10 (More) Tips From Hockey’s Most Traveled Player.

Having played in every top league in the World and having been coached by over 30 professional coaches along the way, taking personal experiences and conversations with some bright minds in hockey, I’ve decided to write down some good tips for coaches (and players) to help with how hockey has evolved and where it is headed. By keeping some of these tips in mind it will help you as a coach/player to break some old habits and have you/your players think quicker/smarter in important situations. By no means is it a Hockey Bible, but as the years go by and the game has seemed to slow down in my mind, these are some things that have helped me along the way and I hope they can help others.

As I have played my career as a forward, I will have mostly tips for centremen/wingers (especially these 10) but include a few that may benefit defencemen as well. Here is the second instalment of my 10 Tips.

1. Drive The Net:

“Go hard to the net!” Every coach preaches it, and hammers it home. As well they should. The goalie feels the pressure of a forward accelerating towards the net and by accelerating to the crease, it makes it difficult on a defenceman skating backwards to contain you. He has to watch the puck carrier while trying to take away your stick (and body), all while not getting in his goalie’s way or blocking the goalie’s vision of the puck. Tough to do. A good thought to have in your head as you drive to the net is “hard to it, slow through it.” You want to get there quickly but spend as much time in a scoring position as possible. Arrive early and stop? If the puck arrives at that exact time and on your tape? Congrats. 1-0. If not, don’t make yourself an easy target to contain. Subtle movements are best; shift your leg position, push off of the defender, shift your weight on the other foot …anything to keep in slight movement. If you see that you will arrive much too early, either before your teammate will fire the puck to the net or have a chance to pass to you, use the edge of your skate blade to slow your speed, creating some drag to help you slow down your speed (and mind) in order to have a chance to get your stick on the puck or arrive in front of the goalie at the time when he must face the shot. By slowing your speed before you reach the level at the bottom of the circles, you are also less likely to cost your team a goaltender interference penalty or non-goal. By staying in slight constant movement around the opposing net, you won’t have to backcheck from a complete stop with a defender doing his best to keep you there longer while his teammates are off to the races. It’s 2017…everyone has to backcheck and the game moves fast. If you’re stopped, the defenceman also can (and will) beat you up the ice.

2. Front of Net Play:

Goalies are big. They practice being able to face shots coming at them through traffic. Defensemen are smart (mostly). They will meet the forward before he is able to make his way in front of their goalie and attempt to clear the area so that the goalie can face an easy shot without traffic. Hopefully you have timed it right and have made it to the front of the net, in front of the goalie, when the shot comes. If you feel like you are standing in front of the net and there should be a stick on you or at least a good-sized crosscheck on its way, it’s probably that the defenceman is waiting until the shot comes before he gives you a shot in the lower back or tomahawks your stick so that you can’t redirect it. A good way to confuse a D-man is to take your bottom hand off of your stick as you jockey for position with him in front of the net. It’s easier to balance yourself and take a few crosschecks, and you can use a wide base as leverage rather than the old-school theory of using your stick in a “tripod” stance. Don’t hold him, but use that arm/outstretched elbow to separate him from you before the shot comes. As the shot comes, get your hand back on your stick and try to tip the puck. This enables you to have a free stick at the most important time, rather than the defenceman either lifting or slapping your stick at the moment the puck is coming. Once it has gone by you (or you tipped it), spin off one way or the other to look for the rebound. A good bet is to spin short-side, as chances are the goalie will want to direct the puck to the closest corner. Also, the defenceman in front of the net will likely want to keep his stick closer to the middle of the ice when the shot comes so that he can clear a rebound to help his goaltender.

3. Powerplay:

When a Hall of Famer talks, you listen. Getting the chance to play on the powerplay with a guy like Mark Messier, albeit for a cup of coffee (more like an espresso) was fun. That thought (and undoubtedly more) was probably going through my head as I camped out on the half-wall and surveyed who to pass to. Upon getting back to the bench, He said “never stop moving your feet on the powerplay. If you aren’t moving, you’re making it easy on the penalty killers.” It stuck with me. Shift the box. If you have the puck, you need to be either moving away from your teammate to give him more time when he gets it from you, or you should be creating a better shot opportunity for yourself. Constant movement is very important, but be careful not to look directly at your teammate and then skate towards him before you pass it. He’ll appreciate the extra second he gets with the puck if you are able to shift the box away from him. Any type of deception before you make your play on the power play will result in taking advantage of your man-advantage. Standing still is a good way to kill the penalty for the opposing team, and get an earful as a rookie from a legend. I never did end up scoring a powerplay goal in the NHL, but the advice has served me well in all of my other stops. Thanks “Mess”!

