John Russo

Changing how we teach – Part I

By John Russo
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist


Note: This will be one of the articles (Chapter 4, Effective Practices) in John Russo’s soon-to-be-published new book “Best of Coaches’ Corner - 26 Years.” Watch for it in 2013.


Since the mid-1990s, I had been experimenting with an expanding set of “shinny” (small area) games that I believe should make up a substantial part of each practice for all youth teams through high school. The approach is based on creating a series of zone drills/games that allow players to discover and experience the basics of the game.


If players are given a very large number of “experiences” (much like the hundreds of hours of outdoor shinny youngsters used to get), they will not only learn how to execute basics like: attacking a 2-on-1, defending a 2-on-1, scoring, tipping, rebounding, protecting the puck, man-on-man coverage, quick hard shots, better balance, quicker passing reactions and many other items that used to be learned playing boot hockey or outdoor shinny 20-30-40 years ago. The goaltenders will also get much more realistic practice action and improve faster.

The coach’s job, then, part of the time becomes more like a mentor, adding good ideas and more advanced tips, as well as organizing the drills/games and keeping the practices at a high tempo. While the coach’s may point out good approaches to 2-on-1 attacks, for example, patience, many repetitions and a few well-placed reminders take the place of saying the same thing over and over.

The shinny or zone games are primarily done on one end of the ice, so this also lends itself to doubling teams up for practices. In a 1.5 hour practice, teams can each have 15 minutes by themselves and 60 with both teams on the ice. The combined practice time can be half ice, or some of it with both teams skating together, or mixing the groups of 3-on-3 games or 2-on-1’s for some increased interest and diversity.

The doubling up in a 1.5 hour practice gives each team 1.25 hours of practice or 75 percent the cost of a regular one team, one hour practice. There is a 50 percent gain in ice cost. This is an important part of the approach. More shinny time is needed. The more shinny time, the more youngsters learn and gain in skills – and the more fun they have.

More fun is also an important part of the approach. I believe kids used to have more fun playing on their own (most of the time) without so many boring formal drills. Teaching by utilizing a series of zone games is much more fun for the players, especially over a long season.

With the proper orientation to high pace, conditioning drills can also be eliminated. I haven’t used conditioning drills in practices for nearly 30 years. I keep practices high energy and have very little standing around. My teams score more goals in the third period than the opposition every season.

Sometimes the drills I use are not very new at all. They just add to the zone games. They generally have innovative twists, however, that make them different. Or they replace drills that are very boring. 

For example, I use “3-0 flow” drills for conditioning, passing improvement, line cohesion, pace improvement and finishing off at the net. My players know they could be skating pure (grinding) conditioning drills. They appreciate the more enjoyable 3-0 drills and so they work very, very hard at them. We add variation on breakouts as well to keep them interesting. We do “3-0 flow” for a short while almost every practice. This is probably the longest drill (full ice) my teams will see. Normally they are 1/3, 1/2 or 2/3 ice drills.

I want to review the many zone games and their variations. I’ll then lay out some non-game drills.

Drill #1: 3-on-3 tag-up – in zone: This is the most basic and the most valuable of the “shinny” games. It is simply playing in one end. When the puck changes hands, the team with the puck must “tag up” (pass to the defenseman at the blue line), then they become the offense.

– Variation A (basic)

• There are three on each team, plus a D (or two) at the blue line. Other unavailable players are lined up across the blue line.

• The puck is dumped into the corner to start the drill; once the puck changes hands, the other team must pass the puck to the “tag-up” defenseman at the blue line before attacking the net.

• The tag-up defenseman is exactly that, a defenseman who will pass the puck to the new possession team.

• The players on the blue line keep the puck “bumped” into the zone. If the puck leaves the zone, the tag up D dumps another into the corner. It is a free puck (no need to tag up no matter who gets it).

• The game goes on for 30-60 seconds. The coaches can add encouragement for pace, puck movement; and might counsel the players on strategy (cycling, staying spread out, etc.), when they are resting.

