Without the puck, there's no passing, shooting or scoring. Without the puck, you're just defending. Hockey is a game dependent on puck possession.
"Puck protection, in my opinion, is the biggest skill that youth players need to have," said Pat O'Leary, former Gopher and current head coach of the Wayzata High School boys' hockey team. "It helps you become ice aware, which is a huge element of the game itself."
O'Leary, a Robbinsdale-Armstrong product, has five puck protection tips for youth hockey players.
When I grew up playing, we were always told that being a puck hog isn’t good, and I agree with that, but players need to understand when it’s OK to keep the puck on your stick. We’ve gone through a phase in the last 15 years where we are overextending kids to move the puck quicker. Of course that’s something we want, but that sometimes leads to throwing it away when you don’t need to. That’s the time when a player can be a bit of a puck hog. Pass it when you want to, not just because you have to.
On-ice awareness is one of the most important pieces of puck protection. You have to know when the guys are coming at you and when the guys are coming directly behind you. When you’re going into the corner or boards, look over your shoulder both ways to have that ice awareness. If no one’s on you, you have more time to take care of the puck. Be open and look around to make the right decision and right pass.
We’re always focused on limiting injury, especially with kids getting hit along the boards. Another part of puck protection is how we’re teaching kids to protect themselves when battling for the puck in those spots. Along with having that on-ice awareness, your body should be positioned correctly: Shoulders turned to a 45-degree angle, facing the boards, as opposed to your chest facing the boards. You don’t want your chest facing the boards when you’re protecting the puck — that’s when an injury is more likely to occur.
You don’t always have to have the puck on your stick, you just need to have it controlled by your body. Kids think they have to have full control of the puck at all times instead of using their body to pull the puck out. By using your body along with your stick you’re going to create more chances. Even just solely using your body, setting picks, those are going to move the puck and create those chances. Being able to protect the puck isn’t just having it on your tape the whole time.
Players need to be able to handle the puck on both the forehand and backhand. Most kids are turning in a power turn with their stick to their backhand because that’s the way you first learn. But by going into the corner and practicing skating one way with the puck on your stick, followed by small, tight turns different ways using your forehand and backhand on each turn, it allows you to protect the puck in both directions. Working on that skill set will also help work on your skating ability while protecting the puck.