4. Goal-Line Stuff Play:

You may only get one chance every few games to come from the corner, along the goal line, and try for the “stuff play” or a deke skating directly across the goal line. Again here, you want to make your play to the net as fast as possible, but then spend as much time in the scoring area as possible. You’ll need good protection on your hands and wrists as you can bet at least one good-sized tomahawk across your hands or stick is coming as well. Unless you see a gaping hole on the short-side and are confident that you won’t need a second chance, the best play to make is to shoot soft on the far pad for your own rebound. A goalie will have a difficult time controlling the rebound of a soft shot from that close and you will be able to judge where the puck will bounce off his pad much easier. Also the defenceman won’t know that you aren’t going to deke, making you the only person in the arena looking for the soft puck rebound off of the pad. Be wary of the goalie’s stick being on the ice as he tries to block you from gaining the ice in front of him by going “paddle-down“, meaning a small hop as you fire the puck softly on the far pad may be needed so you don’t fall on your face. You may get a few whacks at the puck, and by shooting at the far pad rather than the close pad, your rebound will stay in the slot (unless you have scored or he has controlled the rebound) so that your approaching linemates may also get a chance at it. Players like Ryan Smyth made a career out of being able to get 2-3 whacks at their own rebounds and cash in “ugly goals” around the net. It takes skill and a willingness to take a slash or three while you are there, but a goal is a goal. Increase your odds.

5. Stick-Handling:

One of the very basic principles of hockey is learning to stickhandle effectively. The ability to stickhandle quickly while moving slowly gives you much more time. It is a skill than can be practiced with a puck on the ice or even a ball on the ground. How does Patrick Kane always seem to have so much time when he comes down the right wing (his off-wing) on a 2 on 1? He’s naturally great at timing his shot or pass to match the speed of the oncoming backchecker or the lunge of the defender, but moreso it’s the quick hands and small little leg lifts he does while he is slowing his speed (watch his shoot-out highlights and you will see it there as well). The defender and goalie are unable to read what he is about to do because of the speed of his hands and misdirection with his feet. “Is he shooting?” The leg lifts give the indication of a shot on the way, but most times it’s just to get the defenceman to lunge his stick in the shot lane so that he can pass. If the defenceman doesn’t bite on the subtle leg lifts then he’s that much closer to shoot to score or lay it off of the far pad for Artemi Panarin to knock home the rebound. The ability to slowly get closer to the net with quick stickhandling allows a teammate to turn into a shooting position or for you to survey the best place to shoot and “freeze” the goalie. You are able to take a longer look when deciding whether it’s best to shoot to score, pass it to a teammate or shoot for a rebound, while also allowing your trailing forwards a chance to catch up into the play. Practice it to become dangerous.

6. Offence From Defensive Zone Routes:

Connor McDavid is a rare species. I won’t say that he could get more scoring chances from beginning his shift in the defensive zone or off-side dots in his own end than he would in the offensive zone, but it’s not a crazy stretch. Any more room to maneuver is better for McDavid, increasing his odds against the defenders. The way that he is able to change gears and separate himself from defenders is unmatched and a huge advantage. His ability to win a face-off or knock a turned-over puck back to his defenceman and pick up speed while his D-men exchange the puck and look to pass to him is what makes him so special. His quick pivot upon his turn means that once he gets a pass from a defender with speed, none of his wingers can keep up to him, but by him backing up the opposing defencemen with his speed, he is able to stop and turn at any point (preferably the hash-mark level in the offensive zone). The point at which a defenceman stops to re-gap gives him a second or two to look and make a play to his approaching wingers. If a defenceman decides to step up on him and not let him gain the blue line, a soft chip to himself works the same, as the defender would be forced to take an interference penalty if McDavid has timed his “self-dump” early enough. Everyone has to skate as hard as they can just to attempt to stay in the same zone as him already, and when he stops up, the defensive team has to turn and identify their man in coverage. Any hesitation and it’s an offensive scoring chance. Playing centre gives you the ability to not have to contend with the boards while making your pivot to pick up speed, but wingers can help themselves by starting a rush lower in the defensive zone. If you are playing up high near the opposing defenceman when the puck turns over, chances are you will not be able to pick up a lot of speed to beat that defensemen to the net or be first on the puck should a dump-in occur. If you can learn to stay in the shooting lane while covering your opposing defenceman, but begin your route lower in the zone, this will give you the opportunity to create more speed and separation. Not having to start from a complete stop, but rather always keeping a subtle movement and then digging into the ice hard to begin your acceleration once the puck goes the other way will give you the extra “jump” to join a rush. Having the wingers cross in the neutral zone can also work to pick up some speed, but this may bring defenders closer to your centre, or teammate, that has the puck, creating confusion and unwanted traffic as he looks to make a decision with the puck.

