Stick Handling and Passing
The ability to manipulate the hockey stick and the puck is the second most important skill besides skating. The player who can confidently handle the puck and make good passes to teammates will make important contributions to a team. This chapter focuses on stick handling the puck and how to make passes to teammates which they can receive and which avoid interception by opponents.
Proper Stick Length
Proper stick length cannot be stressed enough. A player whose stick is too long will not be able to effectively catch passes or make them. A player whose stick is too short will have similar problems in receiving passes. Their stick blade won’t be there when the pass arrives. Chapter 3 gives details about the differences in sticks and how to measure your stick to the correct length.
Manipulating the Hockey Stick
Just like golf, the foundation of stick handling begins with the grip of the hands on the shaft of the hockey stick. The top hand (right hand if you are a left shot and left hand if you are a right shot) is placed on the top of the stick shaft forming a ‘V’ on the top of the stick between the thumb and first finger. The top hand’s responsibility is to assist in maneuvering the stick. The bottom hand is responsible for providing the power needed to move the puck. Use the fingers of each hand to squeeze the stick shaft while keeping most of the pressure there rather than in the palms of the hands. A good approach is to keep the hands approximately 16 to 18 inches apart. The bottom hand slides up and down the shaft depending upon whether you are stick handling, passing or shooting.
Stick handling is essentially a passing exercise where you are both the passer and receiver. Its purpose is to allow a player to control the puck, move it up the ice and to protect it from opponents while rushing it, or waiting to pass or shoot. It is akin to dribbling in basketball. The basic stick handling maneuvers include: 1) the side to side movement 2) the forward and back movement and 3) the diagonal movement.
Side to Side This maneuver begins with the puck placed in the middle of the stick blade. As the puck is moved from side to side it is cupped by both the forehand side of the blade and alternatively by the backhand side of the blade. Rolling the wrists allows the stick to cup the puck. The cupping of the stick blade by turning it at an angle toward the rink’s surface keeps the puck from bouncing away and helps shield the puck from opponent’s sticks. It is helpful to keep some space between your body and your elbows. Keep your arms relaxed. Shift your body weight to the same foot that the puck is on. Rapid and smooth movement from side to side is the goal. A light touch is important ; banging the puck may cause it to bounce. The player’s eyes should be up while using peripheral vision to look ahead and still see the puck.
When first learning this skill, a player will need to watch the puck. Eventually the player will be able to manipulate the puck without looking and only taking an occasional peek or rely on peripheral vision. The best hockey players don’t look at the puck at all. Stick handling by feel is your ultimate goal. It allows you to react more quickly and without signaling your movements through your eyes or head movement. It also allows you to view the rest of the ice which is going to be especially helpful for passing and shooting. Practice stationary puck handling in your home with a hockey ball or a puck on a piece of laminate. This will allow you to totally concentrate on the puck without being worried about skating.
During the season I try to maintain my ability to stick handle without looking at the puck by using a puck ball on the carpeting in my house. While watching television I move the puck back and forth without looking at it. I have also tried stick handling with my eyes closed. It is amazing how quickly you can get a “feel” for the puck without seeing it. It is almost magical how this translates to game situations. Without thinking about it I find myself being able to pass and shoot without looking down at the puck. It is very freeing and makes you a better hockey player—Mark.
Forward and Back on the Side
The forward and back movement is similar to the side to side. The cupping of the puck and its position in the center of the stick blade is the same. A player can push the puck farther forward by dropping the lower hand, but needs to return it to the stick during the return. The forward and back movement is accomplished on the forehand side of the player. From this position a player is also in a position to either pass or shoot the puck.
The player’s shoulder turn and square up to the path of the puck as much as possible as the puck moves on its diagonal path. The movement is very similar to the side to side and forward and back. One difference is that the lower hand switches to more of a finger grip with the stick shaft being held between the thumb and index finger. Again as in the forward and backward movement, the lower hand can be taken off the stick and this allows the puck to travel a greater distance from the player before it returns.
Puck Carrying in the Open
Sometimes a player will find themselves in the open when they are not being challenged by opposition players. In this situation, a player should abandon normal stick-handling, speed is the objective and minimum puck movement is the tool. The puck is controlled by using only the top hand on the stick and pushing the puck ahead with the bottom of the stick blade by pushing the arm straight out in front of the body. The puck can be carried on the forehand or backhand side of the stick blade.
Body Deception in Stick Handling (Deking)
Body deception or “deking” an opponent is a method of confusing an opponent of your intentions so you can be freed for a pass or a shot. Effective body deception requires practice and must be tailored to each player.
Start with head fakes. The defensive player is always trying to anticipate the direction of the offensive players. If an offensive player moves the head in one direction, the defensive player will read that movement as signaling the player’s direction of movement. But if the offensive player moves the head laterally and the defensive player “goes with the move” then the offensive player can skate and move their body in the opposite direction to go around the defender. Even a bit of hesitation on the part of the defensive player may give you the opening to get by.
