If you were to watch hockey exclusively on social media, you’d think the game was primarily made up of highlight-reel goals and big saves. While those plays are certainly a memorable part of the game, a less admired aspect is the action in the ‘tough’ areas of the ice – along the boards and in the corners. It is this crucial part of hockey can make or break a game and often set up those highlight-reel plays.
USA Hockey's National Team Development Program Head Coach Dan Muse believes those hard areas may be undervalued at the youth level, especially in practices.
“Look how often players and situations are in tight areas, specifically in the corners or along the walls,” Muse said. “From youth hockey all the way to the NHL, how often in an actual game, the puck is on the wall or play originates from the wall? Then you look at how often you practice plays on the wall, I’m not sure if it lines up and is worked on or talked about enough.”
Muse talks about how his team works on wall and corner play and how youth coaches can make their teams tough in these areas.
During practice, you don’t have to devote an entire drill to corner or wall work, but it can be a creative way to start a developing play. Start opposing players, one on offense and one on defense, on their knees and have them retrieve the puck along the wall before attacking the net or defending it.
“You can incorporate that into a lot of different exercises, and now it puts the players into a very game-like situation,” Muse said.
Getting off the wall and into open ice is a skill that is developed through repetition. Allowing players to maneuver in tight areas in practice is the best way for that skill to translate in a game.
“We’re working with a skill set that is extremely important. A player’s ability to maneuver and to work to get space off the walls, handle the puck and make plays off the walls, especially being able to create that separation and space when starting in that area,” Muse said “But they are also in an environment that simulates the game and they have to make decisions that are game-like.”
Dan Muse - Photo by Rena Laverty
A way that the NTDP practices corner and wall work is the same way USA Hockey implores youth coaches to teach the sport – through small area games.
“A very large portion of our practice is small area games, or situations that start in small areas,” Muse said. “We definitely work to incorporate and make sure the players are in the most game-like situations possible so they can make game-speed decisions. Sometimes they are in less confined space by design, because so much of the game is played with limited time and space and played on the walls.”
Muse said that keeping score during these small area games helps get the most out of his players without having to get on them about working hard or increasing the intensity.
“Creating a highly competitive environment is a primary goal that we try to have here every day and all coaches should have,” Muse said.
Muse said that having a highly competitive environment helps creates more competitive players – and that becomes contagious in a group.
“As you go through the year, your team and players can develop those competitive characteristics in practice and it’s going to transfer into games and it’s going to transfer into them as athletes,” Muse said.
Players can’t win board/corner battles without developing competitive contact skills, which are also honed in small area games. Competitive contact skills such as body positioning, angling, and stick on puck must be taught at each age level to maximize development and player safety.
While we often think of corner and wall play as one-on-one battles, hockey is a team sport. The players away from the puck are crucial.
“For the player supporting the puck, it’s really recognizing the time and space. It’s recognizing, how can I make myself an option? How much pressure is my teammate under? The different degrees of pressure dictate the different degrees of support,” Muse said. “On offense, you want to be in the best place possible for your teammate to give you the puck to be an option, but you also want to be in the best position possible to make that next play.”
Teams spend half the game without the puck and learning how to use corners and walls when you don’t have the puck as a way to get it back.
“On the defensive side, it’s important to use the walls as a defensive advantage and steer and angle opponents into those areas to take away that time and space and recover pucks,” Muse said. He added the defensive support’s task is, “to take away that support option as quickly as possible and also be in position to recover on a breakdown.”
In the end, support on both sides of the puck, offense and defense, can be taught through small area games. Check out USA Hockey’s small area games webpage, specifically the Goal Line Small Area Game as a way to teach support in the corner through play. Download the USA Hockey Mobile Coach app to access drills, games, practice plans, videos and more coaching resources all in the palm of your hand.
“It’s creating the environment where players can solve that puzzle a little bit themselves. Everything we’ve talked about, I wouldn’t sit a player down and tell them. As coaches you need to put them in situations where they need to learn to gather information as they go,” Muse concluded. “That’s not something you want to explain beforehand, you have to put them in a situation where now they can solve that puzzle themselves. If they can’t solve it, then you ask them questions that can help lead them to figure it out on their own.”