Jack Blatherwick

Now that’s rink sense

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Chuck Grillo, scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins, passed on this story about Igor Larionov who played for San Jose at the time Grillo was Vice President of the Sharks. 

At 5’9" and 170 pounds (soaking wet), Larionov was a genius among giants during a time when the NHL ignored the rules, and goons could actually compete (with the assistance of the referees). Today, goons are just a sideshow — one on each team who drop the gloves once a game to show off their ‘skills’ and then the show goes on without them for 59 minutes.

Larionov led San Jose to some of their greatest performances in the playoffs, and later played a key role with Detroit as they captured more than their share of Stanley Cups. Besides his reputation for exceptional two-way play, Igor was a brilliant, deceptive playmaker who seemed to have eyes in the back of his head. Of course, this had the added benefit that he knew where the goons were lurking at all times.

But, he missed one. “Just once,” his teammates would say. He was flying along with the puck, when all of a sudden, he was run over by a Mack truck — a big defenseman who had been waiting for this opportunity for years. Igor never had his head down, but for some reason he didn’t see this collision coming.

Larionov got up slowly and yelled at the ref — in Russian, of course — and wobbled back to the bench, still cursing. His teammates hadn’t seen him so mad at an official before, probably because he seldom got hit. The ref skated by during a stoppage of play, and said, “Igor, that was a perfectly legal hit. You just had your head down.”

Larionov just shook his head. Later, when teammates asked him why he was so irate, he said, “They had six skaters on the ice! The ref didn’t see it. I knew where the five guys were, so I wasn’t looking for the extra man.”

Sure enough, video replay showed there were six opponents plus the goaltender on the ice at the time. That brilliant computer we call rink sense had accounted for five and had already moved on to the next play.

Size was among the highest priorities in the NHL draft before they dusted off the rule book, but thanks to players like Larionov and many others, the game today is dominated by speed, skill, puck control and rink sense. You simply cannot beat smart players … unless, of course, you put six skaters out against them.


Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.

Don’t underrate scrimmages

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

“There’s a lot of hockey learned in a scrimmage.” 

These were the words of the late Dave Peterson, coach of the 1988 and 1992 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Teams. He was conducting a clinic from the bleachers for youth coaches in upstate New York, and rather than have his Olympic team demonstrate drills, he just had them scrimmage.

“Watch for things the players do that they wouldn’t have to do in a drill,” he told the coaches. “The anticipation, rink sense, preparation before they get to the puck — these are all learned in competition, and might not be learned in drills. Watch the way a puck carrier uses deception before passing, or the way a player without the puck, moves to get open for a pass — the way a defender sizes things up to decide how to handle a given rush. Each rush is a different situation in a scrimmage. If you’re doing 3-on-2 drills, each rush is the same, and defenders can compete without thinking.”

Jack Parker has been the head coach at Boston University for almost 40 years, and is one of the most passionate teachers in the game. At a youth coaches’ seminar this spring, he was asked what he thought was the most important characteristic to look for in a potential college recruit. Without a pause he answered, “The ability to make a hockey play.” Then, as is Coach Parker’s way, he elaborated for an hour, mostly to say that youth coaches should not overrate their ability to teach the game. 

“Hockey sense is learned in competition,” Parker said. “Kids need to be given chances to think, not just told which cones to skate around. They are taught systems, but not taught how to make hockey plays. They might learn that on the soccer field. Competitive instincts might best be learned on the baseball diamond. We should not drill our young players to death.”

Peterson began coaching when there was no intimidation from elite thinkers. No one in an office building across the country was telling coaches there should be a certain number of drill-oriented practices for every competition. The truly elite thinkers were players — the ones who had creative ideas on their minds and magic in their sticks. They wanted to scrimmage in every practice, because they knew this is where they acquired that genius.

Besides that … practices were outside. Scrimmaging was the best way to keep everyone moving, and fingers from turning to icicles. But even today, if you ask great players about the most important factors in their development of rink sense, invariably they’ll point to competition of some kind. Many recall unstructured pond hockey scrimmages. Some talk about important games. Others think about scrimmages without scoreboards and referees — just hour after hour of playmaking.

