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Creating offense with zone entries and puck support

By Mike Doyle, 03/30/17, 3:30PM MDT


The objective of hockey is simple: score more than your opponent. However, with the ever-increasing emphasis on defense and goaltending, how do you create offense?

Zone entries are a sometimes-overlooked aspect of the game that often lead to the best offensive opportunities. Within the flow of the game, especially when entering the offensive zone, the objective is to outnumber your opponent, create odd-man chances and increase your probability for success (i.e., 2-on-1, 3-on-1, 3-on-2 advantages and so on).

“It’s important to help players realize they’re not the only ones on the ice when they have the puck and get them to try to find and create support,” said Larry Bruyere, former USA Hockey Pacific District coach-in-chief. “Develop that 2-on-1 strategy and support you’re looking for. Too often, they’re in a hurry to get up the ice and into the zone and then they’re in there all by themselves, so it’s not very effective.”

He believes communication from coaches is key and lessons can begin before even hitting the ice.

“It’s the type of thing that you can spend a lot of time off-ice talking about, to develop the concept of ‘what are we going to do with the puck and how are we going to get it into the zone?’” he said.

Bruyere said that 12U is about the time players should start learning about zone entries. As they become more proficient with puck-handling and passing, they can begin to learn concepts that will maximize zone-entry success and create more scoring chances.

Show some support

In hockey, you never want the puck carrier to be on an island. Bruyere starts teaching zone entries with a basic strategy: support the puck and be an option for teammates.

Proper puck support is necessary in every situation and every zone. It should be practiced, and it should be practiced all over the ice.

“Having puck support when you’re on the attack actually starts when you’re exiting [your own zone],” Bruyere said. “There are teams that pride themselves on being puck-possession teams and the reason they’re so successful is because they give great puck support. They know that, generally, the 40-foot pass isn’t a good option. The 8-to-10-foot-or-less pass is really what the small-area games are all about.

“That’s what the game of hockey is: small-area battles. And puck support makes it work.”

Time and space

When it comes to hockey talk, “time and space” go together like peanut butter and jelly. Time and space is something every good offensive player will try to exploit. The team with the puck is trying to make more, while the defensive team is trying to take it away. It’s an attempt to create more room for yourself or your teammates – either through movement, speed and, more often than not, patience.

“Being a good skater helps; it’s hard to create time and space if you’re lumbering out there,” Bruyere said.

The idea of time and space might be easy for coaches who have spent a lifetime in the game. But for younger players, surveying the rink for open ice and teammates, all while skating and puck-handling at a high speed, can be difficult to process.

“Time and space is fleeting, it’s temporary, so you not only need to be able to create it, but also use it,” Bruyere said. “You’re always looking to open up the ice, reading and reacting to what the defense is doing and taking what they are giving you.”

Filling lanes and attacking with layers

A way to expose time and space is by filling lanes and coming in waves of a layered attack. One player crashes the net, while another supports the puck carrier by trailing the play. When coming into the zone, players should look for open ice, regardless of position. The flow of the game, added with time and space, should determine where a player goes on the attack.

“When I was young, left wing stayed on the left side, right wing on the right. It was a different game. You were only responsible for your side of the ice – that’s certainly changed over the years,” Bruyere said. “Now, where you line up is not necessarily where you play. I don’t have a problem with my left wing being on the right side if he can be the first guy to the puck and vice versa.”

Driving the middle lane

In a basic 3-on-2, often the weak-side player will drive the net, while the player in the middle will stay high for a drop pass. However, getting the middle player to drive the net can create additional space and open up lanes.

“The premise is to back the defense off,” Bruyere said. “It takes speed to make that happen, and courage.”

In this scenario, communication between teammates is crucial. The middle player needs to announce the intention to teammates, so they don’t have multiple players crashing the net. The player on the weak side can see/hear this, come in behind the player going to the net and then fill/trail high to support the puck carrier.

Lateral movement

Changing the plane of attack, by making a cut or lateral move, is one of the most effective ways to create time and space. Lateral movement goes hand in hand with the previous concept of not being limited to one side of the ice.

“I like to have players who don’t mind playing the off-wing, so if I’m a left-hand shot, I’d play the right wing,” Bruyere said. “A left-hander entering the zone on the right side, with speed, is able to back that defender off a little bit. It’s a great opportunity to cut laterally, create space and get a shot or make a play. It’s one of my favorite things to teach kids to do.

“Moving laterally creates time and space and it allows for your teammate to get into position for a pass or a tip-in, and be more effective supporting the puck.”

Gretzky escape (curl back or button-hook)

Regardless of what you want to call it, Wayne Gretzky was the pioneer of putting the defense on their heels by driving wide and then curling back to hit a trailing teammate or creating space for a shot himself.

“Your good hockey players can pull that off,” Bruyere said. “It can be a very effective or very dangerous. Effective in terms of reading the coverage and making that button-hook and then making a decision immediately after buying time: Can I find a guy driving the lane and make a nice pass?”

It’s important for players to gain ice inside the zone (below the tops of the circles) before attempting the escape move. Curling back too close to the blue line is dangerous because of the possibility of a turnover leading to a breakaway.

Activating the defensemen

Often after a Gretzky escape, if you have active defensemen joining the rush, they will be wide open. But defensemen adding to the rush shouldn’t be limited to only when a forward curls back.

“I really like having the [defensemen] getting involved all over the ice,” Bruyere said. “When you get to the higher levels, coaches get more conservative, but if you have a defenseman that can skate and handle the puck, gosh, make that player a part of your offense as often as you can.”

