What distinctive artistry do Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur and Bobby Orr share that factored tremendously into their great success on the ice? They are all masters in the art of stickhandling, a foundation skill often slighted in hockey training, but one that allows a player to dominate the game.
According to Real Turcotte, founder of Turcotte Stickhandling Hockey School and a stickhandling expert, a player who masters this skill rises to an elite level of play. Stickhan-dling proficiency builds confidence with the puck and allows a player to concentrate on other facets of the game. Skillful maneuvering creates time and space to set up plays, and fuels creativity on the ice—virtually dislodging the dump-and-chase mentality. Like Orr, Gretzky and Lemieux, the player who controls the puck ultimately controls the game.
Maneuverability with the puck, in and of itself, does not produce a great stickhandler, according to Turcotte. But when speed and intangibles such as timing and instinct are poured into the mix, the results can be spectacular—not only for an individual player, but for his or her team as well.
What first sparked Turcotte’s interest in stickhandling was the mesmerizing finesse of his hometown Montreal Canadiens, then known as the “Flying Frenchmen” and renowned for their artful maneuvering on the ice.
“The team was almost all great stickhandlers,” Turcotte recalls. “Jean Beliveau was by far the best—a pure, classic stickhandler. His timing was incredible. He was the best in his day.”
In the fast-action sport of hockey, timing is vital. And the stickhandler who possesses it is a notch above the rest.
“You need to [take advantage] when the opening is there,” remarks Turcotte, “because it’s not there for long. It’s there for a second. If you don’t take it, it’s over.”
The great stickhandlers are adept at knowing when to “go,” but also at knowing when it’s too late to force a play. Then their skills take over.
“Your great stickhandlers are superstars because they have the skill to create opportunities, to open up the ice for the other guys. The best are Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. They are great passers, excellent stickhandlers [and] both can buy time by making moves. They buy space waiting for their teammates to get in scoring position.”
Turcotte played Major Junior A hockey for one year, then accepted a full hockey scholarship to Michigan State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and, later, a master’s degree in physiology. The leading scorer on his Spartans team for two straight years, Turcotte was invited to attend the highly competitive Detroit Red Wings training camp (back during the NHL’s “Original Six” days). He opted for a more secure future in teaching, however, and eventually combined his teaching and hockey talents to form Turcotte Stickhandling Hockey School. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the school boasts 13 teams of instructors with college, minor, and/or professional hockey experience. They travel to over 80 locations throughout the US and Canada teaching the fundamentals of stickhandling to players of all ages.
Smart hands, the right stick
Good stickhandling starts with, of course, the right stick. When choosing a stick, the length, weight and lie (angle of the shaft to the blade) should be considered. As a rule of thumb, your stick (standing on its toe) should reach just below your chin when you’re in skates. It should be light enough so you can effortlessly control the puck with one hand on your stick, and the lie should accommodate your skating style.
“Usually the length is the one that impairs most of the kids,” Turcotte says. “They tend to keep their sticks too long. It makes them lazy skaters because the stick is long. They tend to skate with their legs straight—as opposed to a shorter stick where they have to bend their knees, which is where you generate your power for skating. A longer stick cuts down efficiency by about half.
“The lie of the stick should be kept at about a 4 or a 5. A lot of pros use 4 1/2 or 5 because it forces them to skate lower and gives them more power.”
Turcotte passed his considerable hockey knowledge on to his two sons, Alfie and Jeff. Alfie, currently an IHL Orlando Solar Bear, was a first-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens (ahead of Claude Lemieux) in 1983, while Jeff played minor pro hockey and is now a youth coach—as well as an instructor at his dad’s school.
The first thing both Turcotte boys learned, and their dad emphasizes to everyone he teaches, is that before you can stickhandle, you have to be able to skate. At the lower level—the first two or three years of playing—skating is the most important skill to focus on. Then you can move on to the more advanced skill of stickhandling.
To excel at stickhandling, a player has to develop what Turcotte refers to as “educated hands.” That means being able to feel the puck and its position on your stick without looking down. Then, rather than skating around like a moving target with your head down, you can look up to see what’s happening around you—the openings, the players who can be fed, the scoring opportunities.
How do you get educated hands? Try dribbling—rolling your stick blade back and forth across the puck using short strokes, tapping the puck alternately once on the forehand side of the blade and once on the backhand side. The slight vibrations generated by dribbling travel through the shaft of the stick and convey to the player the position of the puck on the blade. The vibrations connected with each of the three puck positions—toe, middle, and heel of the blade—are totally different. Once learned, the skillful player will be able to identify the location of the puck on his stick blade by feel. (See sidebar for drills).