I saw a quote recently by Pat Micheletti (the former goal scoring phenom at the University of Minnesota) in which he said there is no doubt players of today are bigger, faster, and stronger. “But,” he added, “I’m not sure they’re as smart or skillful” as players from past eras.  

Hockey by the book can do that. It can stifle passion and reduce creativity. I asked a brilliant NHL playmaker this fall where he acquired his incredible anticipation, vision and rink sense. I wasn’t ready for the reply. “Roller hockey,” was his short answer. “Just scrimmaging with no rules.”

Now there’s something that’s not in the elite thinkers’ book. And Dave Peterson’s clinic for youth coaches: not one drill to demonstrate how to skate, shoot, handle the puck — that’s not in the book either. Maybe the drill book isn’t the place to start when we want to develop hockey players who are passionate and know how to make plays. 

Come to think of it … what else matters?


Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.


Train hockey athleticism with highly athletic movement

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist



Hockey athleticism, according to coaches, includes speed, quickness, agility, explosive strength, balance, coordination and endurance – all supported by core stability and dynamic flexibility. Herb Brooks added one more element: “Great athletes in all sports adjust to unexpected changes almost as if nothing happened. If there’s a rut in the ice, a hole in the field, an opponent’s check, the rest of us lose our balance, slow down or fall.”

Anatoly Tarasov, the father of Russian hockey, knew that all these qualities were required in the same shift, by players who must also perform hockey skills. Therefore, in dryland training, Soviet players often stickhandled while they sprinted or jumped. This made multi-tasking easier on the ice, and it also required core muscles to stabilize the body in a variety of awkward positions. They integrated the various athletic attributes in training, because that was required in a game. Strength training was often combined with speed, agility and endurance in the same workout because all these qualities must be maintained throughout a long game.

As sports science grew, however, athletic attributes were isolated or separated in order to test in a laboratory or teach in a classroom. Because of this separation of topics, it has became the norm to isolate speed from strength or skill, and anaerobic from aerobic endurance. Most of the athletic attributes are trained in their own separate workouts. However, in a game, they must all work together, creating synergy of movement as seen in the great athletes. Therefore, we should integrate the pieces as often as possible in training.

Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan were the greatest in their sports without being the greatest at any one of the individual qualities of athleticism or skill. They were simply the best combination. This alone should encourage us to integrate more elements of athleticism and skill as we train. 

Research moves slowly, but it is verifying that Tarasov had it right 60 years ago. Several studies have shown that the combination of strength training and jumping will increase explosiveness (Janz et.al. Strength Cond J 30(6): 14-22, 2008 or Berg KE, Strength Cond J 28(5) 10-18, 2006). 

Two recent articles by one group of investigators showed that stronger muscles do not increase vertical jump, even if the strength training is augmented with electrical stimulation and plyometrics (Herrero et.al. J Strength Cond Res. 24(6): 1609-1622, June 2010).  

Neuromuscular learning ensures that strength training will transfer to increased athleticism. Weight rooms should all look like gymnasiums with sprints, jumps and other athletic movement integrated with strength and muscular endurance. Functional strength — as in skating, sprinting or jumping — requires all aspects of athletic movement working together, creating synergy, as on a winning team.


“Conventional wisdom most often produces conventional results”

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist


Bill Walsh’s quote (above) can be found with other excellent advice for coaches in his book, “The Score Takes Care of Itself.” Walsh refers to his insistence on drafting Jerry Rice, when the 49er scouts were saying his 40-yard dash times were not good enough.

It’s not as if Rice was slow, but for a few hundredths of a second — and perhaps the fact that Rice played at a small college, not a large football factory — the scouting staff warned against taking the receiver whose professional career eventually became what many call the greatest in NFL history.  Walsh prevailed, and later said, “(Rice) had the heart of a warrior. Conventional thinking didn’t produce Jerry Rice.”

There are two great lessons here. Walsh won championships, because he believed, “When striving to go beyond conventional results, you must go beyond the conventional, and against popular opinion.”

Herb Brooks saw the weakness immediately in vanilla coaches who always went by the book. Brooks’ advice? “You’ve got to be willing to lose your job in order to be the best.”

