Jack Blatherwick

Puck protection is guaranteed poise

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

One weakness that gets reinforced daily in youth hockey is a lack of poise — or confidence to control the puck until there is a good play in mind. The star players with great skills and confidence get better, and the ones with less skill get worse.

We’ve arrived at a ridiculous time in which every youth game is a “big” game, so the outcome matters more than development. Of course, we might not admit this, because the better players do get better. But weaker players are not encouraged to learn things by trial and error during games. If they make an error trying to mimic a Sidney Crosby move — that’s it. Chip the puck out into the neutral zone; dump it in rather than trying to beat a defenseman. Keep it simple, meaning, “stop this trial and error stuff, because your errors hurt the team.”

And if you’re a below-average kid with hands like Blatherwick, errors would be common; except today you’re “encouraged” not to try. The 10-year-old a half century ago could try and err as long as daylight would allow. Errors on an outside pond had no dire consequences, except that you’d have to walk out into the snow to retrieve the puck. I made that walk a few times. There were no scoreboards, no statewide rankings, no tournament trophies, and you knew teammates would have patience with your weaknesses, as long as you volunteered to search the snow for the puck by yourself.

The problem is this: it takes years for a player with poor skills to improve to the point where his abilities would ensure more success than error. And trying out these poor skills in a game would only bring more pressure to stop trying. So weaker players just bang the puck north, and therefore, get worse rather than better.

One solution is simpler than we might think at first. Perhaps the most important skill-habit to practice daily on the ice and off, is puck protection. You don’t have to be good to turn your back and hold the puck until you have a play in mind. Once you try this in a game and coaches pat you on the back for good poise with the puck, confidence grows and improvement follows.

There are all kinds of drills to improve this skill. In warmup off-ice, using a stickhandling ball, players can practice the subtleties, like using an arm or leg to deflect the opponents stick when he reaches around for the puck — trying to protect the puck for a number of seconds without even touching it.

NHL players use this technique all the time.  Watch for it.  At lower levels, a “cool move” means the forward splits the D or dangles the puck through their feet.  You rarely see this in the NHL, because the best moves are ones that keep the body between the defender and the puck, so there are fewer turnovers while trying to beat the D.

Because this is so easy to practice, and because it doesn’t require superstar skills, it is a great way to teach young players to control the puck until they have a play in mind.  That is the definition of poise, and even players with weaker skills, can increase poise and confidence.


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From beginner to elite skater

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist



Natalie Darwitz (U.S. National Team), Kyle Okposo (N.Y. Islanders) and this young beginner demonstrate one of the most important steps to improved skating. Dryland training to establish this ‘Load-Up Position’ of the front leg — good knee bend and weight transfer — are required so the next skating stride can have all the explosive force the player is capable of generating. Good knee bend is also important for changing directions: cornering and pivoting.

Hockey is a one-legged game, played with deeper knee bend than any other sport. That’s why European coaches use dryland training to establish this position as the ‘comfort zone,’ meaning there is muscular strength and endurance established off-ice. With this approach, correct skating habits are learned at a young age. Lunges, one-legged squats, step-ups, skating squats, slide board and one-legged jumps from a deep squat will help beginners become skaters instead of runners on the ice.


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Practicing with or without a purpose

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Two similar on-ice drills below illustrate how important it is for coaches to meet as a group before practice and define clearly what is to be taught in each drill. It is not sufficient — and can be counterproductive — to simply pick drills out of a book, lean on the boards and let the drill proceed.

Unfocused busy work: A few years ago I watched a Bantam practice, because the coaches were obviously skillful former players and seemed eager to make the hour challenging and fun. Kids did have fun and coaches had creative drills, but creative and fun is not enough. 

One drill in particular illustrated how practice can be counterproductive without a clear focus on the lessons to be learned by a particular drill. A full-ice 1-on-1 began at one end where the forwards and D were involved in a complicated shooting/rebound drill. Then, on the whistle, the coach gave an outlet pass to the forward, starting the 1-on-1 rush toward the other end, and this is where things deteriorated.

All three coaches were busy at the complex start of the drill, and no one coached the 1-on-1 competition. As you’d expect, forwards gave up when they lost the puck or after a shot. There was no second effort to get a rebound. Defensemen gave up when the forward made a good move and faked them out. They didn’t double their effort after a mistake, so they never learned that a late effort might prevent goals. They just skated to the next line.

