could hope to learn in any 3 seasons of regular spring hockey, the way it is currently structured in many states today. This is because each and every player who participates will touch, carry and shoot the puck, 5, 10 or maybe even 20 times more during one session than they ever could in a regularly structured spring league game.

I believe, if introduced correctly, this informal pond hockey style of competition, can significantly improve an individual player’s physical skills and quickness as well as their on-ice awareness of the game. These uncomfortable small areas, in which players are forced to compete, will force each and every player to establish new and higher comfort levels for themselves. This very effective time tested European training is, in actuality, a very effective method of self teaching, which will pay huge dividends, not only for the coming fall season, but for years to come as well.

PostHeaderIcon A Perspective of the Frozen Four from a Media Point of View

By Paul O’Donnell

I’m sure all of us, at one time or another during our lives, wish they could have the opportunity to pull back the media curtain and take a peek into the, behind the scenes,  world of a major sporting event, from the inside looking out. Well, I’d like to do just that, while I describe my experiences from my recent trips to Fort Wayne, and Detroit, from the perspective of a fledgling reporter while covering the NCAA Division I men’s hockey playoffs, otherwise known as Frozen Four.

When I first came up with the brilliant idea of applying for press credentials for the Frozen Four playoffs I did so on a whim. So when I received an e-mail from my editor Ken Markham that my credentials were approved, for not only the Midwest regionals in Fort Wayne Indiana but for the actual Frozen Four in Detroit, I think I was more shocked than elated at the outcome.

My first stop on my two-part  Odyssey, as a member of the press, was the NCAA Midwest Regional playoffs in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where four of the top 16 Division I collegiate hockey teams in the nation would be battling for a chance to compete two weeks later in Detroit, at the Frozen Four.  The four teams competing in the Midwest regionals were the top-seeded Miami of Ohio Red Hawks, Minnesota’s Bemidji State University, the always dangerous Michigan Wolverines and the 16th seed in the tournament, Alabama-Huntsville.

By the time I reached my destination on Friday morning I decided to hit the ground running and drove straight to the War Memorial Auditorium where the event was to be held. My first objectives were to obtain my media credentials and get the lay of the land. Because I’ve never  been a member of the press before,  I wanted to find out who was who and absorb as much information about college hockey and the Frozen Four as my 53 year old brain could handle.

Unfortunately, in my haste to come up to speed quickly, all I managed to accomplish was to get myself lost. After a half an hour of asking directions from people who didn’t know how to get around much more than me, I finally meandered into the media pressroom. Like so many misconceptions, epiphanies and a few “ah-dah” moments that I would have over the next few weeks, the media area wasn’t what I expected.

Following my initial entry, I quickly scanned the area that was dedicated solely for the press. In my mind, I imagined it would be a more permanent area with built-in tables or divided desk cubicles like you see in libraries.  The reality was that this was a makeshift area created solely for this event. This temporary work area was created by connecting a dozen or so temporary 6 foot folding tables together with enough temporary strip outlets taped to the tables to satisfy everyone’s needs.

On the other side of the room, there were two more tables butted together with dozens of stacks of information that came from the individual teams themselves as well as the overall event. Anyone who takes joy in the minutia of college hockey, would probably believe,  they had died gone to college hockey statistical heaven if they ever had the chance to view the information that was laid out in this table.

Almost any information, statistic or conceivable factoid that could be thought up about the individual teams, players or coaches was available. While I was perusing through the wealth information that was available to me, I thought to myself, “there couldn’t possibly be any more information that they could possibly add” – but I was wrong.

By the time I reach the Frozen Four in Detroit there were at least three times the amount of stacks of information that became available to the media. But, of all the information that was available to me, my favorite was the individual game statistics that were provided to every member of the press after each and every period of every game. What was so special about these particular statistics was that, in addition to the usual information that you would expect, such as goals, assists, penalty minutes and shots on goal, the individual these stats were broken down even further.

What became of particular interest to me during both events were the shot stats. The shooting statistics that were provided to us, during both events, didn’t only include the shots that made it to the net, they also included every other shot that was even attempted by both teams during the entire game.

With a diagram of a hockey rink at the top of each page, every shot, tip, or goals scored, was carefully plotted in the exact location that the shot was taken by the number of the player took it. Through an ingenious legend, made up of numbers, letters,  circles, lines and checks, whoever was reading it could instantly receive important feedback about shot selection during any situation, be it a power play, penalty killing or an even man situations.

After a while, it seemed as if you could begin to track and anticipate each team’s momentum and strength, just by each team’s shot selection. For instance, I was able to notice correlation between how strong or weak any one particular team was, just by taking note of the area of  the ice,  where each player  chose to take their  shots from.

After a while I noticed that even if one team had outshot the other by a significant margin, it didn’t have an effect on the outcome. What usually decided the outcome wasn’t necessarily the quantity of shots attempted, but rather, the quality shots from inside the prime shooting areas; such as the slot area or those that occurred when players were standing on the doorstep just outside the goal crease.

The other thing that I found fascinating about this program that produced these amazing stats (and is the standard that is used for virtually every collegiate hockey competition) is that the program is  in  a DOS format. You’d think by 2010, the NCAA would be able to upgrade, at the very least,  to a Windows 95 version of the program.

Heading in to the Frozen Four playoffs I was particularly curious about the dynamic of the pecking order within the individual media services and outlets. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there was noticeable journalistic snobbery or elitism that I had originally envisioned. For the most part, except in a few minor instances, every journalist, from the large well-known daily newspapers to the most obscure college  hockey website writers were very amiable, open and helpful during both the Midwest regionals as well as The Frozen Four. But there was one exception.

