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Back to Basics
By Bob Cunningham

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Grouped together in general discussion, the five basic fundamentals of ice hockey -- skating, passing, shooting, stick-handling and checking -- seem simple enough. You have to able to skate, ya gotta be able to get the puck to some one else, you need to send the puck toward the goal now and then, you should be adept at executing the aforementioned with a hockey stick as opposed to by hand or with a croquet mallet, and you need to be willing to get physical. No sweat. Where do I sign?

Actually, however, hockey is one of the most difficult sports to play, even at the lowest levels. Sure, hitting a baseball is regarded as the single most difficult task in sports (although my vote would be cast for hitting a golf ball in the middle of the desired fairway), but for combining all the necessary ingredients, ice hockey is unsurpassed. "Ours is certainly a specialized sport," says Jamie Hislop, a former assistant coach for the Calgary Flames.

"You need to possess an unlimited number of talents to excel... or even to just to play on a team." Not only is ice hockey demanding of its participants in number of desired skills, but the sport rarely allows you the opportunity to hone those skills, without being at the expense of another talent. Work more on your passing, and your skating loses its edge. Focus on stick-handling, and possibly sacrifice your shot.

"You don't see coaches drilling one area too much without paying attention to everything else," Hislop added. "You need to practice your strengths as often as your weaknesses. I don't believe most sports are like that." Even in the National Hockey League, there are players with an insufficient knack for certain parts of the game. It's not that they outright can't do something, but just that they don't do it consistently well. It can lead to games lost.

"I worked very hard on my puck-handling and passing, as well as my shot," sayid Marty McSorley. "I had my reputation for being physical, but I became a much better player when I was also a threat to score. But that doesn't mean I put any less of a priority on playing defense and completing my checks. I couldn't afford to do that, and the team couldn't afford to have me do that." Raw strength must be accompanied by at least the occasional finesse. Speed must be supplemented by physical play. Scoring is a product of defense. They all form the makeup of a team as a whole as well as individual players. Each player must be able and willing to cover all the basics.


Most fans take for granted the enormous skating talents of NHL players. But fans and participants of junior level and even amateur hockey witness more skating prestige than they may realize.

"There are certain maneuvers that you must be able to do to play this game," says the former New York Rangers' head coach, Colin Campbell. "Stopping and turning instantly, skating in reverse, completing sharp turns, and maintaining your balance during confrontations for the puck are a given."

The best skaters in the NHL move about the ice as if they're not on ice at all. Instead, they sometimes seem as if they're moving about a grand dance hall, their grace never sacrificed by the slippery surface separated beneath them only by single blades under each foot, each of which measure a half-inch in width.

"He was the greatest player to ever play, so it's easy to overlook the more basic things he did," says Kings GM Dave Taylor of Gretzky. "He moves about the ice as if he's been doing so since birth. I guess he almost has, actually."

But not withstanding The Great One, skating is not a natural talent. It, like all other fundamentals of the sport, is acquired with practice... and participation.

Theo Fleury has relied on his quickness on the ice throughout a productive NHL career. Much smaller than virtually all of his opponents, he has focused on getting around the ice with as much ingenuity and as little fuss as humanly possible. Sometimes, he doesn't seem human as he routinely beats accomplished NHL skaters to loose pucks.

"You can't underestimate the importance of being fast on the ice while also staying in control," said Hislop. "Theory does that as well or better than anyone, which is why he has had such a good career even though he's so small."

But bigger players have to utilize their skating ability to keep up, as well as maintain balance during faceoffs, forechecks and even breakaways.

"It's all part of becoming more confident in your skating ability," McSorley said.


For all the attention he has gained for his skating and his scoring, Gretzky built his legend through his amazing ability to get the puck to the open man regardless of the obstacles in between.

"You'd watch him thread the needle time after time and you're still wondering how he does it," says Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake. "He made it look so easy, that you wonder what it is you're overlooking."

The art of passing a puck is not that dissimilar to passing a basketball on the fastbreak.

"Instead of passing to the man, I'd pass to the spot where the man had better be," Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson said during his brief coaching tenure in the NBA. "A lot of times that spot would be occupied by a guy on the other team at the time I got ready to throw the pass. But when the pass got there, that was another story."

Like the Magic Man, Gretzky made a fruitful living anticipating what others simply cannot. His years of experience in the NHL have only helped a skill that was developed at a very early age. The ability to put the puck where you're aiming takes practice and the right coaching in order to get the puck out on the stick, drag it through, and snap the wrist at the desired target.

The key is having a good idea where you're passing to, and learning to anticipate the next few seconds immediately preceding that pass.

"I learned what spots to go to at certain times during a game when I was on the ice with Gretz," says Blake, who played with Gretzky on the Kings early in his career. "And the guys that play up front with him have to know, too. Expect the unexpected."

There are others in the NHL who have acquired a reputation for deft passing -- Mario Lemieux, Joe Nieuendyk to name a few -- and all have a common trait. They are not only regarded as good passers, but are considered outstanding complete players as well.


There are numerous types of specific shots in hockey, but to narrow it down to its most basic forms, there are power shots and finesse shots.

In the power category, Al MacInnis may stand alone. In his decade with the Calgary Flames prior to joining the Blues, MacInnis became the king of the one-timer. The Flames would sometimes base their power play strategy for MacInnis' rockets.

But how did he do it? Was he stronger that everyone else? Well, no. Were the pucks he was playing with in Calgary made slicker than in other arenas? Get real.

