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What You Need to Know to Play Hockey and to Improve
In This Chapter
- Passing advice from Gretzky
- Messier and face-offs
- Defending the breakaway, according to Vernon
- MacInnis discusses shooting from the point
- Power forward scoring, by Roberts
- Lindros and shooting off the pass
- Hull's method to get free in front of the net
- Hextall and handling the puck as a goalie
- Gartner and power skating
- Leetch explains playing defense
The best way to pick up any sport, and to get better, is to listen to the professionals and learn what they do. So we got in touch with several of the NHL's better players and asked for their advice on different aspects of the game. So just listen up.
Wayne Gretzky on Passing
"There are two primary kinds of passes," the Great One explains. "One is solid and hard, and the other is known as the feather. If the player you are passing to is standing still, use the firm pass. And if he's going at a good rate of speed, use the feather, and make sure you get it out ahead of him so he can skate into it." (See Figure 13-1.)
"I think it's important to practice the backhand pass as much as the forehand one," Gretzky continues. "And you want to do that as much as possible at a young age so you grow up feeling comfortable with it, especially if you want to be a centerman. Some youngsters ignore the backhand and don't feel relaxed with it as a result."
Number 99 is famous for skating behind the net with the puck in his offensive zone and looking for teammates to get open in front of the net. (He camps out there so often, in fact, that commentators refer to that part of the ice as Gretzky's office.) "When I get back there, I prefer to use a backhand pass to get the puck out front," he says. "I like to use the net as a sort of screen, to buy time from the opposing defensemen who may be trying to get me, and to buy some time back there. I try to keep the puck away from them as long as possible so I can hopefully make a play."
One final tip: Use plenty of tape on the blade of your stick. "It gives you more control on your passes and shots, and it enables you to pass the puck flatter (meaning not lifting it) when you have a decent amount of tape on your blade," Wayne says. "I tried doing it like Bobby Orr, with only a couple of pieces on the blade, but I couldn't do it."
Mark Messier on Face-Offs
"A centerman should always watch the linesman's hands when the puck is about to be dropped," says the perennial All-Star, shown in Figure 13-2. "Forget about the other player, but keep your eyes on the linesman because he's the one who actually has the puck. In the defensive zone, the best thing to do is try and adjust to what your opponent is doing. Read him. Look at his eyes, where his stick is facing, how his body is turned, how he's holding the stick, and where he's telling his teammates to line up. All that should give you some idea of what he is going to do with the puck, whether he's going to shoot off the draw, pass the puck to one of his defensemen behind him, or over to one of his wingers. And then you should react accordingly.
"Probably the best thing you can do with the puck in your defensive zone is bring it back behind you so one of your defensemen can pick it up and try to get it outside the zone. To do that, turn the hand you put on the lower part of the stick into a backwards position, which will give you more power as you bring the stick back when the puck is dropped."
"We work on set plays off the face-off all the time in practice," Messier says. "And we also practice things that we might do when time is running out and there may be only a minute or so left in the game. It's sort of like the two-minute drill in football, and we have a little bit different way of doing things then. Also, many times in practice, a coach will take a dozen pucks or so and drop them for two centermen so they can work on their face-offs. Your best position for that is having your legs spread for balance and your stick down, so you are set up almost like a tripod.
"Remember, in a power play situation especially, the centerman is the quarterback, and he should know where every player on the ice is," Mark continues. "It is his job to set everybody up and know what he will do with the puck when the linesman drops it. And he should also be aware of the tendencies of the opposing centermen he will face on a particular night and watch them closely from the bench to see what they are doing with the puck after a draw (another name for face-off). That way, he will be better prepared when he steps onto the ice."
Mike Vernon on Defending the Breakaway
"The first thing I try to do is recognize the person that's coming in as soon as he hits the blue line," says the goalie for the 1997 Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings and now member of the San Jose Sharks. "Is he a shooter? A deker (someone who will first make a move to get the goalie out of position and then shoot)? Or maybe a third- or fourth-line center (who usually don't have the best hands or shot on the team)? Then I adjust my position. I don't want to be too far out of my net, especially if the guy coming down is a Swede or Russian because they generally have a lot of speed and move in very, very quickly. If I go out too far, they'll be on me in a hurry." (See Figure 13-3.)
"If I had my choice, I'd rather face a shooter than a deker," explains Vernon. "I believe I have a better chance of stopping him. How do I tell if a guy is going to shoot or deke? Well, the best way is to look at where the puck is on his stick as he's coming down ice. If he's holding it right out in front of him, then I can expect a deke because it's impossible to shoot with your stick that way. If, however, he's carrying it on the side, he can do either, shoot or deke. I believe that if the puck is cocked to one side, I should get ready for the shot first. But at the same time, I need to stay still because if I open up, the guy coming down on me will stick the puck in the five hole (the area between a goalie's legs). I expect most people on a breakaway to fake a shot, try and deke me, and put the puck between my legs. Mario Lemieux did that well. In fact, he did that better than anybody else."
