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Hockey Sense: Why It’s Important and How to Develop Young Players

By Mike Doyle, 01/08/24, 3:45PM MST

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Scanning, Awareness, Practice Planning and More

When human beings interact with our environment, we use all of our perceptual abilities. Our awareness for our surroundings is developed through the information we pull in from our senses. 

For hockey players, the environment is on the ice. So, for players to excel in their environment, coaches need to help them develop their perceptual skills and on-ice awareness, aka hockey sense. 

“When you watch players, a lot of times the mistakes that they make are due to lack of awareness, not due to the lack of the physical capabilities to be able to do something,” said Ken Martel, USA Hockey Senior Director of Player and Coach Development. “Why did they make that decision or not? And that’s what we’re trying to get towards. How do we help them be more aware on the ice and be more aware of the right things at the right time?”

Defining Hockey Sense

Hockey sense and hockey IQ are often used interchangeably, even though they shouldn’t be. Hockey sense is knowledge within the game – reading and reacting – while hockey IQ is knowledge about the game. For coaches, this is an important distinction because hockey sense is about in-game reads and execution. 

“I like the term hockey sense because it means you’re using your perceptual abilities,” Martel said. “You’re sensing things in the surroundings.” 

Using hockey sense, players must develop the knowledge within the game to see their surroundings while traveling at high speeds and make split-second decisions. 

“Can they recognize – if they are in the moment, on the ice, in the middle of the play, first person, at speed, in a high-level contest – would they recognize... 99% of the time is no, they can’t do it at the speed say our NHL players do it,” Martel said. “So, recognizing that knowledge within, understand in that split second, perceive what is happening and interact with that information is the essence of playing.” 

Scanning

Martel was a recent guest on the USA Hockey Podcast and discussed the topic of developing on-ice awareness and hockey sense. In the podcast, he brings up a less familiar term but one that should become a part of hockey’s lexicon: scanning. 

“Scanning is the physical turning of the head to pull in information that is outside our range of vision,” Martel said. “Scanning says, to me, find things.”

For Martel, it’s apparent why some players have more hockey sense than others. First, they take a look away from the puck and play to check their surroundings. Second, they can process information at a fast rate. 

“It’s a very simple tell for coaches to start to understand how aware their players are because you can see it if they scan or you see it if they don’t because that physical turn of the head,” Martel said. “Even the play where you say, ‘Oh wow, did you see that play? Players got eyes in the back of their head.’ And then you back up the game film three or four seconds and can see, oh yeah, they looked.” 

Practice Knowledge Within to Improve Hockey Sense

For coaches to improve players’ scanning, hockey sense and knowledge within the game, it’s important to design practice plans that include game-like situations and decision making. Too many times, drills are used that take away these processing skills to focus on other ones. 

“Think about the drills we do. We’ve stripped away all context of the game. Billy is told you skate here and do that – well, there’s no read, no decision, no adjustment,” Martel said. “And then we think that’s preparing them for a game.” 

USA Hockey wants coaches to ask themselves, what does that game demand in the moment and does my practice activity have some of that? It is a player’s ability to perceive and be aware that allows them to play.

“They learn with knowledge within by being in the moment and having to perceive and adjust and react and adapt to what’s going on around them. And that’s where the awareness comes in. You only act on the information that you perceive,” Martel said. 

For younger players at 12U and under, warmup is a great place to start. Martel give the example of adding in scanning assignments to a chaos puck-handling warmup.  

“Maybe it’s everyone is stickhandling around with a puck and I have to keep track of a teammate. So now that teammate is sometimes behind me,” he said. “It’s more opportunity where I have to look up and find something in particular. That might be a situation from an offensive situation where the puck carrier is getting scanning reps.”  

Small area games are another place where coaches can help their players developing scanning and hockey sense. USA Hockey has an online book of games with a number of situations that call for scanning, both offensively and defensively, to develop their game within skills. 

“For the older players, it’s can I have a puck and can I find someone else up ice? It’s kind of one of those topics of, duh, good players look around more. But then you go watch your players play and they don’t look around,” Martel said. 


And even though hockey sense and scanning are part of developing players’ knowledge within, it’s still important to expand their knowledge about (aka hockey IQ), so they understand the objective.

“Talk to them about it… are you seeing? Make it part of what you do.”  

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