John Russo

Puckhandling (part 3)

By John Russo

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Teaching stickhandling (more advanced)

I’m sure you enjoyed the Guest Writer the past three weeks. Last time (back in January), we outlined drills that were more or less stationary. Now it is time to start skating while moving the puck. The next drill is simple, but many high school level players cannot get the full length of the ice with puck under control. Don’t ignore this drill at the older levels.


Drill #4: Three lines, starting at one end, the drill will go lengthwise. Always demonstrate.


- Have the players carry the puck straight up the ice, from one end to the other. Concentrate on maximum speed (including a good start) while controlling the puck. Start out with two hands on the stick, then after 4-6 strides go to one hand on the stick pushing it out front, then back to two hands the last 30 feet. As an alternate, use two lines only, two goals at each end with shots at the end, with feet moving.

- Have players start out sliding back and forth (3-4 times) while alternating as in Drill #3 before starting down the ice.

- Have players do three crossovers left, three right, three left, etc., down the ice while controlling puck. Two hands on the stick at all times. As an alternate, shoot at the end with feet moving.

- Have players start out sliding back and forth while alternating, then fast start with two hands, then to one hand straight ahead, then at red line start crossovers, three left then three right. As an alternate, with feet moving shots at the end.

- Mix various moves as in the last option.


The next drill sequence brings in alternating while moving, the precursor to dekes.


Drill #5: Three lines, starting at one end. The drills will go lengthwise. Start out at controlled speed (60-70 percent). Do the alternating moves while sliding (three times) before taking off. Also always stress a strong and quick start, 4-6 strides, then start alternating. Form lines again at other end. Do four repetitions (down back twice).


- Two hands short stroke alternating, front.

- Two hands wide alternating, front

- Two hands (forehand) to one hand (backhand) side alternating, front

- Two hands diagonal alternating (forehand side)

- Two hands side alternating

- Two hands front or diagonal alternating, then side alternating last 30 feet

- Mix various options plus add shots at the end.


The next two drills concentrate on shooting with feet moving. Few young players can get a good shot off with their feet moving because they don’t learn the skill. Goaltenders have a much more difficult time defending against feet moving shots because they can’t as easily prepare for them. The first step is to learn the rhythm of the feet and the stick. To shoot while going straight ahead, create a rhythm with side alternating – while crossing over, create a rhythm with diagonal alternating.


Drill #6: Three lines at one end, going lengthwise. Demonstrate well.


- Go 40-60 percent speed around the circle, getting rhythm of diagonal alternating in sync with skating stride. The power foot again should be pushing off as the stick starts its forward motion.

- Speed up as players get comfortable

- Do up-ice options of puckhandling, switching to side alternating and a shot in the last 30 feet.


Drill 7: Break team into as many groups as there are coaches – each group on a circle. Each group shooting the same way (all lefts or rights).


- Go 40-60 percent speed around the circle, getting rhythm of diagonal alternating in sync with skating stride. The power foot again should be pushing off as stick starts forward motion.

- Have players take turns (one at a time) doing one rotation of circle, then shooting on the net (60-70 percent speed).

- Do above, one at a time at 100 percent.


Of course, the goaltenders should not be ignored while these drills go on. When shots are involved, they can handle the shots. Otherwise, they should be working on their own puckhandling and shooting skills (trapping puck behind the net, passing to D in corner, shooting). A good high school goaltender should be able to hit the glass at about the top of the circle from the goal crease.



The next part of puckhandling involves teaching players dekes/”moves.” The process of most dekes has a segment in it that is called “shuffling.” This shuffling is simply short strides with both feet on the ice and may include pushing with one foot and then the other – 2-3 pushes from one foot, then the other. 

This is necessary because it is not always possible to move the puck properly or to “drag” the puck with feet striding in a normal fashion. Consequently, the deking process generally is a process of:  skating with the puck to the defender, shuffling while alternating the puck, making the move (single fake, drag and slip, etc.), skating by the defender while protecting the puck (escaping by), then shooting in stride (or making a move on a goaltender or passing the puck).

So it’s skate, shuffle and alternate, make the move, skate around to escape. It will be worthwhile to have players practice the shuffling move up and down the ice a few times during basic skill drills. We are now ready to move on to the next five moves.

There are nine basic “moves” that I believe should be worked on by youth players. Not all nine will necessarily be mastered by all players but can be by the high school level with concentrated work. It is important that the players try to master several very well so that they feel very confident in using them whenever the opportunity presents itself. 

The first step, of course, is to master the skills that we have outlined in parts 1-3 of this series. The second step is to take the “moves” one at a time and work on them over a period of time with a series of drills.

