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Nurturing Puck Skills, Soft Hands and Creativity

By Michael Caples, 12/03/15, 4:30PM MST

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Rick Trupp’s son, Evan, is labeled a “stickhandling wizard” in a YouTube video that has almost 40,000 views.

In the video, Evan – currently skating with the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves – is shown during his North Dakota days picking up a bouncing puck with his stick, and literally carrying the puck on his blade through defenders while moving at top speed.

“Evan has an extra sense when it comes to his ability to manipulate the puck,” said the elder Trupp, coach-in-chief of USA Hockey’s Alaska District. “If you ask him, he’d probably account that to all the time that he spent on the ice and off the ice in free play, rollerblading in our cul-de-sac when he was younger and playing with a tennis ball and trying to manage that thing, and playing on an outdoor rink and playing pond hockey. Aside from the regular practices and clinics and things like that, it was just something that he really adapted to and he started out real young with a stick in his hands.”

So how can young players improve their stickhandling skills, soft hands and creativity?

Free Play

It’s important to allow the player to find and develop his or her own creativity and hand-eye coordination.

“There’s the off-ice training, and that’s encouraging the players in the summertime to play ball hockey, and in the wintertime, play on an outdoor pond, if you have that luxury – in Alaska we do,” Trupp said. “A lot of free play helps build confidence and skills in handling the puck. That free play can even be with the mini hockey sticks, with a ball and a small stick, because it’s still managing a bouncing ball and working on hand-eye coordination. It’s building soft hands, developing rhythm in your hands, and developing that hand-eye coordination.”

Puck Skills in Practice

Coaches certainly play a strong role in creating better hockey players, of course.

“From the perspective of coaching teams, always including puck-handling and that skill development in practice every day,” Trupp said. “Add different flavors and elements of puck-handling so that, whether it’s range of motion with the puck, or developing a feel for the puck or working in small, tight areas with the puck and then competing with a player for the puck, changing and adding those elements when you’re teaching and doing drills related for [puck skills].”

Use USA Hockey’s recommended practice plans to maximize skill development. All practice plans, drills, manuals and more than 800 videos are also available on the newly updated Mobile Coach app.

Proper Warmups

Alaska’s coach-in-chief recommends that his fellow coaches incorporate drills that warm up both the players’ legs and their hands early in each skate.

“A lot of the drills I would do early in practice are skating drills with the puck, edge drills, balance drills, and range-of-motion drills, skating and carrying the puck,” he said.

Trupp then recommends putting a group of players inside a circle to practice various puck-handling exercises, whether it’s one hand on the stick, switching hands, changing hands from left hand to play right-handed, using top hand only, bottom hand only, or not allowing the puck to touch your backhand by keeping everything on your forehand so you’re cradling the puck.

“Doing those things, you’re just warming up the players’ abilities so that, when you go through practice, those skills and that rhythm and comfort carries through that practice, and you have more success in other drills, whether it’s passing or shooting or situational game play,” says Trupp.

More Puck Touches, More Comfort

To create better offensive players, it’s crucial to get each player more comfortable with the puck on their stick.

“Increasing the number of touches and opportunities they get to have is No. 1,” says Trupp. “So creating drills and small games that have an element of the game to them and making sure there’s repetition and opportunity to read and react to the situations, through failure or success, is critical.

“I’m recommending small-area games to help kids develop those playmaking and scoring abilities.”

Explain the Benefits to the Players

Another key is to make sure players understand why the coaching staff is putting them through particular drills or small-area games as it relates to what they’ll be doing on a real game day.

“I think sometimes one of the things we forget to do as coaches is make sure that when you’re introducing or teaching certain elements or skills of the game, we also have to relate it to game situations so there’s a connection there,” says Trupp. “And when those things happen in a game, kids recognize it. It’s not just teaching a drill, or running a drill you read in a book, it also has to have some meaning, a small component, a small progression as to how it relates to a game situation.”

Build the Foundation

The most important thing for developing goal scorers and stickhandling wizards, however, is to make sure they have a strong foundation of skills. A player can be an elite stickhandler and shooter, but it’s not going to do them much good if they aren’t a fundamentally strong skater.

“That’s huge,” Trupp said. “It’s like expecting an infant to run before they crawl and walk. You have to start on that important foundation. The game isn’t fun if you can’t do the basic things, so you really have to spend a lot of time building a foundation as a player so that they can have that success and fun as they progress.”

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