Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings knows that the game has changed since his playing days. It’s faster, the players are more skilled and puck possession is arguably the hottest hockey term out there right now. And it all goes hand in hand.
We sat down with Hastings, whose Mavericks are off to an impressive start this season, to talk body-checking, body contact and puck-possession skills.
USA Hockey: When you talk about body-checking and body contact in today’s game, what comes to your mind?
Mike Hastings: One thing that I think is real important in this whole subject is the difference and the change in what a stick is being used for. It was always either to shoot or to give yourself some room, whether it was to distribute it at shoulder length or higher, or making sure the feet, ankle or back of the legs of your opponent were targeted. The game has changed. Now stick position is as good of a deterrent as body-checking in my opinion.
USA Hockey: So maybe less about shoulders and elbows and more about stick and body positioning?
Mike Hastings: We tell our players to use their sticks in a way that they’re trying to put the stick on the puck, to take good angles while they’re attacking somebody, and to take away options by using your feet and getting there as quickly as they can. And then using their stick to try and create turnovers as opposed to just going and running through somebody. We want them to avoid getting on the wrong side of the opponent, where they’re beating them back to what’s called “important ice” today.
USA Hockey: That sounds like the opposite of the term “finish your check.”
Mike Hastings: We talk about bumps. I don’t remember talking about bumps when I started back in the USHL. It was “finish your check.” In today’s language, from our end, it’s about making sure you’re in a position that once you go and bump somebody or get stick pressure on somebody, you’re closer to your net and you’re closer to their net. Because then you’re in a better position than your opponent. Part of it is playing smarter, not harder.
USA Hockey: This is a skill, right? It’s not just the biggest and toughest player on the ice that’s going to excel at this.
Mike Hastings: I think that’s why you’re seeing the success of the smaller player. Today’s game, it’s interesting to sit in our lounge and have the NHL Network air a classic NHL game. For me, it’s not a classic. I remember watching it. But to see our guys just say ‘Coach, look at how slow the game is.’ The game now is about speed. Size still does play a role, but what separates the bigger guys at the highest levels is that they can move and think and create problems with their feet, their stick and their body. That’s a unique combination.
USA Hockey: For kids, is it important to learn how to receive contact as well?
Mike Hastings: No question. The game is becoming so fast, you need to understand where you’re at on the rink. If you’re five feet from the boards, you need to be aware of what’s coming. It used to be only defensemen that gave the look over their shoulders to see ‘What’s coming? Who’s forechecking me?’ Now you’re trying to get the players to face the puck as much as possible. If you give yourself more information, just like going in for a test at school, you’re going to probably make a better decision and be more prepared.
USA Hockey: So the boards can be used to the puck carrier’s benefit?
Mike Hastings: I call the wall a safety zone. It used to be that a lot of guys didn’t want to get to a wall. Now I think it cuts down your blind spots. Get to areas where you can face the puck, not turn your back to a puck. Then you know where it’s at and where it could potentially be going.
USA Hockey: And isn’t this about regaining and maintaining possession of the puck after all?
Mike Hastings: If you have the puck more, you’re going to have more chances to score. Period. I go back to my playing days. I didn’t get quite as tired with the puck as I did chasing it. I could have a minute-long shift if I had the puck or we had it. If I was chasing it for a minute, I found a way to get awfully tired. If you have it, you’re in a better position to create and play offense, score, win and have more fun.