It is critical that the moves each be demonstrated very well so that players can see them from several angles. It is also important that players do the moves slowly for the proper execution and against little opposition, and then increase the speed and resistance. Half speed against cones is plenty to start out. The easier moves can quickly be progressed up to fast speed one-on-one. 

It is also good to teach 2-3 basic moves at (relatively) the same time so that alternatives exist when the drills progress to the one-on-one stage. If you, as a coach, do not have the skills to properly demonstrate the moves, bring someone in to assist you.

The following is a description of the first four moves in more or less chronological order for teaching. 


- Power escape/drive to net

This is simply a change of pace. The player slows down some when approaching a defenseman, then after a little inside head or shoulder feint, turns on the speed to burst around either the forehand or backhand side. It is important to be able to move the puck outside and carry it with one hand so as to protect it and use the other arm stuck out to keep the defenseman at bay. We will go through a basic puck protection drill later.


- Single fake

This is the easiest of the stick moves but depends on the fast stick that we worked on earlier. It is a stick fake – moving the puck one way, then pulling it back the other way. It should be worked on either way. A good fake is important because it sets up the move the other way by freezing the opponent briefly. Again, puck protection when going around is important.


- Drag and slip through/Drag and slip across

These next two moves (drag and slip) are best introduced by first demonstrating the spaces created by the triangle formed by a defenseman’s two skates and the blade of the stick out front.  The two areas to be attacked are underneath the stick but in front of the skates (slip across) and between the legs (slip through). 

The first portion of the move (the drag) involves reaching the puck out to one side (in front of the defenseman while leaning the body the other way). If the defenseman leans toward the puck, then a quick “slip” across or through provides access around the defender. The reach must be very wide and slip very quick. For the slip through, players should try to get the defensemen to turn slightly toward the where the puck is.


John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin, and his Coaches’ Corner columns have appeared in LPH since 1986.




Breaking out of the defensive zone

This week’s guest writer is the third Bemidji State coach, Bert Gilling. Bert played his college hockey at Minnesota Duluth in the late 1990s, captaining the 1998-99 team — and being named male scholar athlete of the year.  He is in his 11th year of coaching, ninth at BSU where he handles the defensemen and is also the director of BSU strength/conditioning and academic oversight.


By Bert Gilling

Bemidji State University


Backchecking and back pressure

Each year for 25 years, I have asked an outstanding coach or coaches to provide a different view of some aspect of our game.

This year, the guest writers are members of the Bemidji State University coaching staff (Tom Serratore, Ted Belisle and Bert Gilling). Tom played at Mankato State and Bemidji State in the 1980s, then coached Henry Sibley to a third-place finish in the Minnesota State High School Tournament in the early 1990s. He was an assistant at St. Cloud State for four years and has been the head coach at BSU for 10 years where he has guided the Beavers to four NCAA appearances, including a Frozen Four in 2009. He has been a six-time nominee for the NCAA Division I Coach of the Year. - John Russo, Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

By Guest Writer: Tom Serratore

Bemidji State University



Coaching the elements of puck protection

This week’s guest writer is Ted Belisle, assistant coach at Bemidji State University. Ted played at BSU from 1997-2001 (captain in 2001) then worked in the USHL for two years before joining his alma mater as an assistant coach in 2007. He is also the BSU recruiting coordinator.

By Ted Belisle

Bemidji State University




During the Edmonton Oilers’ 2006 run to the Stanley Cup, a question was posed to then-head coach Craig McTavish about his definition of the perfect player. His answer was, “My definition of the perfect player is one whom the play never dies with….” His answer made so much sense to me and  is a great mindset leading into the topic of teaching puck protection. 

When I watch youth and high school players doing puck protection drills during practice, the most popular drill I see is a player with the puck standing on a faceoff dot, fending off an opposing player by standing still. While the drill does allow a player to learn how to fend off a defender, it ignores the single most important element of puck protection – creating time and space!  There are more elements of puck protection that a player must understand in order to become one of those players “whom the play never dies with.”

To teach puck protection properly, we must understand the main reason as to why we protect the puck! A player protects the puck to create enough time and space from the defender in order to make the next play. In order to create time and space, I believe that there are five elements of puck protection that enable a player to become a very good puck protector.


1. Teaching the “puck safe zone”

The first element that must be taught is recognition of the “puck safe zone.” My definition of the puck safe zone is: any area in which the defender cannot reach the puck! 

A great puck protector always understands that the odds of losing possession of the puck increase substantially when the puck is fronted or exposed to the reach of the defender’s stick. 

The “puck safe zone” changes constantly, depending on body position, reach of the defender and placement of the puck. Being able to handle the puck quickly into the safe zone (away from the defender’s reach) will help maintain puck possession and the ability to make the next play.  

