Shawn Walsh says players falling for all the right reasons at practice could be a sign they’re ready to start getting up there in the standings as a team.
Though currently under suspension for recruiting violations within the school’s hockey program, the coach of the perennially top-ranked University of Maine Black Bears rates skating agility—the ability to use and control your outside edges at a quick tempo—as the skill he sees most lacking among youth hockey players. Fortunately, once identified, it is also one of the easiest to conquer.
“They need to be drilled with any movements in a confined space where they’ve got to move their feet as quickly as they can in a lateral way,” instructs Walsh.
But he quickly adds that it is imperative for coaches to get players to work and practice above their comfort level.
“Our comfort level is the level of speed we can go where we won’t fall. What happens is nobody wants to fall, and get yelled at. A coach has to encourage his kids to get to a point where they fall, and encourage them to get their feet moving as fast as they can.”
Crossovers, tight turns, figure eights and S-shape turning in tight configurations are examples of the type of drill that Walsh is talking about.
“Those kinds of movements do wonders to im-prove a player’s agility, but what you need is quality, not quantity. You need six-second bursts of activity where after six seconds you let them rest for 30-40 seconds,” suggests Walsh, whose job will be re-offered to him once the one-year suspension is served. “Then, they’re re-freshed and at it again. If they fall down, fine, be-cause I guarantee you that after a while they won’t be falling down.”
Positive side effects
One of the many spinoff benefits of a skater controlling his outside edges at a high speed is that tight turns really fuel the transition game.
“If you can learn to turn tightly with the puck and move it up the ice, then you’re going from one direction to the other while the opposition is still coming at you,” says Walsh, who had guided his Black Bears to the NCAA championship tournament for eight consecutive seasons.
The sky is the limit for coaches when designing drills to make their players negotiate the lateral skating ma-neuver. Walsh offers this for starters, while encouraging youth hockey teachers to be creative and remember to always keep an element of fun involved: “Take a player on the boards, near a penalty box, at the blueline and make him skate towards the redline then back to the blueline, back to the red line, and back to the blueline. He therefore has to touch the red line twice and the blueline twice in an ‘S’ kind of configuration, and then picks up a puck and goes in and shoots.”
Walsh reiterates that you’ve got to encourage your players to fall.
“You’ve got to almost tell them that if they’re not falling, they’re not negotiating the course at top speed.”
Walsh, regarded as one of the finest teaching coaches in college hockey, reminds coaches it’s always important to employ a learning progression system with their drills over the course of a season.
“Initially, with the drill I just outlined, you would place the pucks inside the blueline so the kids could get the fun out of shooting and scoring after skating at the desired speed.”
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Walsh is a great believer in studying the pros to see how they transform a difficult skill into artistic accomplishment at it’s highest level.
“All the great ones are great on their edges,” says a man with the pedigree to coach at the NHL level someday.
“I would say Detroit’s Steve Yzerman is a great example because he can stop on a dime, change directions, and that’s something that really separates him from others. Wayne Gretzky is another guy who perhaps has not ever gotten the respect and credit he deserves as a skater. He’s so far advanced in many other aspects of the game—especially the mental part—but he’s light on his feet and his outside edges are every bit as good as his inside edges.”
All spoken with authority from a coach who we trust has helped give you the inside edge to improving skating ability.
Fred Pletsch is a freelance writer covering youth and women’s hockey