To learn puck protection, you must understand the main reason why you need to protect the puck
By Ted Belisle
During the Edmonton Oilers’ 2006 run to the Stanley Cup, a question was posed to then-head coach Craig McTavish about his definition of the perfect player. His answer was, “…One whom the play never dies with….” This made so much sense to me, and is a great mindset leading into the topic of learning the art of hockey puck protection.
When I watch younger hockey players practicing puck protection drills, the most popular drill I see is a player with the puck standing on a face-off dot, fending off an opposing player by standing still. While the drill does allow a player to learn how to fend off a defender, it ignores the single most important element of puck protection: creating time and space. There are more elements of puck protection that a player must grasp in order to become one of those “whom the play never dies with.”
To learn puck protection properly, you must understand the main reason as to why you need to protect the puck. A player does this to create enough time and space from the defender, in order to make the next play. I believe there are 5 elements of puck protection that enable a player to become a very good puck protector.
1. The Puck Safe Zone
The first element that must be learned is recognition of the “puck safe zone.” My definition of the puck safe zone is any area in which the defender cannot reach the puck. A phrase I like to use a lot is, “Don’t front the puck.” When a player fronts the puck, they are immediately exposing themselves and are at greater risk of losing possession of the puck within the reach of the defender. A great puck protector always understands that the odds of losing possession of the puck increase substantially when the puck is fronted, or exposed, to the reach of the defender’s stick.
The puck safe zone changes constantly, depending on body position, reach of the defender and placement of the puck. Being able to handle the puck quickly into the safe zone (away from the defender’s reach) will help you maintain puck possession and the ability to make the next play.
2. Create a Body Shield
With the days of “hitting and pinning” behind us, the puck carrier has more ability to maintain a safe zone that creates more possession time. The most efficient way to create a safe zone is to form a “body shield” between you and the defender.
Creating a body shield is, quite simply, putting your body between the defender and the puck. The easiest way to achieve that is to pivot your backside into the defender. This will prevent the defender from being able to enter the player’s safe zone. The puck possessor has now created separation from the defender, and should be able to keep their head up and look for the next play.
3. Fend Off the Defender
After creating a puck safe zone with a body shield, you must be able to prevent the defender from gaining access to the puck safe zone. The puck carrier must learn the element of how to fend off a defender’s attempt to gain possession of their puck.
The puck protector can ward off a defender by using their body to prevent access of the defender’s stick into the puck safe zone. Focus on learning how to use your arms and legs to repel advances by the defender. It is important for you to establish this habit for successful puck protection. To successfully employ this tactic, it is very important to learn the skill of handling the puck with one hand. You must practice handling the puck while using only your top hand or bottom hand.
4. Leverage the Wall
There are times when defenders still find a way to get an opposing player pinned or pinched along the boards. To develop into an excellent puck protector, you must learn how to use the wall (boards) to your advantage. You do this by using the wall as leverage, and the best way to do that is by using both of your hands to push off the wall. This is very much like a push-up or a bench-press motion. While you push away from the wall, you must also simultaneously push your backside into the defender. By leveraging the wall, you can create enough time and space along the wall to make the next play and keep possession of the puck.
Finally, in my opinion the “cut-back” is the most important element of puck protection. The cut-back incorporates using legs and speed to help create more time and space in order to make the next play. The use of cut-backs enables the puck protector to create ice behind them to escape into, by turning away from the defender while not fronting the puck. Cut-backs use misdirection by quickly utilizing a “C”-cut in the ice, to change direction away from the defender.
To successfully use the cut-back, you have to learn the proper elements. You must use deception in order to get the opposing player committed to defending a certain area. I call this “selling the cut-back.”
You must bait the defender into thinking you are tearing up the ice in a certain direction. You accomplish this by “staying busy” and attacking an area while keeping the puck in the safe zone, using your body as a shield to fend off the defender’s advances. By challenging a certain area, you are forcing the defender to protect the area that you are skating into. As such, you have “sold” the defender on protecting that area.
When the defender commits to that area, you have created ice behind you to cut back into. When the puck protector decides to cut back, it is very important for them to stay busy and attack in the other direction. While attacking in another direction, you have created enough time and space to make the next play, while continuing to use the other elements to maintain possession of the puck. A player can use many cut-backs in a single possession of the puck, until the next play is available.
The best way to learn these habits is by using resistance drills with space to roam. Allow yourself to practice these habits all together while moving your feet, thus creating more time and space.
You can use one-on-one drills, but some of the best ways to learn puck possession is by creating outnumbered situations. For example, set up a 1vs2 drill in a corner or a 2vs3 drill low, in which there are more defenders than puck protectors. These drills place the emphasis on puck protection and force the puck carrier to have tough odds in maintaining possession of the puck.
Ted Belisle is the assistant coach at Bemidji State University. He played at BSU from 1997-2001 (captain in 2001), then worked in the USHL for two years before joining his alma mater as an assistant coach in 2007. He is also the BSU recruiting coordinator. Republished by permission of Let’sPlayHockey.com.