Growing up in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, Chad Rau spent hours playing hockey at city parks, local ponds and on a backyard rink his father made. That doesn’t even take into account all the hours he played indoors with his local youth hockey program.
“Those were some of the most fun times I had, just going out there [on the ponds] with older players,” says Rau, a 2005 draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It was kind of cool to play shinny hockey with the older kids and watch what they were doing and model my game after them. It definitely inspired me to be as good as they were.”
Almost 2,000 miles to the west, Andreas Vlassopoulos was refining his game on a backyard concrete slab, shooting pucks and dodging obstacles in his Rollerblades. That was when he wasn’t skating on indoor ice in El Segundo, Calif., with the LA Junior Kings.
“We had a small area in my backyard that my dad made for me, but we had a truck parked back there and there was oil spots and leaves. You had to watch it or you would be slipping on oil spots and running into the truck. It was just a mess,” recalls Vlassopoulos.
“I would always get super mad at my dad, but I guess in the long run it helped out.”
Despite growing up in different hockey backgrounds, the 21-year-olds’ hockey travels crossed paths when they joined the Colorado College Tigers of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Growing up in different cultures and climates, both Rau and Vlassopoulos say their time of unfettered fun was a big part of their development. Not only did they work on their skills, they were developing their hockey sense as well.
What is hockey sense? It’s a term that gets tossed around as much as the puck on a dump and chase. It may mean different things to different people, but it comes down to how players see and think the game.
“Hockey sense is the ability to read and react to different situations and make the right decision under pressure,” says John Hynes, a head coach with the National Team Development Program.
The best example of great hockey sense can be found in the play of the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. Throughout his 20-year NHL career, Gretzky always seemed to be thinking one or two moves ahead of the game.
“When you think of the greats who have played the game, players like Wayne Gretzky, one of the attributes they had was an anticipation of where the play was going to be, where the puck was going to be, and where they needed to be,” says Ron Rolston, head coach of the 2009 U.S. National Junior Team.
Or as Mark Tabrum, director of USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program, puts it, “Don’t go to where the puck is, go to where the puck is going to be. That’s hockey sense in a nutshell.”
If only the game was that easy. The great ones make it look simple, making spectacular plays that the mortal eye can’t see.
“Hockey sense, to me, means making a smart play where somebody else watching will be like, ‘What the heck did he just do?’ ” says Vlassopoulos.
That sense of anticipation teamed with an uncanny ability to see the ice and basically predict how the play will unfold is what some call “vision.” Every sport has its superstars who had legendary vision, from Joe Montana in football to Larry Bird in basketball to the Great One in hockey.
“I always relate it to the difference between being book smart and street smart,” says Vlassopoulos. “People can always become book smart from reading and studying, but that doesn’t make you street smart.
“It’s like common sense. Some people lack in that area
Planting The Seeds
So, is hockey sense something you’re either born with or you’re not? Some in the hockey world believe hockey sense can be taught, while others believe it develops over the course of time.
“Hockey sense starts when you start playing the game,” says Tabrum. “It’s like learning a foreign language. The earlier you start, the easier it is to pick up.”
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In early times, kids learned to play the game on outdoor ice, playing with kids of varying ages and skill levels. Hockey sense was the byproduct of countless hours on frozen ponds and lakes playing shinny hockey. They learned by watching and then imitating what they saw. They learned through their successes, and their failures. The ice, for them, was the best teacher.
Factors beyond anyone’s control have changed the way today’s players hit the ice. The freedom of the pond has given way to the structure of the indoor practice, where coaches create regimented practices that would make a drill sergeant envious.
Players are told where to go, what to do and when to do it. The end result is often a player who can play within the confines of a given system, but he or she lacks creativity and a competitive spirit. And in many cases, they lack hockey sense.
“In today’s world there is so much structure in youth hockey that players may be fundamentally better but they don’t know how to compete. We used to call them ‘hockey school players.’ They can do a drill but they can’t play the game,” says Doug Palazzari, a former All-American at Colorado College who went on to play with the St. Louis Blues.
“Competing is always better than drills. Competition is always the best learning experience.”
Small Games, Big Results
That’s where small area games come into play.
Playing competitive games in confined spaces challenges players to read and react under pressure, which allows them to learn to think more quickly and see the ice better.
All of this, if done in the proper way, can be a great teaching tool and a heck of a lot of fun.
“It gives young kids the ability to think quick so they can be in the game to touch the puck and be involved in the play,” says Rolston.
In addition to teaching players to read and react to situations quickly, small area games also teach young players to be competitive far more effectively than playing an NHL-type schedule on a full-sized ice sheet.
At the NTDP in Ann Arbor, Mich., coaches keep practices fluid, changing situations and drills to keep tempo up and interest level high. For example, on any given day Hynes or Rolston will start a drill as a 1-on-1 and then add players, making it a 2-on-1, then a 2-on-2, and so on.
“We try to create situations that really force the players to be able to read and react to different stimuli, whether it’s rules of the game or elements of the game,” Hynes says. “We want them to have to read and react and heighten their awareness during the practice that will eventually translate into the game.”
Other coaches create themed practices where every drill works on an individual skill that is then incorporated into a small game that helps drive home the earlier lessons.
For example, a practice to teach neutral zone regrouping would include individual drills that work on tight turns, skating backward with the puck, skating with heads up and D-to-D passes. That would morph into small area games where players have to regroup once they gain possession of the puck and make a series of passes before taking a shot on goal.
Hockey Sense In Demand
Over the course of its 10-year operation, the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., has developed countless players who have gone on to successful careers in the collegiate, international and professional ranks.
When scouting players around the country, what Hynes and Rolston look for first and foremost is, you guessed it, hockey sense. Their thinking is that they can do more to improve a skating stride or develop a shot, but they can’t teach a player to think the game.
“The game isn’t just a physical game, it’s a transitional sport; their ability to read and react and to understand what’s going on in the game quickly is probably the most important attribute,” says Hynes.
“You can have players who are physically gifted and great skaters, but even though they’re so quick and strong they can be behind the play because they don’t read and react quickly and understand the situation.
“For us, here at the National program, we have a better chance of developing a player, taking a player from average physically to above average physically than taking a kid with average hockey sense and make it above average hockey sense.”
What Really Matters
The key is to start early, encouraging creativity and competitiveness. It means scrapping systems for Mites, Squirts and Peewees and helping players bring out whatever ability they’re born with and developing it through competitive scenarios that allow players to think for themselves.
Whether it’s on a frozen pond in Minnesota or a backyard blacktop in California, bringing the pond hockey approach back to the game is the best way to create better, smarter and more competitive players.
After all, to borrow a line from Yogi Berra, 90 percent of hockey is mental, and the other half is physical.
photos - Getty Images, Chuck Bigger