In hockey, great passers and playmakers are made, not born. Playmakers see the entire ice and know where their teammates, and opponents, are on the rink at all times. But these skills are developed over time.
Do you think Patrick Kane gained the supernatural ability to thread passes through defenders overnight? Of course not. It took years of practice and hard work.
But by using station-based drills and small-area games, coaches can help foster “hockey sense,” a cornerstone of good playmakers and passers.
Learning hockey sense in confined areas
“Not only will they work on skills, they’ll learn to create time and space,” USA Hockey National Coach-in-Chief Mike MacMillan said about small-area games. “Inadvertently, as they grow and develop in hockey, they’re going to develop that hockey sense.”
Sometimes coaches can overthink things. Coaches want to tell players to move the puck and, if they do, their teammate will give it back to them. However, putting them into a small area, where they have to learn the lessons of give-and-go, is better than telling them.
“There are situations that will force, without them being told, that if you don’t pass the puck, you’re going to lose the puck,” MacMillan said. “That player then will figure out, without a lot of coaching, that it’s better to pass it and I will get it back in a scoring opportunity.”
At any level, the majority of the game is played in small areas. Even in situations where the game is flowing, like a 2-on-1 from the blue line, lessons from small-area games can be applied. Learning in confined areas increases a player’s ability to make smart plays.
“The quicker you can adjust and the quicker you can understand time and space, it is accelerated in a smaller area,” MacMillan said. “So if you do the station-based practices and work on specific tactics in a small area in the stations, then you go into a small-area game, it gets accentuated. You’re going to accelerate the development of reading and reacting and hockey sense.”
Get them started young
Understanding time and space is crucial in the sport. It’s never too early to start developing those “hockey sense” skills.
“Even from age 6, if they go through the correct stations and play small-area games and do some of the station-based practice plans, they’ll begin developing those skills,” MacMillan said.
Coaches need to allow players to learn concepts like spatial awareness on their own. Station-based drills help the process because it shrinks the size of the playing surface. And remember, it’s OK to allow them to learn through failure.
“It really is a process,” MacMillan said. “If coaches are patient and follow station-based drills, that player will learn spatial awareness rather than if they’re doing full-ice drills.”
Give and receive
Just as important as learning how to give a pass is learning how to receive a pass. A big part of hockey sense is playing without the puck.
“Passing and receiving is a 50-50 deal,” MacMillan said. “It’s not just the passer making the pass; it’s the receiver catching the pass and putting himself into a good position to get the pass.”
Open ice is often referred to as “soft areas,” those in-between pockets where players move to find lanes. A great example of a player finding soft areas was Auston Matthews in his NHL debut. The 2016 first-overall pick found soft areas on three of his record-breaking four goals.
“He found soft spots and created situations where he got open,” MacMillan said. “He made it very easy for his teammate to get him the puck.”
Practice, practice, practice
Go to an NHL practice and you’ll see every drill is reliant on players making tape-to-tape passes. As players progress, coaches can begin to implement drills that utilize more advanced passes, such as one-touch, indirect and area passing. But before they can use the boards, they have to hone the fundamentals.
“You have to start with the basics,” MacMillan said. “The station work allows you to progress into indirect passes or into areas.”
Following USA Hockey’s American Development Model station-based practices and small-area drills teaches kids things that players from yesteryear learned in a less structured environment. Coaches can encourage playmaking and passing, while nurturing hockey sense. If coaches need ideas for practice plans or games to help develop playmaking skills, they can keep a plethora of drills in their pocket on the USA Hockey Mobile Coach.
“Spatial awareness and game understanding, you have to practice that,” MacMillan said. “Sometimes coaches overthink drills, but the ADM takes it back to the pond. That’s where Neal Broten learned it. Now they’re learning it in small areas and stations.”