Escape the zone
Now that you can skate and carry the puck, how about stepping out of your “security zone?” That’s what Turcotte dubs the area in front of the puck carrier and between his skates, which is approximately four feet wide. Most hockey players feel secure carrying the puck in this zone. But if you want to become a better stickhandler, you need to venture out and expand your reach.
“Expanding the reach,” Turcotte explains, “is important because it helps to keep the puck away from the opponent.”
Practice expanding your reach by taking a basic stance with both hands on the stick. While standing still, move the puck as far to your right as possible as you bend your right knee, then without stopping move the puck as far to your left as possible as you bend your left knee. Repeat this drill, trying to go further each time until your reach (far left to far right) covers an area of about 12 feet wide, or approximately three stick lengths.
Once you feel comfortable with this side-to-side motion, go one step further. Practice the same movement, except as you extend toward the left, release your right hand and control the puck with only your left hand. As you move the puck back toward center, put both hands on your stick, then as you reach toward the right, release your left hand and control the puck with your right hand only.
If you feel confident carrying the puck in the area taught by these drills, you have transformed your small security zone into a large control zone.
Once you can skate, dribble and control the puck outside your security zone, you’re ready to tackle the real fundamentals of stickhandling moves. Turcotte breaks down these moves into six basic steps—basic enough that even his five- and six-year-old students have already begun incorporating them. The steps are; approach, stance, dribble, fake, move, and getaway (fig. A). What follows is an explanation of the steps, not a description of the moves themselves. At Turcotte’s school, he teaches 24 specific moves and countermoves that he either designed or observed, along with the game situations in which to use them. Counter-moves are intended to disrupt predictability, and you should decide which move to perform in a game situation before you begin.
“You may have to change your mind part of the way through it,” Turcotte cautions, “if during the move the [game] situation changes. But you should always start with a move in mind.”
Approach. The ap-proach is the proper alignment against your opponent—to your right or to your left, close or farther away, straight on or at an angle—to set up for a specific move).
Stance. This is squaring up against your opponent in preparation for the next step, and it is done using a shuffle stride with legs spread wide apart. If you are skating at a high speed, you need to change strides in order to get into your stance.
“This is very important,” Turcotte says, “because you can’t make a fake and a move at full stride. You need to shuffle stride and spread your legs wide.”
Dribble. The dribble is done for two reasons: to distract your opponent from anticipating your move and, using your educated hands, to position the puck on your stick to prepare for the fake. It can be done side to side or front to back.
Fake. Turcotte aptly describes the fake as “the quick deceptive motion made to freeze or to force your opponent out of position.” He adds, “Always try to do any fake off the dribble because the deception and the sharpness are greatly increased.”
Move. This is the step that involves the most complexity because it is where and how you get around your opponent, the direction of your breakaway, and what you do with the puck in the process. It can include anything from a wide motion away from the defender (using your expanded reach) to a spin, to even jumping over your opponent’s stick—all while controlling the puck.
Getaway. The getaway refers to the stride used to move away from the defender and toward your target. “Most kids slow down after the move,” Turcotte warns, “and that gives the opponent a second chance. But if you use the getaway, you already have two strides on the opponent. By the time he reacts, it’s too late.”
Straight Away, Crossover and One Leg Shuffle (“scooting”) are the three getaways, and they should be used in different game situations. The Straight Away, a straight forward drive, works best when a defenseman is virtually standing still. When the opponent is backing up with you and you haven’t beaten him, you need to pick up speed to go around him, so opt for the Crossover stride. And Turcotte suggests using one-leg scooting, with arm protection, when you want to cut for the net and take a shot on the goalie. Here, the protective arm is on the side of your bent knee and the defender, and the puck-carrying arm is on the side of the leg used to push off.
Using these steps as a guideline, you can create your own moves or better analyze the moves of hockey’s top performers, whose ease in execution personifies the payoff of serious training.
“Some kids have the idea because they tried the move three or four times that they know the move,” says Turcotte. “If it were that easy, everybody would do it. Obviously, it’s extremely hard. That’s why only one or two, three players at most, on each team can do some of these moves. And that’s the key. That’s what we’re trying to emphasize. We tell [the students to] get those mechanics down so much that it becomes second nature to you.”
As a successful coach at all levels of minor hockey, in the Major Junior A and in the IHL, Turcotte stresses that his instruction only provides tools for learning. It is not the end result, it is the means by which to get there. Together with patience, practice, and dedication, these tools can help the serious hockey player to master the art of stickhandling.