The different holes
Hockey coaches and players have designated seven holes in a net guarded by a goalie as a way of communicating where pucks should be shot (and what areas a goalie should be careful to defend). Holes number one and two are above the shoulders of the netminder, and three and four are in the lower corners of the goal, on either side of his ankles. And as mentioned in the preceding text, the five hole is right between the legs while six and seven are underneath the armpits. We also think there's an eighth hole, right between the eyes, which is where a person who decides to be a goalie, or a writer, instead of going to law or medical school, deserves to be hit with the puck.
Al MacInnis on Shooting from the Point
This rangy defenseman (shown in Figure 13-4) has won the fastest-shot contest during the NHL All-Star Weekend three times, and his shot from the point was clocked as high as 98 miles per hour. Not surprisingly, goalies don't like to see him wind up.
The winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the play-offs for the Calgary Flames when they won the Stanley Cup in 1989, MacInnis grew up on a farm in Nova Scotia and practiced his slap shot whenever he could. He put a sheet of plywood against the barn and shot buckets of pucks against it all summer long. "I would do as many as 300 a day," he recalls. "It helped me build up my strength and work on my timing." When he takes a shot from the point today, MacInnis tries to keep his hands close together, which means that when he takes his windup for a shot, he creates a bigger arc, which in turn gives him more power. At 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, he is a big player who stands upright when he skates and uses a curved stick with a bit of a wedge to it, giving him added lift.
Gary Roberts on Scoring as a Power Forward
Scoring as a power forward requires a set of special talents. A player must not only be big and strong and able to overpower his opponent on either end of the ice, but also have legitimate goal-scoring ability. Gary Roberts is one of those rare athletes who fills both those bills and is one of the best power forwards in the NHL. (See Figure 13-5.)
"Body position is really important," Roberts says. "I like to keep my back to the goalie and be as close to him as I can without being in the crease so the defenseman can't get in behind me and throw a cross check. One of the key things that a power forward who wants to score should do is keep his stick loose so he can knock in rebounds or deflect pucks. Someone on the other team may be all over you, they may be checking you from behind, whacking you across the ankles with their sticks, grabbing your jersey. But no matter what they do, try and keep your stick free so you can somehow get it on the puck should it come by, even if you're tied up.
"For rebounds, I like to use a stick that's fairly straight with maybe a little toe curve. The straightness will help you put it on your backhand shots better than a sharply curved blade, and the toe curve will let you flick the puck upstairs, 'roofing it' we call it, into the one or two hole. I also believe it's best to have a stick with a stiff shaft because so much of your shooting at that position comes in close, and you really have to bear down on those two- and three-footers. You don't have much time with those, only an instant, and a stiffer shaft will help you get those types of shots off faster and harder."
Eric Lindros on Shooting off the Pass
"I like to keep both my hands high on the stick when I'm getting ready to shoot off the pass," says the Philadelphia Flyer centerman. "Why? Because it's easier and quicker to move your lower hand down on the stick where it has to be when the pass comes than to try and move it up. Also, it's important to keep my center of gravity low and my legs spread apart just enough so I can adjust to the pass. The idea is to get yourself in the best possible position to shoot because the thing that makes a shot like that work is its quickness and speed. You want to surprise the goaltender, and to do that you need to shoot as quickly as possible. I work on shooting off the pass a lot after practice because it can be so effective. I always have, though it was a problem in junior hockey because I broke so many sticks working on it, and it cost the team money." But clearly the practice paid off, and Lindros shoots off the pass as well as anybody. (See Figure 13-6.)
Who's the best at setting up the shot off the pass? "Paul Kariya," Lindros says without hesitation. "We played together during the World Championships in 1993, and he was unbelievable."
Brett Hull on Getting Free in Front of the Net
"A lot of it is developing the proper state of mind," says one of the NHL's most prolific scorers of the 1990s. "One thing that's important is learning to take a lot of abuse from the opposition without retaliating or yapping back. And sooner or later, they forget about you."
"When I'm in the slot trying to score, I try to move around a lot," says Hull. "If I get knocked down by a cross check, I stay down for a bit and then get right up, the hope being that the defensman thinks he has taken you out of the play and forgets about you. Then I try to get up real quick and get open."