Over and over, the same message was repeated for 30 minutes, “If things don’t go smoothly, just give up.” Every positive thing in that practice was not worth reinforcing the message, “It’s OK to quit when you’re frustrated.”

Practicing with a purpose: I saw a similar drill during a Russian youth practice, where the lessons were obvious: use creativity and second effort on the attack, always working to get a shot and rebounds — not necessarily cool moves to beat the D. It’s obvious why the top Russian forwards in the NHL are the best in the world at getting shots off in uncomfortable, competitive situations. They practice this by the hour, learning a lesson we seldom teach in Minnesota, “If you want to score goals on even-man rushes, be creative, tenacious and smart, use your teammates to create shooting opporutnities when other players would simply dump the puck.” 

This was a full-ice 2-on-2 drill that started at one end with two defensemen shooting and two forwards deflecting and getting rebounds. On the whistle the coach passed to a forward, and the attack started toward the other end. Forwards were encouraged to criss-cross and be creative — anything to get shots off and attack the net for a rebound.

No one EVER stopped until the coaches were satisfied with second and third efforts by goalies, defensemen and forwards. Then they blew a whistle, and all four players sprinted to the penalty box area in the neutral zone to discuss with a coach the lessons from that rush. There were three coaches, and two were the rotating teachers on the attack end of the ice. This kept the groups of four moving while still providing time to meet with coaches after each rush.

These are two very similar drills, one benefiting from a clear statement of purpose; the other getting “style points” but failing miserably to teach players what it takes to win. If I were the parent of a Bantam who had practices like the unfocused one, I’d ask for 100 games and scrimmages…and NO practices.


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Cardio fitness is a high priority; cardio workouts are not

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

So that I am not misunderstood on a topic this important, let’s be clear: Aerobic and Cardiovascular fitness are vitally important for everyone, including young people — certainly for hockey players. But if you train intelligently for hockey skills and athleticism (quickness, speed, explosive strength, agility, etc.) you will NOT need to spend time doing aerobic training (long, slow distances). Leave the “cardio workouts” to adults who are smart enough to get off the couch.

The front page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press (Nov. 16, 2009) featured an article quoting an amazing study: 75 percent of Americans in the prime of their lives, ages 17-24, could not qualify for military service because they are physically unfit, have dropped out of high school, or have criminal or other disqualifying records. Three out of every four! Now that’s an eye opener, and certainly points out the need for education and a whole bunch of aerobic training.

However, for a young hockey player, aerobic training has little value if you plan intelligently and train for the qualities needed to play hockey at a higher level. This includes aerobic fitness, of course, but that will be improved as a byproduct of high tempo practices on-ice and off.

Youth hockey games may not be enough of a cardiovascular challenge to qualify. There are too many players on each team; too much ice time wasted while referees hold the puck; and ice rental is expensive compared to facilities in other youth sports. No one improves fitness or hockey skills while sitting on the bench. Also keep in mind, no one improves fitness while standing too much during practice.

If on-ice and off-ice workouts keep players moving, while practicing hockey skills and athleticism, this does improve cardiovascular fitness…even more than by “cardio” workouts. Research is pouring in from studies on soccer and basketball teams, showing that game-like drills and skill drills are very effective in improving aerobic fitness (start your Google search with these words: small-sided soccer games aerobic fitness). 

It has been known for decades (Fox EL, and other authors) that intervals designed for speed, quickness and agility can also improve cardiovascular and aerobic fitness. In a six-week preseason study on a college hockey team, we used dryland sprint interval training to improve running and skating acceleration, skating endurance, leg strength, vertical jump, anaerobic endurance and power measured on a bicycle ergometer (all pre- to post-training differences were statistically significant at p<0.01 levels). These improvements in explosiveness were not surprising, because the three training sessions per week were very intense, and lasted 60-90 minutes. 

We were a little surprised to find remarkable improvements in aerobic fitness, because none of the training was aerobic in nature. Players were tested in the lab for cardiovascular and respiratory parameters, using an electronically braked bicycle that increased the workload 12.5 watts every 30 seconds until subjects could not continue. Heart rate was monitored by EKG, and expired air was analyzed instantaneously. After six weeks, aerobic capacity had improved significantly (Vo2 max improved 6 percent, Anaerobic threshold increased 19 percent). 

