One of the most elemental aspects of hockey is stickhandling. Once you learn how to skate, the logical next step is figuring out how to use your stick to control that slippery piece of frozen rubber that sometimes seems to have a mind of its own.
It’s such a fundamental skill, though, that most adult players probably stop working on it. They assume they’ve learned all there was to learn about stickhandling a long time ago.
But if there is one easy way to dramatically improve your game in a short amount of time – something that can be done, in many cases, on or off the ice – getting better at stickhandling is it. All it takes, really, is a handful of minutes each day to see improvement. As such, we’ll offer five drills you can do to improve on that basic skill.
Editor’s Note: For off-ice stickhandling drills, we recommend using a stick that is slightly shorter than your on-ice stick to compensate for the fact that you’re not elevated on skates. This keeps the lie angle and feel comparable.
Blue to Red
Nate Leaman, the head coach of Providence College men’s hockey team, uses a drill in which he splits players into three groups, all on the blue line. Each group of players carries the puck, head up, from the blue line to the red line, then repeats. Eventually, he says, the two groups that aren’t skating stay in the middle of the ice, creating formidable barriers for the skaters in the “on” group.
“It gets a little hectic and chaotic, but you can get things going quickly,” Leaman says.
This would be a good pregame warmup drill before an adult league game, since it requires a larger number of skaters.
This involves setting up three obstacles in the shape of a triangle – one each about two feet to the right and left of your stance, and one directly in front of you (imagine you’re making a diamond, with your feet as one point and the obstacles as the other three).
Take the puck – either on the ice or any other hard smooth surface – and, without moving your feet, move the puck around the three obstacles.
Sean Skinner, a hockey drills expert who worked for several NHL teams and has numerous tips at skinnerhockey.com, preaches the practice of dribbling – essentially, as he says, “using short strokes of the stick where they’re cupping the stick blade over (a puck or ball) and gently tapping it with the stick.”
This is one of the easiest off-ice drills to practice, and Skinner recommends using a wooden ball because it will move faster than a puck moves on ice – a key to developing the soft hands that every player wants.
“We dribble because every time the puck hits the stick blade it sends a vibration up the shaft and you can feel where the puck is at without looking at it,” Skinner says.
Another fundamental drill for which Skinner recommends a wooden ball is what he terms “reaching wide.”
“With the ball in front of their body, they can reach wide side to side, cupping the stick blade over on both forehand and backhand,” Skinner says. “They can bring the ball to the forehand side, then reach wide front to back. And then they can go to the backhand and reach forward way ahead and way behind. Then they can put it all together and make a U-shape.”
It might sound simple, but the payoff makes sense.
“Everyone can control the puck in front where it’s natural,” Skinner says, “but the best players can control the puck wide and all the way around their body.”
A fundamental drill preached by many instructors involves moving pucks in figure-8s around obstacles. Leaman suggested using hockey gloves as obstacles, starting with them shoulder-width apart and gradually moving them five or six feet apart.
“Backhand to forehand, forehand to backhand,” Leaman says. “That’s so much of hockey, whether you’re protecting a puck or moving it to shoot. You’re working on the length of your reach.”
Skinner agrees that figure-8s are a great drill because they pull together elements of dribbling and reaching wide. He prefers to use hockey pucks as the obstacles, but really anything will work. And again, this drill can be done on or off the ice.
“If players do that for 15 minutes a day, in two weeks they won’t believe their improvement,” Skinner says. “Other people will be commenting on it.”
If you think you’re in pretty good shape – or even if you know you’re not – it’s possible to step into, say, a touch football game or a casual softball game without completely embarrassing yourself or winding up on the couch for a week with myriad pulled muscles.
But if you want an honest assessment of your current fitness level, try jumping into a hockey game. You will get a splash of cold water – or better yet, ice shavings – on your face.
While it’s true that many adult hockey league players are perhaps primarily motivated by the camaraderie and enjoyment of the sport, the fitness benefit cannot be overlooked, says Kevin Universal, a member of USA Hockey’s Adult Hockey Council and the president of the Carolina Amateur Hockey Association.
Once you start, you don’t want to stop. But once you stop, you’ll feel it once you start again.
The beauty of hockey
A shift in hockey combines the controlled dash of a 400-meter race with the urgency of an even shorter race.
“There are perishable skills – the combination of having the short, sprinter-type lung capacity, then getting back for a quick rest and sprint up the ice over and over,” Universal said. “That’s challenging for a lot of people."
That’s why it’s important to keep playing, even if it’s just once a week. If you fall out of that routine, you will feel it.
“I think we have at least a handful of guys on my team who travel a lot and don’t have time to work out except for hockey,” Universal said. “That’s their one or two days of exercise a week, and it’s so beneficial. Aside from just hanging out and having fun, joking around with the guys, they’ll use that as a primary means of exercise.”
Other workouts don’t measure up
Unless you like to race the person next to you on the treadmill or try to beat yesterday’s distance on the bike or elliptical, there isn’t much true competition in gym exercises. That doesn’t mean you aren’t working, but you aren’t working the same way you are when you truly compete.
“Being a part of the game and having something on the line, it makes you dig a little deeper and makes you get into it more and get more benefit,” Universal said. “When you’re not doing that and just out recreationally exercising and trying to burn calories, you don’t get the benefit. I have friends that run or lift weights, but if they aren’t getting that type of hockey workout consistently, they feel it after games and you see it in their play.”
Universal notes a recent example to emphasize his point: a guy who had played on one of his teams a decade ago before moving away has just returned and started back in hockey a few weeks ago.
“He had regularly exercised at the gym, but he was so gassed the first four or five games,” Universal added. “He’s finally getting his legs back. It’s funny. He regularly works out, lifts weights competitively. It’s not the same when you have to go out and sprint.”
Never too late to start
That said, don’t let the conditioning learning curve associated with hockey be a deterrent. If you used to play and are trying to get back into it, it’s never too late. Same goes for adults who have never played before.
Universal falls into that latter category. He says he grew up playing street hockey, but he never played in an organized league on the ice until he was 34. He picked it up after his kids took up the sport and he “got the itch” when some other newbies convinced him to try a beginners camp.
“I regularly run into people as adults and I encourage them to pick up the game,” Universal said. “You don’t have to have grown up with it. You just have to have the desire, and you can have some fun out there and get fit.”
Now 48, Universal can’t imagine life without the sport in so many ways – with fitness being primary among them.
“I feel the difference. I feel the lung capacity and I’m able to work harder in other areas,” Universal said. “This past weekend I did a hike with a 1,700-foot elevation drop over 1.3 miles. That’s like doing 170 flights of stairs. My legs aren’t sore, and I attribute that so much to skating. I’ve tried lacrosse, football, track, swimming, baseball, and this is definitely by far the most beneficial workout.”