Hockey is such a fast game. The moment you get the puck, you’re under immediate pressure from the opposing team.
So how do you keep it? How can you buy that extra time and space to make a play that helps your team?
Protecting the puck isn’t easy, but it’s an essential skill to elevate your game. Blaine Buterbaugh is the assistant hockey director at the Robert Morris University Sports Center and has been there for 20 years. Buterbaugh works with all ages and previously served as an assistant coach for the Division I Robert Morris women’s hockey program.
Use Your Body
In many cases, your body should be the first line of defense against an opponent trying to take away the puck, Buterbaugh says.
“At the end of the day, it really is just about using your body, whether it’s your butt or your hip, and trying to create separation between the puck and your opponent,” he said.
Buterbaugh says he’ll often set up ringettes and have players stand still to get a good understanding of their body position and how that might help create separation between them and an opponent. A simple game of keepaway with one other person in a small space like a faceoff circle is another good way to practice. Other drills build off of that basic concept, but ultimately it’s a matter of getting a feel for how your body can help shield the puck.
“I think it’s one of those things that it is a feel thing and you just have to understand how your body’s going to work and have a good base and be very solid in your balance and body control,” he said. “I think it’s an experience thing, too. You just kind of get a feel for how to use your body to create that space.”
Use the Boards
In addition to using your body, the boards can be your friend with regards to puck protection. It’s just another example of utilizing your surroundings to help keep the puck on your stick.
“Nobody from outside of the rink is coming to steal your puck, right?” Buterbaugh said. “You know that if you can create a little bit of space between you and the boards and use your body to protect that space, you’re only worried about 180 degrees, essentially, of people that are trying to steal your puck.”
While your upper/lower body is shielding opponents, you can kick the puck to keep it moving, escape pressure, make a pass and maintain possession. Try playing keepaway or 2-on-2 in the corners with teammates to work on board control.
Keep the Feet Moving
Once you’ve got the puck on your stick, you’re a much easier target for an opponent if you stop moving. Keep the skates moving and the legs churning, and you’ve got a better chance of keeping that puck in your possession.
“It’s a lot harder to hit something that’s moving,” Buterbaugh said. “It doesn’t always necessarily have to be a hit, but it’s harder to track down a moving target than a stationary target. If you’re able to do all of those things while keeping your feet moving, it’s making it harder for your opponent to gain control of the puck.”
Off-ice Drills Can Help
Players in adult leagues might not have the luxury of the extra ice time that youth players get, but Buterbaugh says that doesn’t mean you can’t work on puck protection when you’re not in a game.
Maybe it’s setting up some garbage cans in your driveway and practicing how you can use your body positioning against “opponents” to keep the puck on your stick. Or perhaps it’s some stickhandling drills that will help you gain confidence in your ability to protect the puck.
“Pick a specific game situation and let your mind be your guide and try to replicate that through some kind of small drill and find ways to tweak it in small variants,” Buterbaugh said.
And if you’ve got some young hockey players at home to practice with, even better.
“In terms of adult league players, many of them are going to have kids. Most of them are probably going to have kids that play hockey,” Buterbaugh said. “It’s a two-fold situation. You’re helping them while also trying to do something for yourself as well.”