Every goal scored in a hockey game, no matter the level, stems from the two or three plays that came just before it. Frequently, these plays come in the form of puck battles along the wall or in the corners or other 1-on-1 situations that determine outcomes.
Players that help their team score goals – or stop them – are the type of players coaches want on their teams. Winning 1-on-1 puck battles is one way to stand out in the eyes of these coaches, and young players should focus a substantial portion of their time in becoming better players in tight spaces and excelling in the 1-on-1 situations that coaches consider significant.
But how do coaches inspire their players to give 100 percent in 1-on-1 battles? How do they convey the importance of 1-on-1s to kids?
Prepare Them with Skill Work
Puck battles and other 1-on-1 situations account for most of the game action at all levels of hockey. Working on skills throughout a player’s development in this area will help him or her prepare for each new level.
“If you break down the game of ice hockey, 1-v-1 battles make up the majority of the game at any level,” said Michele Amidon, a USA Hockey ADM regional manager and former U.S. Women’s National Team member. “One needs to maintain possession or gain possession of the puck while battling their opponent directly in front or next to them. Essentially, the game of ice hockey consists of a series of 1-v-1 battles regardless of if you play cross-ice at 8U or on full-ice at the Olympic or NHL level.”
According to Amidon, performing well in these parts of the game requires a combination of solid hockey instincts and skating skills that coaches preach at all levels. They’re not as glamorous as highlight-reel goals, but young players can be sure that their coaches will remember their effort in winning a race to chip a puck out of the zone or keeping it in the zone to prolong a possession. Coaches from the next level, with eyes on the future, will notice, too.
Getting Players to Buy In
Commitment is a major part of winning puck battles and the meaningful 1-on-1 races. Teammates need to work for each other and be willing to compete for the smallest bit of space to win these battles. Young boys and girls playing the game may be most impressed by scoring goals, but teams must win battles to score.
Teaching players the importance of this requires a few different things from coaches. For boys and girls below the 14U level, practicing the skills necessary to excel in this area isn’t the most entertaining part of practice. However, Amidon said designing obstacle courses and relay races to simulate the races and battles for loose pucks helps teach young players the significance of them while keeping practice fun.
“It’s important that these young players obtain the fundamental skating skills, edge control and puck-handling skills in order to execute strong 1-v-1 battles,” Amidon said.
Make Practice Competitive
Integrating practice drills that bring an element of competition to developing these skills will keep players engaged and steadily improving. An effective drill is to divide the ice into a pair of sections with one player starting in each zone. After a coach flips a puck into the zone, players compete for control. Fifteen seconds later, repeat the process by flipping a puck into the opposite zone. When 15 more seconds pass, a third puck is entered into the drill, with the players battling to control it and put a shot on goal. The player who takes the shot wins the drill. This can work at any level of hockey, whether or not players are accustomed to body contact.
As players’ skills evolve accordingly, these drills also expand upon the desire to win these battles. The will to compete and win is a crucial aspect of excelling in these intense, 1-on-1 situations.
Forwards or any player in the attacking zone should focus on puck protection and stickhandling in these drills, trying to gain body position and enough space to make a pass out of the scrum. Defensive players, however, should work on stick-checking and denying the offensive-zone player any passing lanes. Just the same, body position is important since offensive-zone players are more likely to draw penalty calls in these battles. Every player should develop the skills and technique for each side of the puck, no matter their position.
Small-area games work well to foster the development of 1-on-1 skills even without specific drills. However, working these drills into the practice environment will help players improve in tight spaces, whether it’s a 1-on-1 battle or otherwise.
How Does Body Contact Factor In?
As boys and girls get older, the differences that define their games make working on this skill different. The introduction of body-checking in bantams changes things for young men. However, a focus on proper skating and balance will help players at every level. Once body-checking is introduced, teaching players to get proper leverage and body position will help them adjust to 1-on-1 battles at the next level.
While no difference comes into play in girls’ hockey, successfully winning puck battles remains the best way to excel and attract the eyes of coaches. Even with body-checking in boys’ hockey, skating determines 1-on-1 battles more than anything else.
“As the players get stronger and faster, it takes extraordinary skating skills, speed, puck control and hockey sense – read-and-react skills – to battle and compete 1-v-1 effectively in all three zones,” Amidon said.
And that’s really what coaches want. They want players willing to compete in all three zones and those who don’t relent in the face of a puck battle.