There is always a little subjectivity in identifying these respiratory measures, but there is no mistaking the improvements in cardiovascular performance.  At rest and at each workload, post-training heart rates were significantly lower. This indicates the cardiovascular system was more efficient than six weeks earlier, but we saw even more dramatic improvements when we analyzed the data more closely.

We looked at the amount of work accomplished before heart rates reached 85 percent of their maximum, because HR’s are at this level or higher during an intense shift in a college hockey game. After the six-week training program, players did 41 percent more work before stressing the heart to the same 85 percent level as six weeks before. This is certainly a major factor in what is meant by “hockey shape” or “game shape.”

This is clear evidence that training for quickness, speed and explosive strength can also improve cardiovascular fitness if the intervals are well-planned. By the way, the only distances run that fall were two 5k tests (before and after training six weeks). Times improved 6 percent. In other words, “anaerobic interval training is highly aerobic,” and this is a message every youth coach must consider. The other three out of four kids who are couch potatoes need a good kick in the butt…toward the door, hopefully, so they can go jogging


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Legislating mediocrity

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Why is it that when someone gets a title they think there must be some new rules? Is it an attempt to “level the playing field?” Does someone think that rules will reduce the advantage of superior genetics or greater wealth? Or…if Roseau has more rinks per capita than any place on earth, and if kids can use the ice free, 24/7, should we level the playing field by making a rule they have to lock up the arena every other day?

This is what Herb Brooks called “legislating mediocrity” when he addressed the Minnesota State High School League about rules to restrict the development of hockey players in the state. “With all due respect,” he’d say. This was how he started a sentence when he was about to drop a nuclear bomb. The point he made was simple: When you try to level the playing field with rules, you restrict the creativity of those who are trying to achieve excellence.

USA Hockey and Minnesota Hockey have done their share of leveling over the years. After all, when you collect many millions of dollars in tax, there’s a tendency to justify your existence with new rules. Otherwise the constituency might get restless and start asking questions about where this money goes. Last year a local suburban hockey program sent $26,000 to the tax collectors, and never asked if it might be better spent at home, on their own kids.

American youth football doesn’t do this. They’ve decided it is possible to survive without fees and rules from a committee of experts. They keep their money for local projects, and hundreds of thousands of coaches are free to create. Last I checked, American football was doing OK.

I write – not because something terrible is happening – but to warn against the possibility of more rules. I get nervous whenever these “governing bodies” have meetings. Actually, I get nervous when they use the word “governing” in their mission statement. I don’t remember a big clamour among hockey folks, asking someone to govern them. 

A committee of Minnesota hockey experts believes you are playing too many games. In this case, these are truly experts; they know hockey, and they want you to have the best program possible. If I were you, I’d listen. But then I’d tell them, “Thanks for the advice, but we don’t need rules. We’d like to make our own decisions.”

The committee might be right. It may be advisable to have twice as many practices as games – or two and a half times – or some arbitrary ratio. Of course this depends on how productive the practices are. Does every coach run practices in a way that nurtures passion and excitement? Do they all keep things moving at a high pace so there are hundreds of repetitions of skills and competitive learning situations? If ice time is wasted while kids listen to lectures – if kids don’t come home and say, “Wow, when’s the next practice? I can’t wait.” – well, maybe in that case you’d prefer more games or scrimmages. 

Oh yes, I forgot, there are rules about scrimmages in youth hockey, aren’t there? Once rules are enacted, it becomes difficult to remove them if they are not helpful. Why is there a rule about the number of scrimmages without scoreboards, referees and whistles? Because someone thought they needed to justify their existence on a committee.

Why is it that committees aren’t satisfied to simply give advice? Is it the frustration that some independent thinkers don’t follow their advice? I understand – like when I taught math and some students just ignored me. It’s frustrating. So I tried rules, and you know what? They still ignored me.

The more important lesson, however, is that some who ignored my advice really knew what they were doing. They were creative and found better ways.  Some have Ph.D.’s in nuclear physics; some became lawyers or doctors – or even mayors – and they ALL made more money. Funny what happens when you allow individual creativity, not rules, to shape your development.


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