PostHeaderIcon A Closer Look into the Read and React Process


Hockey from the Neck up Article

By Paul O’Donnell

Of all the cognitive skills that the motivated player will need to climb ever-higher in hockey’s food chain, none will be more important than the ability to effectively read and react to the play after the puck is dropped. Whether you are an elite player with aspirations of a D1 scholarship, or just an average player, struggling to make your high school’s varsity team, nothing will derail your dreams faster than a poor understanding of the read and react process by the time you reach the high school or midget levels.

Many genetically gifted hockey players born with the right amount of white, fast twitch muscle, exceptional hand-eye coordination and above average peripheral vision find it easy to make the jump to the next level, while relying primarily on their superior physical skills.  Unfortunately, unless their name is Sydney Crosby, Wayne Gretzky, or Bobby Orr, there will always come a time during a player’s hockey development when almost every other player whom they compete against will be just as fast, just as strong, and just as accurate as themselves. For the player who has been unwilling to hone their read and reaction skills to this point, the wake-up call may be just as short and abrupt as their hopes for future hockey stardom.

To better understand why this is true we’ll need to dig deeper into the process we call the read and react. This can best be illustrated by going through the thought process of two athletically gifted midget level players with similar physical hockey skills, while they encounter typical dump and chase forechecking situations, during an average game. The only thing that separates our two fictitious players from one another is their depth of knowledge and understanding of the mental side of hockey.

Our first forechecker is the star of his midget minor A team. During an earlier time in his development, his superior physical skills put him on fast-track to more elite youth hockey levels.  Unfortunately, his over exaggerated assessment of his hockey abilities combined with his unwillingness to take direction from his coaches, has long since derailed any hopes of post-high school hockey stardom.

We pick up the action just as our player’s teammate dumps the puck, cross corner, into the opposing teams zone; being the closest possible attacker, our enthusiastic forechecker barrels headlong into the zone. While he, as well as his forechecking teammates, have been taught and trained on a rudimentary 1-2-2 forecheck in practice, their inability or unwillingness to execute their coach’s tactics during game situations ultimately dooms any coordinated effort before it ever gets started.

As our unskilled F1 watches the puck travel deep into the corner, he pays no attention to the hard carom the puck makes off the boards, allowing the potential opposing puck carrier to be in a higher level of puck control much sooner after obtaining possession.  As he attempts to close a substantial gap between him and the potential puck carrier, he fails to anticipate that the defenseman will be in a high level of puck control, with multiple passing options; before he can take away his opponents time and space. Additionally, because his current view of the ice surface is limited to tracking down the puck carrier, he tends to be oblivious to the location of his opponent’s (as well as his own) support players and possible passing outlets entering the zone.

This form of tunnel vision is very common amongst players who have a poor understanding or knowledge of the mental game.  Often, this narrow view of the ice surface will turn the less skilled competitors into spectators if they are not directly involved in current battle.  This “spectator affect” as well as the tunnel vision occurs because of a failure to be taught or fully grasp, that there comes a point during every player’s development when -it is more important to know how to skate without the puck, than with the puck. Let’s move on to our second player, of equal physical hockey skills, but who has a much broader view of the mental game.

Our second forward has carved out comfortable niche for himself on the third line of a local midget-minor Triple-A team.  While his current lack of physical hockey skills doesn’t warrant his ascension to one of the top lines, his early education from his former D1 hockey dad has molded him into a formidable defensive role player, on a more than capable grinder line.

The circumstances leading up to this particular dump and chase situation are exactly the same as before; but as you will become aware of, very quickly, the numerous and almost instantaneous tactics that our player and his line mates employ will be much different from our previous example.

Just as the puck leaves his teammates blade, our first attacker is not only plotting the pucks trajectory, but its velocity as well.  Even before he enters the zone, or the puck gets close to the back wall he has already anticipated that the hard carom off the boards will allow the defenseman to quickly move into a higher level of puck possession. As our F1 crosses the blueline he slows his forward momentum slightly, putting his head-on-a-swivel, not only to gauge where and how his fellow forechecker’s are entering the zone, but the opposition’s passing options as well. This “quick look” allows him to adjust his angle to the puck carrier while steering him into a position on the ice with poor passing options.

Unlike the previously less skilled players, the training of our current forechecker’s consists of systems and tactics which allow for multiple options.  While the first line of attack is a 1-1-2 (hard), if the opportunity presents itself our forechecker’s are encouraged to press their attack, via a 2-1-2 .  On the other hand if F1’s gap is too large to close, before the defenseman gains solid puck control, our forechecker’s are expected to set up into a 1-2-2 (trap).With this knowledge and training our lead attacker begins to prepare for the 1-2-2 (trap), as he also spies the weak side the D preparing to slide into a passing support position as soon as his defensive partner gains full control of the puck.

Just as our first attacker fully understands his role leading up to this inevitable battle, so to those who follow him.  Our supporting F2 and F3’s responsibilities will be decided as they enter the zone as well as their proximity to the puck.  Even before their forechecking status has silently been determined, both supporting attackers are sizing up any possible passing options by their opponents.  Once they’re F2 and F3 responsibilities have been decided, in this instance, their focus will not rely so much on the puck carrier, as it will on their own lead forechecker’s reaction to the puck carrier. The systems and tactics they will employ as well as the actions they will take in the next few seconds will all depend on our F1’s reads of the play and reactions to the upcoming battle. .

Even though their “F” designations and responsibilities will change many times, from moment to moment, during an average game, their support and tactics will always be consistent in an effort to support each others’ weaknesses.

While you may feel that this explanation of this snippet of game time is too long; in actuality, each of these situations will typically take place -in 3 seconds or less! Unfortunately, to shorten these examples into some “Reader’s Digest” version would negate the purpose and impact, in which this article was intended to have, which is:

  • The process of reading and reacting encompasses a much larger part of the overall game of hockey, than many people in our hockey community fail to realize, or are willing to accept.

Just as every other worthwhile endeavor we become involved with, it will take time to gain proficiency with the reading and reacting part of the game.  Unfortunately many of our coaches today fail to see the benefit, of concentrating more, on a skill that encompasses every second, of every battle, of every hockey game.

In fact, there are many exceptional coaches I’ve spoken with over the years who firmly believe that this skill can’t even be taught.  Many coaches are comfortable in their beliefs that reading reacting is, somehow, included as part of a vague and loosely defined part of hockey lore known as “hockey sense”.  And while I have to admit, that there is such a thing, I find it very convenient that some of best hockey minds in our country and beyond subscribe to the premise that:

  • The cognitive ability to read and react is a gift from our maker and cannot be taught.

If this statement were true, then maybe we should “cull” the hockey heard early on, during our player’s development, as they do in Europe, to make way for the so-called “elite” hockey players.

I firmly believe that there is place for every player, skilled and not so skilled, who wishes to play as well as understand this great game of ours at the highest possible level.  Because, the game of hockey shouldn’t just be for the future Sydney Crosby’s and Patrick Kane’s of the world, there should also be room for that high school hockey player, who’s struggling to make the team and have the privilege of wearing his team’s varsity jacket.

You can find more articles written by Paul O’Donnell on his blog or if you wish to communicate further, you can e-mail him at:

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