It was noticeable to me fairly quickly that they were only two distinct levels of media at both events. There was ESPN and everybody else. Except for the actual blue collar workers doing the physical labor there wasn’t much interaction between the upper crust of the ESPN media personalities and the other journalists and radio personalities covering either event.

Whether in Ft. Wayne or Detroit the ESPN analysts never attended press conferences, or even walk into the media room, at least when I was there. They even had their own separate meal area just for their own ESPN employees. While I can understand that sports coverage at their level is serious business, it was hard for me not to get the impression that they just didn’t like hanging around with the little people of the media.

The other thing, that shouldn’t have been so surprising to me, but was, was how tight the scheduling was during both events. From the pregame and post game press conferences, to even when and how long, the media buffet would begin and end, every aspect during both events, with few exceptions, were all on a rigidly controlled timeline.  If the NCAA media people schedule press conference for certain time, by golly, there’s going to be a press conference at that time.

Most of the more interesting interactions between the individual teams and the media, more often than not, occurred during these scheduled press conferences. After most practices and every game the  press conference was held at in an area which was strategically located right next to the media room. Surrounded by sound deadening drapes, the area chosen always included a portable stage large enough for a long table and four chairs to seat each team’s head coach and three select players to take questions from the media.

The only real differences between the regional playoffs and the frozen four press conferences were the size of the room, the amount of reporters attending and a slight upgrade in the formality of asking questions. When a reporter was asking a question during the frozen four, the NCAA handed the reporter a microphone and expected them to give their name and affiliation before asking the question.  Other than that, especially at the Midwest regionals, they were all pretty laid-back affairs, except during the losing teams’ postgame press conferences.

One of my most memorable experiences occurred during my very first press conference with the head coach and players from Alabama Huntsville following a late Friday morning practice.  Prior to this press conference, part of my original plan was just to get a lay of the land, by listening to the questions that the more experienced journalists would ask  as well as how they would ask them. Unfortunately, that part of the plan didn’t last very long.

About 15 minutes into my first  press conference, both the coach and the other three players from Alabama Huntsville had responded to a variety of questions from the media who were present at that  time. But from what I recall, there wasn’t one tough or in-depth question of the dozen or so that was asked.  While it appeared most of the player responses were genuinely ad-libbed, it appeared to me that most of the coach’s responses are prearranged. So, just after Alabama- Huntsville’s head coach (  ) wrapped up his prerecorded response as to how his (13- 16- 3), 16th seeded underdog team was planning to impose their offensive will against the best team in the nation that year the Miami of Ohio, Red Hawks, I couldn’t take it anymore.

Before anyone else could get a word in, I quickly asked a simple follow-up question: “What’s your plan B”? His response back was, “What do you mean”? Explaining my question more detail, I asked the coach, “What happens if your players start getting hammered by Miami in your own end, and they (Miami) refuse to give up the blueline as easily as you hope they will, throughout the game; how does your team plan to generate (offensive) zone time, and get the puck below the dots and make them play 200 foot hockey?”

By the look on his face, I could tell, he wasn’t expecting this type of question.  But after a second or two, he responded with one of the greatest hockey lines I have ever heard in my entire life. He looked straight at me and said, “Well, there certainly is a lot more oxygen on the offensive end of the rink, than there is in the defensive end!”

Looking back on his response now, I honestly can’t remember any other part of that particular answer; but I’ll tell you this, I will remember that line, until the day I die.

If that the highest point during these press conferences, then certainly the lowest point of all, had to be the postgame interviews  with  the coach and players of Miami of Ohio, immediately after being eviscerated by the Jerry York’s, Boston College Eagles during their semi-final matchup in Detroit.

While I have been an avid Boston College hockey fan for many years, in the last few years I’ve become a great admirer of Miami’s head coach Enrico Blasi. I’ve been telling people for several years that I think Blasi is the best coach in college hockey and even after that devastating loss a few Thursdays ago, I still believe it. But just after the loss ,while walking from the press box to the press conference area, I was ticked off.

I was mad because, when Blasi’s team was on the attack, BC was able to consistently stand Miami’s attacking forwards up at the blueline, and except for a few exceptions, his team never adjusted to a simpler dump and chase attack posture.

I wanted to know why he and his players hadn’t learned their lesson against Michigan a few weeks earlier when his forwards continually tried to carry the puck over the blue line, even though his attacking Red Hawks were consistently being outmanned or out propositioned. It didn’t work then, so why continue with the same offensive tactics, two weeks later, with a talented Boston College team? How come you didn’t have your players just start chipping the puck in deep below the hash marks and begin hammering their smaller players in their own end?

That’s what I wanted to ask and that’s what I had planned to ask. But as soon as the Red Hawks coach and players walked into the conference room sit down and listen as coach Blasi gave his opening statement -I just couldn’t do it!

I’m not sure exactly why. It may have been, partly, because I just didn’t have it in me,  to kick my favorite coach and college hockey team when they were down. My failure to ask those tough questions probably makes me a bad reporter and if that’s the case, so be it; but hey, this isn’t life or death.

There were many other memorable moments that occur during these two wonderful hockey events that I will remember for a very long time. Thankfully, most of my experiences that I have had over the past few years have been very positive, not only as a member of the press, the spectator as well

Prior to receiving my press credentials this year, for the previous three Frozen Fours, I was a spectator. And I can tell you from personal experience, if you’ve never been to an NCAA Division I college playoff or the Frozen Four, before in your life, you’re missing out on one of the greatest hockey experiences any individual or hockey family could have in a lifetime.