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4 Keys to Better Breakouts

01/24/2017, 2:00pm MST
By Michael Rand - Special to USA Hockey

Learn how to improve your team's breakouts

Your ice time is limited, and so is your appetite for parts of the adult hockey game that aren’t exactly fun. For some people, these can be broadly defined as: “playing defense.”

Ah, but you can’t move the puck until you get the puck. And once you get the puck, there’s a good chance it’s going to be in your own defensive zone. You’re going to need a good plan to get where you want to be: right in front of the opponent’s net.

Erik Strand, the women’s hockey coach at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, has some thoughts on how you can do that – both from a practical standpoint and a buy-in standpoint.

Not a two-person effort

Even though there are typically only two defensemen on the ice at once, the concept of team defense is clearly not a two-person effort. Same goes for breaking out of the zone.

“It’s a six-person effort. We really stress that the d-zone starts the minute a turnover happens,” Strand said. “At that point, until we gain control of the puck, we’re hunting it. The d-zone itself is making sure you get back-pressure to create the turnover and then it’s working hard to get to your support areas.”

At that point, it becomes about being in a good position and making smart decisions.

“Centers and wings need to be in positions where they are open. It’s not a matter of standing there and waiting for defensemen to get it to you in a spot. You need to get into passing lanes,” Strand says. “You can’t be tethered to the blue line. The hashmarks are a great road map – and if you’re the center, you want to put yourself as a triangle with your low defenseman on the puck and your wing on the wall.”

Use the middle

It might go against something a hockey coach told you a long time ago, but don’t be afraid to use the middle of the ice when breaking out of the zone. Yes, the risks are higher. But the rewards are also out there for those who can do it well. Teams have become so adept at clogging up the wall that going up the middle can be a good strategy. The caveat, however, is that your team needs to understand that somebody must be moving through the middle for this kind of breakout to be effective.

“You have to make decisions on how comfortable you are operating in the middle of the ice,” Strand says. “If you’ve got that team that buys in, it opens up all lanes. If not, you’re going to have to figure out how to get through that wall that other teams are creating right now. It’s amazing how teams can extend plays.”

Again, it’s not for everyone – or every situation. But don’t fear it.

“You have to have the guts to use the middle of the ice, when so many of us have been taught since mites not to pass through the middle. Teams that are successful in middle of the ice are throwing off other teams,” Strand said. “You have to have the right personnel. You can’t have robots out there. The middle isn’t always open, but it’s open a lot more than it used to be.”

Getting technical

Strand has a couple of good reminders that can aid in producing a smooth breakout.

“Definitely have your feet up ice. You can’t have your toes pointed toward your defensemen if you’re a forward,” he says. “By the time you transition and get your body turned after you have the puck, there’s a great chance you’ll have a person on you, ready to poke check. So definitely, when receiving that pass, you want your toes pointing up ice toward the offensive zone.”

In addition, defensemen gain a great deal of information by doing a simple shoulder check as they approach a puck deep in the zone.

“Your play away from the puck is so important,” Strand says. “Let’s say it’s a loose puck and you are the first one on it. You have to do a shoulder check to see what’s going on. The other team might be changing or they might have a hard forechecker on you. Constantly have your head on a swivel.”

Looking over your shoulder gives you that extra information and time to make a good decision once you retrieve the puck. Maybe there’s an open teammate looking for a stretch pass to jumpstart the attack. Maybe you need to make a quick short pass right away or even turn up ice and skate it yourself.

All six involved and communicating (including the goalie)

Strand circles back on the idea that all six players are important to a good breakout by noting what a goalie can bring to the mix.

“The goalie has tremendous impact. Down in Florida, there was a coach who talked about how, if you have a team that communicates, you have a 6-on-5 every shift,” Strand said. “A goalie is always looking up ice. The more information you have, the better decision you should make, so communication from the goalie is important. If they are back there and not using their voice, they’re not using their information.”

And sometimes that information leads to the most important decision of all: live to play another day. We’ve all been there before.

“If you’re coming around the net and have at least two forecheckers coming at you hard and your wing is in coverage, it’s the equivalent of a punt in football,” Strand says. “Get it out to the neutral zone.”

Improving your team’s breakouts is key to relieving pressure in the d-zone, jumpstarting your offense – and keeping your legs fresh. Remember: it’s always more fun playing with the puck than without it.

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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.”

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