The All-Star right winger (shown in Figure 13-7) goes out of his way not to show up an opponent when he scores a goal. "Usually, I try to go to the bench right away," he says. "I don't pump my arms too much or raise them high because I don't want to embarrass people. I actually think it's better if you can slip in and out without drawing too much attention to yourself. If you make people get emotional about you, then they make it their business to know where you are every second you are on the ice. They are always looking to see where you are. It's much better to be out of sight, out of mind."
"I always try to keep my stick free whenever I am getting tied up in front of the opposition's net," Hull continues. "Just in case I can somehow get to the puck, whether for a deflection, a redirection, or a rebound. I've played with some amazing centermen, Wayne Gretzky and Adam Oates to name but two, who had a terrific knack of putting the puck on my stick. Somehow, they would find it. Another guy who was really good at that was Peter Zezel."
"All scorers need good centermen," Hull says, "and it's possible to develop a really strong relationship with one. It's like in football, where a quarterback can throw a pass to a receiver before he even breaks out of his cut. A good centerman knows his wings, and he can move the puck to a spot before you even turn to go there."
Ron Hextall on Handling the Puck as a Goalie
Hextall's grandfather (Bryan Sr.) and father (Bryan Jr.) both played in the NHL, so he's been hanging around hockey rinks as long as he can remember. "I used to watch Eddie Giacomin when my father played in Detroit," Ron says. "He handled the puck as well as anybody, and I watched him all the time when he was with the Wings. And then, when I started playing goalie as a kid, I used to get really bored just standing around. So I started to move with the puck a little bit during games. As I grew up, I began spending lots of time shooting pucks with a forward's stick, maybe two or three hours each day. Also, I played a lot of pond hockey and always tried to work on my shooting and puck handling."
Learning how to handle the puck well is critical for a goalie who wants to get good. "But don't try to do too much with it," says Hextall, shown in Figure 13-8. "Overhandle the puck, and you can get in trouble fast. In addition, be careful when you pass it off to one of your teammates in the defensive zone; move it out from the boards or net and give him the chance to swoop in and take it clean."
Hextall, who in 1989 became the first netminder in NHL history to score a goal in a play-off game, uses a blade that he says has "more of a bend to it than a curve. If a blade has a big curve to it, then you could have trouble stopping the puck. I use a stick that looks more like an eight-iron because it's bent backwards a little bit. With it tilted that way, I can shoot the puck harder and higher. And I think it helps me get rid of rebounds more quickly."
Mike Gartner on Power Skating
"It was my dad's idea for me to work on my skating at an early age," says the veteran forward. "He put me in a power skating school when I was eight or nine years old, and I remember having to cruise around the ice for an hour and a half at a time without the puck. I hated it, but it made me a much better skater." In fact, it made Gartner one of the strongest in the NHL, and he's won the league's fastest man competition during All-Star Weekend each of the three times he has entered.
"Technique is very important," Gartner says. "Most players don't bend their knees enough, which means they don't get low enough. That provides the power they need when they finish their strike. It's important to take a full, elongated stride. You also have to remember to use your arms, to pump them like a sprinter does to build up speed. And don't stop moving your legs when you go into a turn; that's the time you want to accelerate." (See Figure 13-9.)
Brian Leetch on Playing Defense
"One of the key things to remember is never look at the puck when an opposing forward is coming down on you," says the perennial All-Star defenseman. "Look at his chest instead, the logo on his sweater, so you won't get mesmerized by the puck." If your opponent is bigger than you, Leetch explains, positioning is critical. "If you're positioned properly, then he will have a harder time trying to outmuscle you," he says. "If your opponent gets even a little position on one side of you, he can use his strength to outmuscle you and get by. If, however, it's a smaller player who relies more on his speed than his strength, you want to give him room to the outside. Let him go to the outside, but be smart with your angle and don't let him beat you to the net."
Leetch, shown in Figure 13-10, has twice won the NHL's Norris Trophy, given each year to the league's top defenseman, and one of the reasons he is so successful is that he prepares. "It helps to know each player that you face," he explains. "Know what their tendencies are, their strengths and weaknesses. That will help you react quicker and figure out the best way to play them. And if there's a new guy on the ice, a player you have never seen before, watch from the bench to see how he does stuff, to understand what his moves are."
It's tough trying to clear out a big, strong guy from the front of your net, and if you can't outmuscle him, Leetch suggests that you resort to timing. "Try to get to the player just as the puck is about to arrive," he says. "Don't let him take a clear shot or pass if you can help it."
And if your team gets caught in a two-on-one situation (two opposing forwards coming down on your goalie with only one defenseman back), the man defending must give the goalie the shooter and make sure the person with the puck doesn't pass it across to his teammate. If that happens, the goalie will most likely be out of position, and the other team will have a very good scoring chance.