A phrase I use a lot to our players is, “Don’t front the puck.” When a player fronts the puck, they are immediately exposing themselves and are at greater risk of losing possession of the puck within the reach of the defender.


2. How to create a body shield

With the days of “hitting and pinning” behind us, the puck carrier has more ability to maintain a safe zone that creates more possession time. The most efficient way to create a safe zone is to create a “body shield” between you and the defender. 

Creating the “body shield” is quite simply putting your body between the defender and the puck. The easiest way to create a body shield is to pivot your backside into the defender. This will prevent the defender from being able to enter the player’s safe zone.  The puck possessor has now created separation from the defender and should be able to keep their head up and look for the next play. 


3. Fending off the defender

After creating a “puck safe zone” with a “body shield,” we must be able to prevent the defender from gaining access to the “puck safe zone.” The puck carrier must learn the element of how to fend off a defender’s attempt to gain possession of our puck. 

The puck protector can fend off a defender by using their body to prevent access of the defenders stick into the “puck safe zone.” Focus on teaching the player how to use their own arms and legs to fend off advances by the defender. It is important to create this habit in a player for successful puck protection. 

In order for the puck protector to successfully use arms and legs to fend of defenders, it is very important to teach players the skill of handling the puck with one hand. As coaches, we must incorporate drills in which a player handles the puck while using only their top hand or bottom hand.


4. Leveraging the wall

There are times when defenders still find a way to get an opposing player pinned or pinched along the boards. To develop an excellent puck protector, we must teach them how to use the wall (boards) to their advantage. We do this by using the wall as leverage.

The best way to use the wall as leverage is by using both of your hands to push off the wall. This is very much like a push-up or a bench press motion. While we push away from the wall we must also simultaneously push our backside into the defender to create more time and space from the wall to make the next play. By leveraging the wall, we can create enough time and space along the wall to make the next play and keep possession of the puck.


5. Cut-backs:

I believe the “cut-back” is the most important element of puck protection we can teach. The “cut-back” incorporates using legs and speed to help create more time and space in order to make the next play. The use of “cut-backs” enables the puck protector to create ice behind them to escape into by turning away from the defender while not fronting the puck. “Cut-backs” use misdirection by quickly utilizing a “C” cut in the ice to change direction away from the defender to create more time and space. 

To successfully use the “cut-back,” we must teach the proper elements. The puck carrier must use deception in order to get the opposing player committed to defending a certain area. I call this “selling the cutback.”

We must bait the defender into thinking we are attacking the ice in a certain direction. We accomplish this by “staying busy” and attacking an area while keeping the puck in the safe zone, using our body as a shield and fending off the defender’s advances. By attacking a certain area, we are forcing the defender to protect the area that we are skating into. As such, we have sold the defender on protecting that area. 

When the defender commits to that area, we have created ice behind us to cut-back into. When the puck protector decides to cut-back, it is very important to teach them to stay busy and attack the other direction. 

While attacking the other direction, they have created enough time and space to make the next play while continuing to use the other elements to maintain the possession of the puck. A player can use many “cut-backs” in a single possession of the puck until the next play is available.

The best way to teach these habits is by using resistance drills with space to roam. Allow your players to use these habits all together while moving their feet, thus creating more time and space.

You can use one-on-one drills, but some of the best ways to teach puck possession is by creating outnumbered situations. For example have a 1vs2 drill in a corner or a 2vs3 drill low, in which there are more defenders than puck protectors. These drills isolate the emphasis on puck protection and force the puck carrier to have tough odds in maintaining possession of the puck.


Puckhandling (part 2)

By John Russo

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Last week we described the seven to eight skills that make up puckhandling.  We also stressed that all players can acquire “hands.”


Teaching Stickhandling (Basic Level)

Sticks and Hands

The length, lie and curve of the stick are critical. The stick length should be approximately at or an inch below the chin with skates on. A stick that is too long robs puck control and handling.  Some players even learn to use sticks that are four to six inches below the chin with very little loss in shooting ability. 

The lie of the stick should be such that the length of the blade lies flat on the ice. I recommend very little curve for young players (Mite, Squirt, PeeWee) and about ¼ inch curve for older players. Most “factory” maximum curves are ½ inch. 

Too much curve takes away most backhand skills for young players. Tape the blade with black friction tape. Also tape the top end 2-3 inches without making a very large knob.

Coaches must check sticks early on (first practice), then monitor constantly thereafter. Most players PeeWee and below should be using junior or intermediate sized sticks with smaller blades and thinner handles.

