John Russo

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


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.



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



Puckhandling (part 1)

By John Russo

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Many years ago (15-20), I wrote a series on “Puck Handling.” I’d like to revisit those articles and their concepts with a five-part series.

Nothing is really any different. To have “hands,” players need to have the opportunity in practices, clinics, and on the outside rink or in the garage to work on these skills. It is generally easy to spot the players that are putting in the time that it takes to have puckhandling skills.

You have noticed that I use the term puckhandling rather than stickhandling, because I believe that stickhandling is just one of the parts of puckhandling. The various areas of puckhandling that I will deal with are:

Carrying the puck – with good speed and control. Many young players all the way up through high school cannot truly carry the puck at full speed in the straightaway or on a curve with little opposition resistance. The key is at full speed.

Alternating the puck – Stickhandling” the puck in the front, side and on the diagonal.

Deking with the puck – This involves all of the various moves that players can use when attacking against the opposition. It also involves feints with the head and shoulders.

Shooting and fake shooting – Everything up to the actual release of the shot involves puckhandling, rather than just pure shooting. Fake shots, shooting with feet moving and body positioning before shooting are often more important than shots themselves, for example.

Passing and receiving passes ­­­– These are both key parts of puckhandling.

Puck control and protection – This ranges all the way from using the feet and body to maintain control and protect the puck, to proper faceoff skills.

Looking ahead and strategy – While good puckhandlers have good basic skills and can be creative when faced with situations, they also must make some decisions in advance in most cases.


In the 1990’s, I developed Russo Creative Stickhandling School that ran for 8-9 years. Part of the dilemma that I faced was dealing with the issue of skating skills as they relate to puckhandling skills. The conclusion, of course, is that really good puckhandling skills can only come after good skating skills have been achieved.  Also – that some youngsters will naturally be better puckhandlers than others. 

These may seem to be pretty basic ideas, but coaches need to consider the consequences of these two key ideas.

First, it is critical that skating skills work be done first at all levels. I remember years ago riding with Bob O’Connor (Edina High School and  Olympic assistant coach) to do coaches clinics in Grand Rapids and other northern towns and listening to him talk about the subject of skills. He was so adamant about how skating skills fit into all other skills that it has influenced my philosophies ever since. 

If a youngster must worry about what the feet are doing, a high level of puck skills will never be possible. It also follows that good feet and hand skills must exist before players can be creative and use their hands properly.

I am not saying that puckhandling skills should not be done at the Mite and Squirt levels, but it should be basic skill development and always be less important than skating. At higher levels (PeeWee and Bantam), puckhandling drills can become more complex, but still must follow skating.


All youngsters can improve their puckhandling skills

The fact that some players have more natural (and some much more) puckhandling skills than others has led some coaches to believe that many aspects of puckhandling cannot be learned (to a high skill level) by those players who are not “naturals.” Many so-called naturals just spend more time practicing, or on outdoor ice playing shinny, or playing with a ball in the summer. 

I totally believe that all youngsters can improve their puckhandling skills very dramatically. The good ones can become excellent, and even the poor ones can approach excellent – with hard work.

If I were now coaching a youth team from Mites even up through Bantams, I would spend serious time in every practice on skating and puckhandling skills. I would be searching for creative ways to make practices interesting, fun and enjoyable while pushing these two key skill areas.

I would make certain that all players could handle the puck well, had a few good basic deke moves and could get down and around the ice as well with a puck on their sticks as they could skating without a puck. I would try to get them to feel comfortable being creative. 

There would be little time spent on systems, especially early in the year. There would be a lot of outdoor fun shinny practices in December, January, and February – to naturally acquire “hands.”

Puckhandling can and should be taught to all levels of youth players, from Mites through high school. It cannot be assumed that because players are at the Bantam A or AAA levels or because players have made the varsity team, they don’t need to improve.


Teaching puckhandling

The first step in teaching puckhandling, especially for older players, is to convince them why they need it and to get players to enthusiastically go back to the needed basics. One of the best arguments is to explain that shooting and passing will never properly develop without good overall puckhandling skills. 

One of the best visual ways is to take players one or two at a time and “test” them on the key skills that we will be discussing. Once you properly explain (especially to younger players) that you will be concentrating heavily on puckhandling, they will generally respond well.

Next week, we’ll look at teaching skills.


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.