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Skill Development: Stickhandling and Puck Protection

Handling the puck is the most basic of the fundamental skills of hockey. At the same time, it can be one of the most complex skills. Beginning players need to learn how to manipulate the stick to control the puck, first while stationary, then while moving forward. From there, a multitude of different complex puck control skills need to be developed for a player to be able to effectively compete in a game.

At the younger ages, handling the puck while not looking at it (head up) is a priority, then being able to skate with it at full speed and maneuver around defenders. From there, players should progress to controlling the puck while crossing over, turning sharply, pivoting, and moving backward, while at the same time learning to beat a defender in a one-on-one situation by "making them move" one way, then quickly taking advantage of that space created to move around them the other way.

As players get older and better skilled, the checking becomes tighter and there is limited room for the puck carrier, so stickhandling needs to become second nature as they try to create some time and space for themselves to make the right play.

The following are some points of emphasis in the stickhandling progression.

Top Hand Positioning

The top hand should be at the very top of the shaft of the hockey stick  (with the little finger right at the end with no shaft protruding), and for the most part, should stay there at all times, except when you get into much more advanced puck protection skills.

Many younger and inexperienced players, because of lack of strength and/or manual dexterity, hold their top hand improperly on the stick, placing the palm of the hand on the underside of the shaft, with the thumb and fingers pointed up. If this is not corrected early, the player will be literally "hand-cuffed" as their strength and puck control skills advance, as the wrist will be virtually useless. The top hand should be "palm down" on the top of the shaft so that the wrist can be utilized to manipulate the stick to control the puck. The top hand should grip the stick firmly, but not too tightly.

Bottom Hand Positioning

The bottom hand should be approximately "the width of the player's body" down the shaft of the stick. If a player holds the stick parallel to the ground at waist height and puts one hand on each hip, that should be approximately the distance apart the hands should be on the stick. The bottom hand should also grip the stick firmly, but the grip needs to be able to be relaxed so that the hand can move up and down the shaft of the stick as needed for various puck-handling situations.

Wrist Movement

Wrist action is an essential element of every puck skill (stickhandling, passing, and shooting). Players need to be able to manipulate their wrists to maneuver their stick blade to address, control, and deliver the puck. Without wrist movement, there is limited or no control of the puck. In stickhandling, the wrists are used to move the stick blade over the puck so that it is "cupped" by the blade as it moves side to side. The blade should be in a "closed" position (angled over the puck) on both the forehand and backhand side. Just by moving the wrists (not the arms), a player should be able to stand stationary and move the puck back and forth (side to side) directly in front of the skates, and move the puck up and back with the puck directly beside the skates on the forehand side.

Arm Movement

To be able to maneuver around a defender, a player needs to be able to reach or extend their arms to the sides while handling the puck. The hands, and ultimately the stick blade, are extended as far away from the body as possible, which also requires a shift of the player's weight onto the foot on the puck side. Players also need to be able to handle the puck on both sides of their body. The forehand side is easy as the stick blade is naturally on that side of the skates. To handle the puck on the backhand side of the skates, a player needs to twist or rotate the upper body and reach with the arms to get the stick blade on that side of the body. Players also need to be able to handle the puck in tight, close to their feet, and out away from their body in front of them, which requires them to extend their arms and get their hands away from their body.

Puck Positioning

For the best control, the puck should be positioned and handled on the heel of the stick blade. As a player is "rolling the wrists" to stickhandle the puck, the heel of the stick blade moves from side to side (more so than the toe of the blade does) and allows for the "cupping" of the puck for better control. This side-to-side "cupping" of the puck on the heel, in effect, "grips" the puck with the stick blade as a player moves forward with it. All passes and most shots originate from the heel of the blade to get the most "spin" on the puck for better control, so it also makes sense from that perspective to handle the puck on the heel. As players get more experienced, they can begin to utilize the toe of the blade for more advanced stickhandling moves.

Moving Forward with the Puck

The puck should, in most instances, be carried directly in front of the skates. In this position, a player can use their peripheral vision to look up-ice to see what is ahead while at the same time seeing the puck on their stick blade. Also, in this position, if the puck is lost, the player can use the skate blades to kick it back up to the stick blade. To control the puck while moving, the wrists need to be utilized (rolling the wrists) to move the blade side to side to grip the puck. By carrying the puck in front of the skates, the player has the flexibility to move either to the right or to the left when confronted by a defender. If the player was just pushing the puck (not stickhandling it) on the forehand side, they would be very limited in what they could do when confronted by a defender.

Common Problems

  • Improper top hand positioning: Palm of the hand held underneath the stick shaft instead of over top.

  • Improper bottom hand positioning: Hands too close together, resulting in no strength to manipulate the stick.

  • Heel of the stick blade not on the ice: Hands held too high, so the heel of the stick blade is not on the ice. The top hand should be at about "waist" height so the heel of the stick blade is on the ice.

  • Lack of wrist movement: Wrists need to "roll" to cup and grip the puck, especially while moving.

  • Too much arm movement when skating straight ahead: When handling the puck with speed and not being confronted by a defender, the puck needs to only be controlled with the wrists, not moved wide from side to side with the arms (this will slow you down or make you lose control of the puck).

  • Hands too close to the body: Arms need to be extended, with the hands away from the body to handle the puck with authority and to move and control it effectively within a wider area.

  • No weight shift: As the puck is moved away from the body to one side or the other, the weight needs to be shifted onto that leg to be able to extend the reach as far as possible.

  • Head down: Looking at the puck instead of looking up.

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