7. The Shot-Pass:

Hockey has changed. We now see teams creating plays to get the puck on net that we haven’t seen in the past. Due to most players being more than willing to block a slapshot, teams are having to think of ways to get the puck to the net through as many as 6 or 7 bodies in or around the shot lane. Most teams now have a designated “bumper-area” player on the powerplay that will stand in the slot (creating a high screen as well) to be a release-valve for his teammates. His job is to be the eyes of each player should they have to face the boards to fish out a puck and once he gets a pass from them, to relay it to one of the other quadrants to his teammate, or shoot it himself if he has enough space. An even bigger job for this player is now to be a “shot-pass” option. By placing his stick just outside of the shot lane, he creates a target for his teammates to shoot at, with the intention of him redirecting the shot on goal. The slight amount of speed that a “high-tip” takes off of a shot disrupts the goalie’s timing as well. With a big wind-up or one-timer the goalie is set up to take a 90-100 mph shot. When the defencemen or half-wall forward actually shoots it at his “high-tip-option’s” stick for a shot-pass the goalie now has to deal with a 60-70 mph changeup. Just by the “bumper” area or net-front forward placing his stick on the ice outside of the shot lane, this now puts that thought in the mind of the goalie and defending team, giving the powerplay, or even-strength team in the offensive zone, another option. If you find yourself as the player in this spot on the powerplay, you want to be higher rather than lower (at or above the hash-marks) in order to be between the defencemen and forwards killing the penalty and try to have your stick blade almost in line with the far post, depending on which way you shoot (it may mean presenting the backhand of your stick blade). For an example, watch the Flyers’ powerplay and see the benefit of having both Brayden Schenn in the high slot and Wayne Simmonds around the net. Simmonds has a knack for freeing up his stick while also possessing a strong frame to play in front of the goalie and battle a defenceman in front of the net ,while Schenn is able to let Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere or Jakub Voracek see his stick blade in the high slot and aim for it. A shot-pass of off Schenn’s stick comes at the goalie slightly slower, giving Simmonds and the off-side player (Voracek or Giroux depending on who made the initial shot) a chance to get to the net in time for the rebound. A very beneficial new powerplay, or even-strength strategy. It takes practice but it is very effective and tough to defend.

8. 3rd Man High:

Always keep your 3rd man high? It depends. I’ve seen teams place a forward as far as up in-between the two defencemen to confuse the other team, or the coach was possibly just that concerned about his forwards’ ability to backcheck. You want to be a safety valve for sure, but low enough that you can be an outlet to pass to and so that your shot is a scoring chance should it come to you. Two versus two with the opposing centre likely playing between you and the puck isn’t great odds to create an offensive zone scoring chance. The high forward in the offensive zone can be as low as possible with the thought that he has to be able to beat or at least match the speed of the forward he has covering him to a loose puck. Any change in clear possession should see him back out to at least above the hash marks, nearing the top of the circles. Just under the hash-marks should be a high enough point to stay as a 3rd man high, as the defenceman are hopefully staggered (not on the exact same level) and also moving slightly. As a high forward, the play is in front of you. You should be able to swoop in and out, keeping some speed and making the player defending you move and remain occupied so that he can’t just leave you and help his defencemen gang up on your teammates. The high forward also has to be able to keep enough speed to cover for a pinching defenceman. If you see a puck being moved up the wall and your D-man makes his way in, you’re now moving to react to a puck that may be chipped behind him, so keeping some speed is important. A system in which I like to go by with linemates is that when carrying the puck up the wall on a cycle, once the puck carrier gets to the top of the hashmarks, he is now the high forward. He can expect that his linemate, who was initially the high man, will be moving to the far post, so that if he doesn’t have a direct shot on the net, he can rim the puck around behind the net and then continue into the slot as the high forward. This creates offence, constant movement and a stern warning for the puck carrier along the wall to “make sure this puck either gets to the net, to my defenceman for a shot, or it ends up behind the net with enough speed to be a firm pass off of the far post. Don’t turn it over…I’m now our high forward.”  If all 3 forwards are on the same page in a cycle formation it can cause mayhem for opponents. If your top forward is hesitant, you will lose out on a chance to keep possession. You may not score each time, but tiring out defenders that have to chase you for a few long shifts in their own zone takes its toll over 60 minutes of a hockey game.

