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3 must have Game Skills for forwards

12/15/2015, 9:00am CST
By Minnesota Hockey
12/15/2015, 9:00am CST
By Minnesota Hockey

Every hockey player knows they need to have certain basic skills in order to be successful. They have to be able to skate well. They must able to handle the puck, give and receive passes. And of course, kids should know how to handle body contact and shoot the puck.

But what about taking that next step? What can forwards do to create more scoring chances and more goals for their team?

“What’s becoming more and more important is awareness and knowledge of game skills,” said Mark Loahr, head coach for Totino-Grace’s boys’ high school hockey team. “To some extent, those skills kind of even override the skating and the pucks skills because if you don’t understand the game very well, you could be the best skater in the world and not be able to be a very good hockey player.”

On a recent edition of High Performance Hockey Insights, Minnesota Coach-in-Chief Christian Koelling shared that sentiment. Koelling pointed out that today’s generation of youth players may be the most skilled ever when it comes to skating, stick handling and shooting, but developing players’ creativity and hockey sense is an area we could improve.

So let’s take a look at three game skills every forward (and really all players) should always be working to improve.

A Net Front Mindset

“One of the skills that we really try to get across to kids is the intensity of going to the net when you don’t have the puck,” said Loahr, who is one of only 12 coaches with more than 500 wins in Minnesota high school hockey history. “Goaltenders are so much better and not just at the NHL level, but all the way through, even the high school level. It’s hard to just blow a shot by a goalie.”

With fewer first attempts finding the back of the net, players must learn how to create and capitalize on secondary scoring chances.

“If you can learn to go hard to the net and be there when that rebound is there, you’re going to have a better chance of scoring goals,” said Loahr. “The kids that don’t have those skills are not going to score much because they’re not going to be in the right spot.”

“Some kids don’t like to be in front of the net because it can be a dangerous place to be, but that’s where goals are scored. You have to have some courage to be there, and that’s what separates kids out there.”

Creating Goals Without the Puck

While it’s true players need the puck on their stick in order to score, it’s also critical for young players to learn that what they do without the puck has a huge impact on how many goals they will score.

To Loahr, movement without the puck is all about learning how to get open, when to get open and knowing how to read your opponents and your teammates in order to do that. Those mental skills can be difficult for coaches to teach so Loahr tries to focus players’ attention on a few key components.

“Try to get them to learn to get inside position on a defenseman with stick on the ice, have an awareness of where the puck is and stopping at the net, not flying by it,” said Loahr. “If they can do those three or four things, they’re going to be a little bit more successful than kids who don’t.”

Winning Puck Battles

Having been a high school coach for more than 25 years, Loahr has seen a number of changes take place in hockey over the years. One of the most obvious changes is the increased emphasis on puck possession and protection. Today, coaches and players spend much more time developing skills that will allow them to maintain possession rather than playing the dump and chase style that used to dominate the game.

The first priority in terms of puck protection skills is skating and, “it’s not just being a fast skater, but it’s being strong on your skates, having good balance and learning to keep your knees bent,” Loahr pointed out.

Once players have the right foundation of skating skills, it’s a matter of giving them a number of repetitions where they have to protect the puck from someone so they can learn those skills in a game-like scenario.

“We do a lot of 1-on-1 battles along the wall,” said Loahr. “And we do it in open ice too - learning to control the puck in a small area in open ice. Again, it’s kind of working on skating and balance at the same time. We probably try to do one of those drills at least every other day. We do a lot of small area stuff, especially as the season goes on.”

Developing Game Skills

The best way to learn these skills is for players to experience them first hand. Playing pond hockey is a great way for players to get additional repetitions on their own time, but coaches play a key role as well.

“At the youth level, coaches just have to continue to emphasize practice versus games,” emphasized Loahr.

This may seem counterintuitive at first. Wouldn’t the best way to develop game skills would be by playing more games?

But the reality is games are much less efficient than practices. Three, 15-minute stop time periods takes 75-90 minutes of actual time while only providing 45 minutes of actual game play. Compare that to 65 or more minutes of activity in a 75 minute practice and then add in the increase in passes, puck touches and scoring chances in small area games, and it becomes easy to see why a 3:1 or 2:1 practice to game ratio in youth hockey has such a positive impact on player development.


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