It will take some active practice to get very young players to handle the stick properly so they can handle the puck properly. For most teams, I suggest this initially be done off the ice in a few pre-season outdoor practices. There is no reason to use expensive ice. The basics of handling the stick (and the puck) are:

* Fingers: The stick needs to be held in a firm grip by the fingers (not too deep into the palm) and the thumb/first finger should form a wedge or a “V” on the top edge of the stick for the lower hand. The top hand (and again, fingers) should be all the way to the top of the stick. Use 2-3 wraps (only) of friction tape at the top to give good grip (no knob).

* Elbows: The stick needs to be out in front of the body, so the top hand cannot be along the side of the hip. This is a common error for young players. The elbows and arms have to be out front where they can go back and forth. 

* Hands: The hands should be 6-12 inches apart (12-18 inches when shooting).  The wrists must be able to roll to cup the puck when moving it back and forth.

* Eyes: The eyes must be up. It is not essential for the head to be up as long as the eyes are up to see what is unfolding in front and to the sides. Of course handling the puck with the eyes up takes practice.

* Puck: The puck should be handled most of the time in the middle of the blade. Other parts of the blade will be used when more progressive moves and dekes come into play.

The process of moving the puck back and forth, I call alternating. It’s not dribbling because this is not basketball. It is alternating the puck back and forth, back and forth. Alternating happens directly in front at the side, and at a diagonal (front/side).



Now, before we go any further, I want to outline a few drills that will exercise what we have outlined so far.  These drills will be used for all youth levels, over a period of weeks/months for young players, and only a few shorter times for high school players.


* Drill #1: (Young players) – With all players in a big circle, well spread out in the neutral zone (with pucks), all coaches inside the circle, have coaches demonstrate items 1-5 discussed above and have players concentrate on fingers, elbows, etc., while stationary and moving the puck around. Have the players take their gloves off so the coaches can see their hands.


- Practice alternating – front, side, diagonal, short strokes cupping at both ends.

- Practice alternating using different parts of the blade as the coach calls out middle, toe, heel. Use all three alternating options, short strokes.

- Practice moving the puck as fast as possible in as short of strokes as possible, all the time using all three alternating options.

- Players put a glove in their teeth (so the glove sticks out and blocks their vision down), keeping their eyes up. Alternate all three options, trying to get a feel for the puck.

- Break into pairs, one player with puck, the other directly in front helping. The player with the puck puts a glove in teeth, keeping eyes up. Alternate the puck in all three options with the other player calling out where the puck is (middle, toe, heel).

As you might imagine, the above single drill with all of its options could go on for quite some time. It is better, however, to only spend 10-15 minutes at it at a time, then move on to other things. (I’ll give you the other “things” – so the players stay interested. It will take many sessions with these Drill #1 options to build skills.


* Drill #2: Spread players out in 3 or 4 lines in the neutral zone with plenty of room on all sides.  Have coaches demonstrate each of the moves, then move within the team to teach and assist players.  This drill starts to create rhythm – and tries to get the players to use wide reach (very important).


- Alternate in short strokes – front, side diagonal (both sides); front 2-3, side 2-3, diagonal 2-3  etc. (Note: “side” is only on forehand side).

- Move from one alternating option to another, two strokes each; front to diagonal and back, front to diagonal (other side) and back, side to diagonal and back, diagonal to side and back, diagonal to front and back, diagonal other side) and back. Make certain that players go slowly enough at first to learn to do moves correctly, then speed them up. It will take much reminding at first to get players to go slowly and work on technique.

- Reach as wide as possible each way doing 2-3 strokes in each alternating option – while keeping both hands on the stick. Bend the knees (very important) and stretch way out.

- Reach as wide as possible each way doing 2-3 strokes in each alternating option – only one hand (top) on stick when stretching out to backhand. Both hands when stretching out to front hand. STRETCH!


Drill #3: Same lines, spread out as in Drill #2 with good demonstrations. Slowly at first until technique is good. Get a good rhythm. It may be necessary to start without pucks to get the rhythm. This drill now starts to bring in foot movement while alternating. This is an important transition and teaches maximum stretching out and around when making deke moves.


- Slide back and forth (left, right, left) with toes of skates straight ahead (like goaltender lateral controlled slides) while keeping puck out front.  This will create front alternating just to keep the puck in front.

- Same as above but alternate wide each way as feet slide that way.  Let the hands pass across the front of the body to stretch out each way.  Keep both hands on the stick.

- Same as above, but when stretching to the backhand, drop the bottom hand and let the stick stretch out with the top hand only.


We’ll have a pause in this five-part series for the next three weeks while my 2011 Guest Writer takes over the column.


John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin, and his Coaches’ Corner columns have appeared in LPH since 1986.