Head fakes can also be helpful in passing. The passer looks at the receiver, then “looks the receiver off” by looking in a different direction which hopefully will confuse or at least take away the advantage the defensive player may momentarily have in anticipating a pass and then quickly make the pass to the receiver.
Stick fakes, passes and shots A stick fake can also be utilized, even by defensive players. An offensive player can use a stick deke by passing their stick blade over the puck without moving their body. The defensive player may read this movement as signaling that the offensive player is moving a particular direction or is making a pass. When the defensive player reacts to the deke, the offensive player can make their pre-determined move. Similarly, a defensive player can deke using their stick in a poke-checking movement so that the offensive player can read it and move in a direction that the defensive player would prefer.
A fake pass can be a useful maneuver, especially on a two on one play. The defensive player may hesitate, sensing an opportunity to intercept a pass and then the offensive player can gain an advantage.
Passing to one’s self off the boards can work very well in a no-checking league. It amazes us how often this works. The puck carrier approaches the defender acting as if a normal deke or combination puck carrying move will work. Just as the offensive player is about to be checked by the defender, the puck is shot off the boards on a forward angle. The puck carrier skates around the defender and picks up the puck continuing forward. This move can be used in combination with a head or body fake to draw the defender to the boards and to provide more room for the puck-carrier to move around.
The fake shot can also be an effective deke. The puck-carrier starts to shoot and at the last instant stops the puck with the stick blade and moves the puck wide while continuing to skate and get by the defender. This move requires practice and good skill at forward and backward stick-handling.
To be effective, fakes or dekes must be convincing. They must not be too fast, or too slow. If they are too fast, the checking player may “miss” the fake and no advantage is achieved. If the fake is too slow, the checking player can anticipate the move after the deke again canceling out any advantage. The most important aspect of deking is to increase your speed after the fake.
Timing is also important. If the fake is started too far away from the defensive player, the checking player has time to adjust and recover from the fake. If the fake is started too close to the checking player, the players may collide or the defender is close enough to recover from the deke and make a check. The best position for a fake is about four to five feet from the defensive player, especially if the defender allows you to attack straight on.
There are essentially two types of passes: forehand and backhand. But, there are different types of forehand and backhand passes including the sweep pass, flip pass and the high flip pass. The two most important aspects of passing are hitting the intended target and deception or manipulation of the puck so that it is not intercepted.
When passing it is crucial to hit the intended target – generally a teammate’s stick blade. Before passing, check to see whether the teammate is right handed or left handed because the best pass one made to the teammates forehand. It is difficult to catch a pass that is made into the skates, on the backhand or between ones legs.
Deception is also important. Take a look at the intended receiver’s speed and stick blade location and then look away or look to a different direction and then quickly look back to make the pass. Some defenders attempt to “read” the eyes of the passer in the hope of learning their intention and intercepting their pass. This is especially true of forecheckers on defensive players.
Another key to passing is making a short pass and making it quickly. Short passes are more accurate and are more difficult to intercept. Passes made more quickly are also difficult to intercept.
Forehand Sweep Pass
This pass is so named because it is achieved in a “sweeping” motion from the forehand side of stick. The forehand pass is accomplished by holding the puck on the forehand side in the middle of the blade with the blade cupped over the puck. The puck is drawn back slightly behind the body. The puck is swept forward toward the target. In making the pass, the body’s weight is transferred from the back skate to the front skate with the arms sweeping the puck.
Remember to keep the stick close to the ice as the puck is released. The puck should leave the player’s stick flat on the rink’s surface. The forehand pass generally will travel directly on the surface to the receiver. The passer’s follow through should be low and directed at the target. The passer’s eyes should be fixed on the target and not on the puck.
Back Hand Sweep Pass
The same principles apply to the back hand sweep pass as the forehand pass. It is a more challenging pass because the player has the tendency to want to lift the puck rather than sweeping it toward the target. The key to making this pass is keeping the lead shoulder down so that the puck is not lifted but rather swept toward its target. The same shifting of weight from rear skate to front skate as the puck is drawn from behind the plane of the body and swept across the body to its target.
Flip or Saucer Pass
The purpose of the flip pass is to “flip” the puck over an obstacle that may be blocking the path between the passer and receiver such as a player’s body or a stick. Many times a defender will place their stick close to the rink’s surface to block a pass especially on a 2 on 1 and the flip pass is excellent in getting the puck over the defender’s stick to the receiver.
The key to the flip pass is getting the stick blade underneath the puck so that it can be lifted and flip over the obstacle to the receiver. The puck is situated near the heel of the stick blade and then slid toward the middle of the stick as it is swept toward the receiver, the wrists are snapped causing the blade to get under the puck. It is similar to chipping a golf ball from the edge of the green or using a wedge to loft the ball toward the hole. Note that the follow through is higher than the sweep pass. The goal is to send the puck sailing and spinning through the air so that it lands flat on the rink or if playing with a hockey ball it will cause it to spin like a top as it flies over the obstacle.