"Full shoulder turn, excellent body position, keeps his head still, steadies his wrists and arms, and really pulls through the puck," said Hislop. "Al has the whole package. And he not only hits the (heck) out of it, but he's usually right on target."

Developing an effective hard shot takes more, however, than just the whacking it at the goal. Timing and even the position of teammates are crucial. Even the hardest shot can be easily deflected by an NHL goaltender if he sees it from its origination, so MacInnis and other rocket launchers around the league try to see to it that the netminder is at least partially screened.

Another factor is positioning. Rebounds usually result in better scoring chances than the original shots.

"We led the league in power play efficiency (in 1992-93) mainly because we got so many power play goals on rebounds, and virtually all were by rebounds or screening out the goaltender," Hislop said.

To finesse a puck into the net takes a little more research. The best of the NHL have accomplished everything from drastically slowing the pace of a shot in order to get the goalie to come out of the net too far, to banging a puck off the back of the skate of the goalie from behind the net. (See Gretzky).

In short, the trick is twofold. First, simply try to put the puck in a spot that the goaltender has the worst chance of stopping. Second, hide the shot attempt as well as possible, because the extra split-second gained can make the difference.

"I saw that a lot with Mark (Messier)," said Campbell referring to the Rangers' Stanley Cup season of '93-'94. "He'd look around as if he were looking to pass or dump it back out front and then suddenly fire it cleanly past the post."

The best definition of a finesse shot is the one that is tapped into an unguarded net because the goalie and the defense were badly fooled and forced out of position.

"Especially when he was in Edmonton, but also now, Mark was better at that than anyone I can remember," Campbell says.

"It's a guessing game, and the more you can get the defense to guess, the better off you are," says Messier. "It's pretty basic really. Put it where they aren't, or can't get to."

Messier added that the actual execution of the shot doesn't change according to level of playing: Quickness, positioning and follow-through.


Also referred to as puck-handling in many instances, there's one major difference. Stick handlers also play defense.

When in possession of the puck, moving across the ice becomes a miniature game of anticipation. The skater doesn't keep control of the puck by reacting to it, but rather by reacting to where it will be.

To watch Bure or Sergei Fedorov is to witness poetry in motion. They rarely look down at the puck, because they know where the puck should be, where's it going to be, and what the feel is. Maybe even better than the previously mentioned two, however, is New York's Jaromir Jagr.

"He's certainly as good as anyone," Campbell says.

No one in the NHL can maneuver a puck through traffic as efficiently as Jagr, who allows the puck to flow along his stick more than most players. It appears that this lack of total control enhances his ability to combine possession with maneuverability.

"He has really quick hands and always knows exactly where the puck is, even when it looks like he's ready to lose it," says former teammate Shawn McEachern.

McEachern, himself a pretty fair stickman in the NHL, notes that the key to successful control is to learn the feel of the puck as well as maintaining it as the base of the stick's curl.

"Get it on the heel, and you skate right by it," he says. "Too far out on the toe, and you can't go anywhere but straight. Then, you move the stick back and forth on each side -- evenly when going straight, or favoring the opposite side of the direction you want to go.

"After that, it's just a lot of practice."

The puckless part of stick-handling is more than just swatting an opponent on the leg as he goes by. A defender's number one measure, other than his mind, is his stick. A well-used stick combined with proper footwork and easy-going skating ability defines good defense.

"I think the most important thing is to keep the stick in control," Campbell said. "I see too many players, especially younger players, flailing away at a puck they can never reach. It's OK to poke a guy now and then in an attempt to distract him. But you have to remember that if you're too busy with the stick, you're slowing yourself up and maybe preventing yourself from gaining better physical position.

"So many guys drop their sticks and you see them trying to stop a rush without a stick," Campbell added. "Virtually any time you see a guy lose his stick, it's because of poor stick-handling. Keep control, and use the stick judiciously. Maintain your position between the man and the net, and try to get yourself between the man and the puck."


Contrary to popular belief, the most effective checkers are not the ones that stand at least 6-3 and weight at least 210 pounds. Certainly, those attributes usually help, of course. But there's a manner in which you approach necessary contact that goes beyond just hitting the opponent as hard as you can.

"You want to be as physical as possible, but you don't want to go at a guy so hard that you lose your feet when you throw a check," McSorley explains. "Because in most cases, you're trying to force a turnover or stop a scoring chance for the other team. You can't do that sliding along the ice on your ass."

The most important aspect of checking has to do with the angle. Keep yourself in a position, say McSorley and others, that allows you to get involved in the play with the least possible effect on yourself. Have a mind to be skating away from the check immediately after it's completed. If forechecking, be prepared for a pass instantly because often the area you're occupying becomes open.

On the defensive end, it becomes more important to finish the checks.

"Don't waste your time going after a guy if you don't plan on taking him completely out of the play," McSorley says. "To a certain extent, you're taking yourself out of the play. So I concentrate on finishing what I start. But I don't spend any more time than I have to."

That can be especially tricky in the rough-and-tumble NHL, but other levels of hockey usually are slower-paced. Still, the message is the same. Complete your check when the situation arises, then be about your business.

"Complete" is the operative word, because that's the type of game it takes to be a successful hockey player -- at any level of play.



This first appeared in the 1/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2003, Hockey Player® LLC and Hockey Player Magazine®
Posted: Oct 18, 2005, 19:54
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