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Taking One for the Team

October 1, 2011 General No Comments

Taking one for the team
By Fred Pletsch
Oct 31, 2001, 16:46

 

There are no statistics kept and no trophies awarded for it, but a coach always has a special place reserved in his lineup—and his heart—for the player who unselfishly “takes the hit to make the play.”

George Gwodzecky says the fundamentals of taking and receiving a check should be taught to youngsters at an early age, soon after skating basics are mastered, and be presented in a fun-filled atmosphere.

“The first thing you have to make them realize is that (the hit) is not going to hurt,” says Gwodzecky, who was a hit at Denver University, where he turned around the hockey program in his first year.

“We get (kids) to fall on the ice and make contact with the boards to show that they’re protected by their equipment. We play games where they learn not only to give a check, but to take a hit—and they learn very, very quickly that even though the hit may look spectacular, they get up smiling because it doesn’t hurt them.”

Spread ‘em

A wide base is the first brick laid in the creation of a bodychecking wall.

“Make sure they spread their skates and bend their knees when contact is imminent,” says Gwodzecky, the 1993 Coach of the Year when he was at Miami University. “They have got to develop a wider base so they don’t get knocked off balance or they have a harder time getting knocked off balance.”

The knees serve as the body’s shock absorbers.

“They’ve got to bend their knees at the same time to cushion the blow. And they don’t want to avoid getting hit into the boards; they want to learn to use the boards as their ally, because the boards, for the most part, have a lot of give and take to them. If you are slammed up against the boards, you can use the recoil action of the boards to push off, and hopefully knock your opponent off balance.”

An excellent introductory bodychecking drill, says Gwodzecky, is called “Bull in the Ring.”

Set a group of seven or eight kids in a good-sized circle on the ice. Then put one of them—the “bull”—in the middle. The bull’s job is to try and get out of the “ring” by skating around inside the circle, building up speed, and trying to find a “hole” where he can throw a check and break out.

The kids forming the circle have to protect their turf, and prepare for contact by bracing themselves. They’ve got to lower their center of gravity, spread their skates and bend their knees because they know the bull may be coming their way.

It is estimated that 80% of hockey is played within five-to-10 feet of the boards, so players must develop good puck protection habits.

“If you can maintain puck possession while taking a check, there’s a strong likelihood you’re going to create more scoring chances,” theorizes Gwodzecky. “It sounds very simple but it’s a difficult skill to handle properly, and one has to practice it an awful lot.”

Use the angles

Defensemen retreating to retrieve a puck under forechecking pressure should attempt to skate in at an angle in order to avoid the full force of an opponent’s impact.

“A defenseman should glance over his shoulder to see where the pressure is coming from,” says Gwodzecky, “and pick up the puck at an angle, so if he does get checked he’s not going to go banging head first into the glass. (Defenders) also need to work on their quick turns, which is an ideal way to shake that initial forechecking pressure.”

There are situations when, with all passing lanes closed, you cannot avoid being checked but still want to maintain possession of the puck. In that case, says Gwodzecky, “you have to make sure the puck is at an area where it’s protected by your body—more specifically, your skates. When you’re being checked along the boards the puck should be firmly placed between your skates so that when you do absorb the check, the puck is still there.

“The opposition player may take you out of the play, but he still has not separated you from the puck—the puck is still there. So he really hasn’t done his job, because he hasn’t created a loose puck yet.”

Enjoy the ride

Taking the hit to make the play can make the difference between winning and losing. There are times when you are going to be off-balance, and know you are going to take a big hit, but you need to hold onto the puck a little longer before one of your teammates opens up. In this situation, says Gwodzecky, you have to learn to relax your body and enjoy the ride.

“There’s no use worrying about (the coming contact). Just try and make sure you’re not too tight when you get hit. Keep in mind that you’re protected from head to toe, and the only way you can get hurt is by tensing up and trying to avoid injury. That’s when most injuries occur.”

Finally, remember this: the pain of having let your teammates down by shying away from a hit is always going to be much worse than a couple bumps and bruises that will fade away in a few days.

 

Fred Pletsch is a veteran OHL and AHL broadcaster who currently covers the Cornwall Aces for CJFS radio.

This first appeared in the 09/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2001 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®

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