A variation on the flip pass is the high flip pass. This can be an effective pass for a defender who is attempting to clear the defensive zone and possibly “break loose” one of the forwards for a possible break-away. This flip pass is made in the same way except that the follow through is exaggerated and high so that the puck is lifted almost vertically up and over the heads of the defenders toward a location on the rink or toward a teammate. Due to the height of the pass it is not very accurate but can be very effective. Be careful to assure that the puck gets up quickly and high enough so that a defender cannot grab it and reverse the play on you.
Receiving a Pass Pass receiving is something that needs to be practiced. It can be very frustrating for a teammate (not to say for the receiver) to make a good pass to only have the receiver miss it or fail to catch it.
It is very helpful to the passing teammate to present a good target by keeping the stick blade on the ice and on a 90 degree angle to the line of the pass. Watch the pass throughout its travel to your stick blade. This is similar to baseball where the ball is “looked” into the player’s glove. Catch the pass with a soft touch. This means relaxing the grip on the shaft of the stick and “giving” with the stick blade so that the puck is cushioned when it hits the stick blade. Otherwise, the puck may bounce off or over the stick blade. Cup the puck when it is received by turning the stick blade toward the rink’s surface in the direction that the puck is traveling.
It makes it easier for the passer if the receiver moves toward the passer in receiving the puck. It is difficult to make a pass to a receiver who is skating straight down the rink away from the passer. Curling or turning toward the receiver even on an angle makes the receiver a better target. If the puck ends up in your skates, kick it out using the rear portion of the blade or rear wheels.
The best pass I ever received was in a regional tournament in Toronto a few years ago. I was playing left wing and slipped out past the opposing team’s defensive players to where I was close to their blue line. My regular defensive partner noticed me and passed the puck from the edge of our net to me at the opposing blue line. All I could think of was catching that pass. Which I did! I had all the time in the world to make my break-away move, but the Hartford goaltender made a toe save and that was that. But it was fun—Mark
The drop pass is well named. Literally, the puck is “dropped” by the attacking player for a following teammate. This creates a situation where the teammate has more time to pursue and offensive opportunity. In some ways this play is akin to a moving screen in basketball.
The drop pass is accomplished by leaving the puck rather than passing it. The blade of the passing player stops the puck from moving forward. The puck is not passed backwards. It is important to leave it and not pass it so that your teammate can easily pick up the puck. Try “toe pulling” the puck between your legs for your trailing teammate; you may create a great screening situation and scoring opportunity for your team.
The most important rule in passing is don’t make a blind pass. This means that you must look before passing. Offensive opportunities can be missed if a pass goes awry because it was made blindly. This is especially true for defensive players in their own zone where a blind pass can be intercepted and turned into a goal very quickly. Usually players are rushed or excited and fail to look or don’t think that they have the time. It is better to not pass, then to make a pass without looking at the receiver and at any potential pass interceptors.
Don’t “bee line” your passes. In other words, use some kind of fake—look a different direction or pretend you are going to carry it before making a pass that could be intercepted by a skillful anticipating checker.
Passing is so important it should be actively practiced when possible. We will outline some practice drills which can be utilized either in a pre-game warm-up or part of an organized practice.
A fun practice for passing is the circle passing drill. Position five players around a face-off circle. One puck is used. The starting player passes across the face-off circle to another player. The passing continues with the rule that a player who just made a pass is ineligible to receive an immediate return pass.
A variation on this drill involves placement of a player or two in the circle. The rules are changed to allow random passing to any player. The objective is to make quick, crisp passes and avoid interception by the players in the middle. A player whose pass is intercepted must substitute for the interceptor in the circle.
Two on None Drills
Two players start from one side of the net or the other and pass back and forth as they skate the length of the rink and take a shot on goal. The objective is to make as many passes as possible during the end to end rush.
Flip Pass Drill
The objective of the flip pass drill is to practice making a flip pass and receiving it. A couple of sticks are set on the rink’s surface end to end in the high slot area. Two players start from the point area with the purpose of making a flip pass over one of the sticks and the receiver must catch it and make a shot on goal.
The Elegant stick handler
Stick handling and passing are under emphasized hockey skills. Most players spend their time practicing shooting, but it is stick-handling and passing that puts players in a position to take the shot. Learning to stick handle without looking at the puck except through peripheral vision is an important goal to achieve. It makes the whole game that much more enjoyable. Concentrate and hit the receiver’s stick blade. Concentrate and catch that pass using soft hands, giving when the puck hits your stick and cupping the puck so it does not jump over the stick blade.
Hockey can be a beautiful sport watch. The elegant stick handler that moves quickly smoothly up the ice by dekes and moves seems to have magic in their stick. Many of our best memories of hockey are of this subtle part of the game.
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