9. High Flip Pass:

Being a winger isn’t all that difficult. Stay on your side, for the most part, chip it in and chip it out (while trying to keep possession). Getting a well-timed breakout pass from either the defenceman or the centre is a bonus and it’s always nice to be able to come into the offensive zone wide and converge on the net for a scoring chance. There are also some points to the job that aren’t glamorous. Getting that half-speed rimmed pass from your defenceman and knowing that there is an opposing defenceman licking his chops to pinch down the wall and hit you, or getting a slow, wobbly pass somewhere in the vicinity of your stick and looking up to find everyone out of the zone already… This last one, however, is the perfect chance to use a flip pass. Unless you think you can still make a hard pass that won’t be a “suicide pass” for your linemates, a high flip is an effective choice. Imagine playing volleyball and going up for a spike. Now take away the net and put skates, sticks and pads on the players and they are allowed to hit you when you jump up to spike the ball. Still going up for the spike? Most defencemen will continue to back off and let the high flip fall unless it is right into their glove, rather than risk taking the hit or missing the puck completely. Even worse for the defenders is when the puck hits the ice, as who knows where it will bounce. Instead of putting your linemates at risk of looking for a pass that’s coming from directly behind them, you may cause them to lose speed, sure, but now any odd bounce can lead to an odd-man rush and it has given you a chance to catch up. Not a bad idea. Use the toe of your stick and flip it high so that it lands around the centre ice dot or just beyond, hopefully avoiding a hanging scoreboard. No need to risk a 2 minute minor for delay of game. Also, try your best to miss your opponent’s teeth….I’ve definitely seen that happen a few times.

10. Practice Habits:

Try your hardest, bear down on every pass, 110% effort 100% of the time, etc. We’ve all heard those habits (and have read the motivational posters) to live/play by. “You play how you practice.” Also true. So when your coach tells you “We’re starting with the horseshoe drill” and it’s possibly the ten-thousandth time that you’ve skated 200 feet to catch one pass and then another 200 to take one shot, work on something constructive on your own as well during the drill. Practice taking a peak over your shoulder before you receive the pass, hoping that you may mimic that in a game and it buys you an extra second of hesitation or saves you from a sprained shoulder courtesy of the oncoming defenceman. If you’re doing a 2 on 1 drill in practice and you are the puck carrier, work on “fast hands”, shooting off of the far pad for an easy rebound for your teammate, or work on getting as close to the middle of the ice when you take your shot, to improve your angle. If you are driving to the net in a drill, see if you can keep your speed but spend an extra second or two around the net before taking off to get back in line, getting into the habits of spending as much time in the scoring zone as possible while not coming to a complete stop. If the drill calls for a long pass, try making it a tight saucer pass a few times rather than along the ice each time, as you will need to alter the trajectory of your passes in every game. Finally, talk with your linemates and help teammates by being their eyes out there when they may not have a chance to glance up to read the play. I love getting a “heads up” or “you’ve got time” pointer from a linemate or even someone on the bench and rarely do I come home after a game without feeling as if I sang at a concert, as I can’t help but stand on the bench and try to help give a teammate an extra second on the ice. This starts in practice, and teammates and coaches notice the players that are vocal, trying to help each other out. Use the ice-time that’s allotted for your team for practice. Most coaches (if they are smart) will end a practice 10 minutes or so before the zamboni is due to come on, leaving you with a chance to work on some skills. If you’re exhausted when practice ends? Find the energy to shoot a few pucks when you feel worn out or pass a few to someone that wants to shoot some pucks. It’s always a bonus to know where your teammate’s favourite position between his feet to receive a one-timer pass is, as all are slightly different. Chances are the biggest goal you ever score will be late in the game when your mind is telling you you’re exhausted. Trick it into knowing that you always have a little bit left in the tank.

~Thanks for reading. All the best in and outside of hockey.

Jeff Ulmer

Hockey DB – Jeff Ulmer

Elite Prospects – Jeff Ulmer