On a quick transition and correct read, a defenseman can jump into the play and support the puck carrier.

“It just creates so much more offense,” Bruyere said. “You don’t see as much of it in the NHL today, unless it’s late in the game and a team is pressing for a goal.”

Change of pace

When entering the zone, players need to be able to utilize their speed. However, it’s not necessarily all about being fast. It’s also about being able to change the speeds to beat defenders; slowing down and speeding up, or vice versa.

“Being deceptive with your speed,” Bruyere said. “Sometimes you want to slow things down once you’ve entered the zone because you have time and space. There’s nothing worse than seeing a player who’s just created some time and space skate themselves into trouble when they could’ve utilized that space instead.”


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One phone call led Johnathan Morrison into a tenured career with the International Paralympic Committee

Long before Johnathan Morrison was the officiating advisory group leader for the International Paralympic Committee, he was a 30-something-year-old trying to find his way on the international circuit. 

Little did Morrison know, a random phone call in October 2005 would change his life. He remembers it like it was yesterday. He had taken a puck to the face a month earlier and was still recovering from a broken cheekbone when Scott Brinkman gave him a ring. 

As the officiating advisory group leader for the International Paralympic Committee at the time, Brinkman was inquiring to see if Morrison had any interest in officiating a three-team sled hockey tournament in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“He called and asked me if I wanted to get involved with the sport,” Morrison recalled. “Honestly, at that time I had never seen a game played. We were having this conversation about getting involved with the sport and he mentioned that there was an event in February 2006 that he wanted to send me to. It was kind of a chance for me to learn the ins and outs of the sport.”

Wait. There was more. 

“He told me if I did good he would send me to the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino,” Morrison said. “I had just moved to the Twin Cities and had just started working the WCHA and that would’ve been right in the middle of playoff time. I remember saying to Scott, ‘When exactly will I know if I’m going to go to Torino?’ I asked because I needed to tell my college supervisor that I was going to be gone for the playoffs. He goes, ‘Well, let me rephrase that. Congratulations. You’ve been selected to go to the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino.’ I was like, ‘Oh crap. Here we go.’”

All of a sudden Morrison was on a crash course, trying to learn the ropes of sled hockey as fast as possible. He watched a bunch of DVDs to study the game as well as any YouTube clips he could get his hands on. 

Then it was off to Colorado Springs without any sort of in-game experience.  

“I got very lucky because the other individual that they sent to that event in Colorado Springs was a gentleman by the name of Scott McDonald,” Morrison said. “He had been around the sport for a long time and he basically taught me the game.”

While the differences were vast, especially considering Morrison had only ever worked with traditional hockey prior to that event, the biggest difference came down to positioning on the ice. 

“Everything I knew about positioning basically got thrown out the window,” Morrison said. “You have to be on top of the play at all times because the penalties are much more subtle and much more difficult to see. You have a stick that’s only 100 centimeters long, so that hook is really hard to see.”

Besides that, Morrison also learned the hard way that certain plays look a heckuva lot different. 

“A guy using his stick underneath his sled to try to shoot a puck in a motion for someone that hasn’t been around sled hockey looks a lot like he basically threw it with his hand,” Morrison said. “I remember I actually waved off a goal that I thought was put in with his hand and everybody else knew he put it in with his stick.”

That three-team sled hockey tournament, featuring the United States, Canada, and Germany, gave Morrison the confidence he needed heading into the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino.

“I had just worked a bunch of games at a really high level,” Morrison said. “I was seeing the best players, so I felt good. When I actually got to the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino it was one of those things where I had to step up and get better every game. There was no choice.”

For Morrison, the first game of the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino was life-changing.

“When I was younger I was hoping to make the NHL (as an official),” Morrison said. “Once I was about 30 years old, I realized that it wasn’t going to happen, so I kind of switched mental gears and said, ‘OK. Let’s go the international route.’ Obviously the brass ring for the international route is the Olympics. That’s what I was pushing for. That’s what I thought I had my best shot at. Then all of a sudden I get this call that I am going to the Paralympics. It took my breath away. I had been working for something like that, and once it happened, all I wanted to do was get ready for it.”

Since then, Morrison has worked three more Paralympic Games (Vancouver, Sochi, and Pyeongchang) on top of handling his current role with the International Paralympic Committee.

In that position, Morrison works with the technical side of the sport, which basically focuses on our rulebooks, as well as the officiating development side of the sport, which essentially is a pathway that finds a way to get the most out of our officials. He also oversees the assigning of certain officials to certain tournaments

“I am looking for officials that have succeeded at some of the highest levels that show a passion for the sport,” Morrison said. “I’d say the passion for the sport is as important, if not more important, than what they have accomplished elsewhere. I don’t want the guy that calls me and is like, ‘Hey. I’m a good linesman. Can I go to the World Championships?’ Sorry. It doesn’t work that way. I want guys that actually love the sport.”

That became a focus based on his experiences with the sport over the better part of the last two decades. He has grown extremely passionate about it, and as the leader of the bunch, he wants every member of his officiating crews to feel the same way. 

“I’ve been in this sport long enough and I know guys that have worked the Calder Cup and worked the Frozen Four that I could introduce them to sport the same way I was introduced and they’d do a good job,” Morrison said. “That said, I want that individual who is so passionate about the sport that they have taken a week out of their summer to come and train with us. I’m looking for someone who is passionate about the sport and I think we’ve done a good job with that so far.”