Another lesson from the Jerry Rice draft is this: physiological tests, sprints, jumps, strength tests and even skating scores mean little compared to rink sense, competitiveness, character and work ethic. Youth associations, high schools or NHL teams would make a huge mistake judging talent by test scores or skating around cones, by shots taken or stickhandling without opposition.

The question that really matters is this: Does the player have a great impact on the game? If he’s a weak skater and can’t handle the puck around cones — if he tests poorly on strength tests — lacks aerobic endurance — has some extra body fat — but still dominates in a scrimmage…this player should be your first pick. The other qualities are trainable. In fact, if you can’t help him improve in these areas, turn in your coaching badge.

On the other hand, if the player has all the athletic ability and skill in the world and has little impact on the game, all you can say is, “Son, turn the clock back a few years and learn to compete.”

Well…I exaggerate. But, I of all people should exaggerate, because my rant each week is usually about building speed, quickness, agility, strength and other athletic attributes. In case anyone reads this column occasionally, it would be easy to infer that I believe physical improvement is the most important factor in development.

Absolutely not. Watch Pavel Datsyuk or Alex Ovechkin closely. Of course, they can skate, shoot, stickhandle, and they’d look pretty good skating around cones — about as well as a few thousand others in the world. Datsyuk’s superiority comes from his mind. He sees everything — even things happening behind him — and anticipates the next play better than most. Ovechkin’s goal scoring comes from his passion to beat defensemen and goalies, not cones. Trust me, he doesn’t even shoot very well if there’s no competition, and the more important the moment is, the better he shoots.

Rink sense, passion, the heart of a warrior. These must be the highest priorities for every coach as a new season gets under way. When judging talent, consider first, the impact a player has on a game. The cones, the skills and test numbers are objective information that might help improve physical skills and athleticism. But no coach should leave a youngster with the belief that this is the most important part of development. Hockey is a game played much more with the mind than the body.


Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.


Quick starts are an off-ice project

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Quickness in the first few steps is one of the most important skating skills, and it can be developed without going on the ice. This is good news, because it means valuable ice time can be used to improve visual awareness, rink sense and other skating and stick skills.

The building blocks for quicker acceleration are: (1) knee bend and strength in the load-up position; (2) explosive strength using one leg at a time, (3) quick strides and (4) efficient application of strength. All of these are trainable off-ice — and in fact, more trainable than on-ice.  

In a hockey game, acceleration usually occurs after a change in direction, and this is one of the most difficult and important skills — accelerating out of tight corners. This is where you should spend ice-time, combining your off-ice improvements in acceleration with on-ice agility practice.

(1) The ‘load-up position’ is the same as a lunge with good knee bend — straight forward, to the side, or any angle in between. (2) From this load-up position you should do thousands of repetitions to improve one-legged explosive strength. This will include basic strength training, combined with plyometrics (jumping), always with good knee bend. At certain ages, some training will be done with weights, but at all ages, explosive strength can be attained with just your body weight. After physical maturity and a good base of one-legged strength, some jumps can be done with extra weight, like sand bags (plyotubes).

(3 and 4) Short sprint training is where strength gains are transferred efficiently to horizontal acceleration. Sprints help develop quick feet by repeating strides that are slightly quicker than skating. Another important goal in dryland sprint training is practicing efficient application of force, like world-class sprinters.

Two skaters are shown in their second stride of a race in opposite directions, and we’ve drawn an imaginary rope between them as if they’re competing in Tug-of-War. The skater on the left is leaning more, so a greater component of his force is used for horizontal acceleration to the left. The upright skater has a much smaller component of horizontal force, because there is a lot of vertical or wasted force. So, even if they have the same leg strength, the skater with the greater body lean wins the tug-of-war — or more importantly, a race of acceleration.

The second part of developing efficient horizontal force is shown in the photo of the skater and sprinter. In their first two or three strides, sprinters practice getting from the starting blocks into this position of ‘straight line extension.’ There are many drills for this, but the most basic for hockey is to start upright, then bend the knees slightly, lean with your entire body in a straight line (not bent at the waist into a pike position), and finally just explode with no thought of technique. Lean, Load and Explode.

Two professional players demonstrate this in a short video. Go to Overspeed.Info...then click on the words “Quick, Explosive Starts.” You’ll enjoy this website: nothing for sale, no user ID, nothing to join and no pop-up ads.