Adult hockey leagues are inherently stocked with different types of players. They have varying ability levels even within the same league classification. They are of different ages and backgrounds.
A more subtle difference, though, is how each player competes.
Some of us are inherently wired to give 110 percent effort in every situation, particularly a game. On the ice, this personality might manifest itself in the willingness to dive to block a shot during a game of shinny down at the pond.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are those more inclined to coast – they want to win, but if there’s a choice between skating back to break up a 3-on-2 rush or catching a little breather while hoping teammates will poke the puck free and spring an offense chance in the other direction … well, the way they’re anchored to the offensive blue line will tell you their choice.
Getting every player to pull in one direction is difficult, just as it is with any team in any sport, but the second group of players tends to drive the first group of players crazy.
If you find yourself in the first group, you’ve probably given up on trying to get everyone to care as much as you. At this point, you’d settle for this: how do you get everyone on the team to give an honest effort on defense?
For suggestions, we sprinkled in consensus advice from several players with comments from Chris Margiotta, the adult hockey director at Allen (Texas) Community Ice Rink. Their approaches to problem-solving might not be entirely conventional, but practical solutions that ruffle some feathers are better than no solutions at all.
The Direct Approach
If you are a leader on your team – and chances are, if you are one of the more competitive players who are being driven crazy by a lazy teammate, you are a leader – establish clear expectations for the other players on the ice.
Not only is it important for everyone to play defense, it is basic strategy. If someone is cherry-picking down by the blue line, he or she is probably hanging your goalie and teammates out to dry, not to mention making it tougher in many cases to generate offense.
“Call your teammates out,” Margiotta says, “and let them know that it is next to impossible to get them the puck when you have five of their players between you and them.”
The Indirect Approach
If you’ve established expectations and nothing is changing, sometimes actions speak louder than words.
An offensive player who coasts and doesn’t play defense is clearly more interested in scoring than playing a complete team game. If they refuse to play defense, why should you give them what they want?
“Do not pass the puck to these floaters,” Margiotta says, “unless they are contributing to the team (on) the defensive side of the ice.”
Granted, this could be detrimental to the team if the offensive-minded player is a gifted player who helps the team score goals. But as a temporary measure to reinforce the need for two-way play, it could be effective.
If they don’t take the hint, Margiotta says, there’s always this: “Have your defensemen skate the puck up and dump it into the attacking zone.”
Again, this isn’t the perfect solution and might come off as passive-aggressive. Margiotta acknowledges that it’s “somewhat spiteful.”
But desperate times call for desperate measures. If it causes a change in behavior, or at least makes offenders realize just how much their teammates dislike their style of play, it could be worth it.
The Last Resort
If the situation gets so bad that nothing else can be done, maybe consider whether you want a player who won’t play defense on your team at all.
“In the extreme case you can cut this player from your roster,” Margiotta says, “if they do not want to play as part of a team.”
And that is what it comes down to – playing a complete game is about being a good teammate. Not everyone will give maximum effort every minute of every game. That’s an understandable part of human nature.
But when those coasting shifts and lack of defensive hustle become the rule rather than the exception, you don’t have to put up with 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.”