When it comes right down to it, hockey is a series of 1-on-1 battles. They happen all over the ice at all levels.
USA Hockey caught up with Pat Mikesch, head coach and general manager of the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, to talk about 1-on-1 battles and how important they are in a player’s development.
USA Hockey: How have you seen 1-on-1 battles evolve over time?
Pat Mikesch: The game’s always been about players that can win their 1-on-1 battle and then, ultimately, that’s how you create a 2-on-1. Scoring opportunities come from gaining that advantage in all situations. The game 20 years ago, there was so much more stick being used, or even 10 years ago, where the defender has the advantage a lot of times by being able to use his stick for more of a clutch-and-grab game. Now the game has evolved where the offensive player has a huge advantage because of the rules and the lack of clutch-and-grab that was used 10 years ago.
USA Hockey: Puck possession is a popular term today. How do 1-on-1s fuel puck possession?
Mikesch: If they’re finding ways, offensively, to maintain pucks in their 1-on-1 battles and control the game that way – obviously that’s a sign that they’re winning them offensively. Then a player, defensively, is spending less time in their defensive positioning and they’re able to gain positioning quicker and take advantage of the offensive players. You see less time defending, more time in the offensive zone, when you’re seeing the 1-on-1 battles being won.
USA Hockey: Simply put, does winning 1-on-1 battles translate into winning games?
Mikesch: Without a doubt. The game just breaks down into one battle after another of one-on-one. The players that can win those are going to give you back the advantage in every situation. So it’s obviously a key to success. They have to be able to have success coming out of those battles — not only winning one-on-one battles, but being able to do it consistently against players that are bigger and stronger than them, I think is a key before you’re able to move onto another level.
USA Hockey: How can coaches express the importance of these battles to the players?
Mikesch: I think that by the time they come to our level, it’s been engrained into them. It starts at the lower levels and putting kids in situations where they learn to compete that way in practice so they understand the importance of, first of all, defending well, and then once you’ve defended well, being able to maintain (possession of) that puck and win your offensive battles as well. Emphasizing that at the younger ages is important, so that by the time they get to the junior level, it’s engrained into them and they understand that the team will win when you’re able to win more battles than you lose.
USA Hockey: Are there any specific drills that coaches at those younger levels, or any level, can use to help emphasize this?
Mikesch: Small-area games put people into those situations immediately, because that’s what it comes down to. Especially when you get to those higher levels as the gaps are going to be tighter and you’re going to have to play in a smaller space against somebody. So any time you can put the kids into a situation where it’s a controlled, one vs. one, smaller, confined area, they start to learn that body positioning and puck protection from the offensive side of it, and, from the defensive side of it, the ability to separate an offensive player from the puck.
USA Hockey: How closely do scouts or coaches look at these 1-on-1 battles or compete levels in prospects?
Mikesch: I think compete and battle are what the highest levels are all about. At the college and professional levels, players have to be able to compete and play through all kinds of 1-on-1 battles all game long. And you have to be able to do it consistently. That’s one thing you hear from scouts in the NHL level over and over again is “Is he able to win his 1-on-1 battles on a regular basis?” It’s obviously, at the highest levels, what they look at night in and night out.