• All defensive coverage is man-on-man. This is a critical learning tool.

• This drill teaches stickhandling skills, playmaking skills (especially 2-on-1), defensive zone coverage skills, scoring skills, pace – and is excellent game situation goaltender training.

– Variation B (top of circle)

• All the same rules apply, except the whole game is “crunched down” to the top of the circle.

• This make everything tighter, so stickhandling is more intense and passing must be better. Defensive coverage is actually easier, although cycling is still very possible.

– Variation C (shots)

• The tag up now goes back to the blue line and all the other rules apply EXCEPT:

• The tag-up defensemen now (or two defensemen) shoot on the net every time the puck is tagged up.

• This now becomes very much a tipping and rebounding drill as well as intense positioning and coverage at the net.

• It is great for D to learn how to properly shoot. Defensemen get game situation shooting practice over and over again.

– Variation D

• Now two D are again at the blue line.

• The tag-up D can shoot, x pass, pass; their choice.

• Many variations can be set by the coach.

It is really intense for the goaltenders, who will get the best workouts of all. The goalies will learn to find the puck through legs and bodies and will also figure out how to minimize rebounds.

This is probably the most fun drill for the players and may well teach more things than any other drill. It is what I now use as the basis for the team power play. As a team we want to move up the ice, shoot from the outside, and go to the net as many times as possible. Once in the zone, the team just plays 3-on-3 tag-up shots. 

To make any of these tag-up games more competitive, make them “challenge” games. That means, once a threesome scores, they stay and a new threesome comes to challenge. The defenders can stay as long as they aren’t scored upon. No scoring at the end of 30-60 seconds is a loss for the challengers. These challenge games can get pretty intense. Line and D pride also create good competition. Competition is a real key to good intensity.


Drill #2: 3-0 Flow: This sounds like a pretty simple approach (a 3-0 attack full ice starting behind the net with the center; always weaving down the ice) to an impactive drill. However, I use the 3-0 flow drill for several things:

• Various passing improvements: It is a passing/receiving drill primarily. I can emphasize hard passing, one timers, drop passes, etc. Passes should be at pretty good angles, as the players cross and weave.

• Positioning improvements: It is a good time to emphasize keeping lanes filled and keeping a wide spread. The weaving to keep lanes full is critical.

• Scoring improvements: Players need to approach and attack the net effectively.

• High pace: This drill can be  pushed harder and harder. I often use it as a conditioning drill in the last 5-10 minutes of practice. The players much prefer this over straight skating.

• The defensemen particularly like this drill because it gives them a chance to attack down the ice.

Drill #3: Center Circle Skate:

• This drill can be done on any circle. When I practice by myself, I do it at the center circle, because there is more room (if players fall).

• Again, very basic stuff. Three at a time (in lines of three and defense groups – around the circle one and one half times and out the other side – the drill ends at the blue line on the other side). The next three go only when the three before are fully across in front of them. The coach should release the next three so they don’t leave too early. The only rule is that players must keep their feet moving.

• Once all have gone one direction, the drill starts over in the other direction. Once that is done, the whole thing is done over again backwards.

• Now, this doesn’t sound too terribly difficult so far. However, all of this is done with full contact. Checking, light hooking, sticks turned around, bumping is not only allowed, but is strongly encouraged.

• The players have a ball. I use this drill to end 60-70 percent of my practices. The players leave the ice laughing and still bumping. It is a great drill for balance and to get used to physical play. After awhile, players will be able to go full tilt, bumping and grinding all the while, and (most of the time) stay on their feet.

One more practice item: I always start my practices with one or two shooting drills for the first five minutes. The first is a fast feet run across the top of the circle (half team each end) and shoot, either backhand or forehand. By the end of the season I want my players to be able to shoot with feet moving, as well as to shoot a backhand (they have to set their feet a little).

The second is simply a moving slapshot. Players come from the far blue line or red line and learn to shoot a slapshot in rhythm with their stride. Shots are from top of circle or further out and are staggered, three players at a time.

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.