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Getting Open: 4 Tips from an NHL Skills Coach

By Steve Mann, 05/10/22, 12:00PM MDT

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As great as Wayne Gretzky was, he wouldn’t have broken any records without teammates that had the ability to get open for one of his tape-to-tape passes or find him maneuvering his way through open windows to get himself into shooting position near the soon-to-be helpless netminder. 

“Getting open” is one of the more underrated skills in hockey, and an often misunderstood one across the sports landscape. 

In basketball, players with the ability to move without the ball and create and come off screens are invaluable to their teams, as they keep defenses guessing and force them to work harder in their own defensive zone. 

The same things are present on the ice, where players with the ability to not only get open for passes, but receive them properly, can take pressure off their teammates and sometimes break games open with a big play.  

“If you watch games, about 80 percent of the goals are made off a pass and quick release, it’s not dangling through multiple people,” said Paul Vincent, head skills instructor for the NHL’s Florida Panthers. “The player who gets the puck, moves it, moves back into a position to receive it, will help create positive outcomes for his or her team.”

Vincent, a renowned leader in the skating and skills development field, who previously worked with NHL teams in Tampa Bay, Chicago, Boston and New Jersey, shared the following tips to help players improve their “getting open” skills:

· Get off the wall – Let’s say your team is breaking out of the zone. It’s important for you to come off the boards, so if a pass comes your way, you’re 6-8 feet off the wall. Then if the D comes at you, they have figure out which direction you’re going to go after you receive the pass. If you stay closer to the wall, it’s easier to defend and trap. 

· Keep your head on a swivel – If you watch the elite guys, they have a sense and a feel for their surroundings and always have their head on a swivel. If I’m skating through neutral ice, I want to see if the defense is pinching or holding up or if there’s another forward coming across to intercept me. If I know what the defense is doing, and the pass comes my way, I’ll know whether I’ll have time to corral it or deflect it, chip it by him and pursue it. Your head should always be scanning to understand where everyone is. In Chicago, we used to do a drill with the defense – they’d dump the puck in the corner, do a head check, collect, then head check, head check before going behind the puck, head check again to know where the pressure was coming from. 

· Present a good target – If you turn your back on the puck, you won’t be able to catch it properly, and it will end up being a stab at it rather than a smooth transition from defense to offense. A smooth transition is coming across always facing the puck carrier. So, if I’m on my forehand hip, I’m presenting a target, and hands should be out in front of me. If I’m going right to left, I want the puck up ice, so want to present the target out in front of me a bit more, so that player sees my whole stick blade.

· Communication is key – Eye contact on the ice is important. If I look at you and then look away, maybe that’s an indication that I’m not ready for a pass. But if I look away first and then look at you, but act like I’m not looking at you, that means I am ready. Good verbal communication is equally important. If you’ve played long enough together, you know teammates’ cues on the ice. You may call someone by a nickname or say something unique when you want a pass. For example, you may see the defense pinching on you but your teammate with the puck doesn’t, so you may say “no” or “wheel” or something to let them know you aren’t really open or ready for a pass. On a breakout, I might yell “middle, middle” or something to let them know where you want the puck moved. Tap of the stick can work, but anyone can tap their stick and create confusion, so I’d rather see verbal communication or eye contact.

In many cases, Vincent says, getting open is simply about instincts taking over. 

“It’s a hockey IQ thing, a mental mindset, and it can be developed,” he says. “Nobody likes to lose, even in beer leagues. You want to have fun, but it’s still more fun when you win. So, you have to tell yourself, last time I got trapped, I turned it over. I didn’t have good hand positioning. Think about it for a few minutes and focus on how you can play better tonight.”