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Hockey sense

Developing game sense is a game breaker

“Hockey sense is the ability to read and react to different situations and make the right decision under pressure.”

- John Hynes, former coach with the USNTDP and current professional coach 

Hockey IQ
Hockey is a dynamic game. It is the fastest and most transitional team sport, requiring split-second decision making. Research on hockey has shown that over the course of one game, the puck changes possession approximately 7.7 times a minute, or about 450 times a game. A single team keeps possession of the puck for an average of 4.7 seconds. This is vastly different to sports such as soccer or basketball, also transitional sports. Players of these sports, in contrast to hockey, keep possession of the ball for 20-30 seconds at a time. This compelling data proves just how fast the game of hockey truly is and the quick decision process that players are faced with each and every shift.

The importance of possessing a very high level of individual skill truly gives players an advantage, but it is only half the equation for playing superior hockey. The other half belongs to understanding the flow of the game, the movement, patterns, tactics, concepts, strategies and systems. The total sum of this working knowledge gives us a player’s Hockey IQ, which is often referred to as “hockey sense.”

Hockey sense is a term that gets tossed around by every coach and scout alive. It may mean different things to different people, but ultimately it comes down to how players see and think the game. One of the attributes of players who have a good feel for the game is an anticipation of where the play is headed, where the puck is going to be, and where they need to position themselves. Sometimes it can be a subtle play; while other times it can be a play where spectators are in awe.

When watching hockey we often marvel at the great players who have innate abilities to be creative with the puck and know where everybody is on the ice at all times. Today's modern game has blessed fans with an abundance of these creative, dynamic NHL stars such as Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin, Stamkos, Kane, Toewes and Heatley. These players can, on any given night, turn the game into a magical experience because of their outstanding skill and brainpower.

Arguably the best player to ever play the game, Wayne Gretzky epitomized “hockey sense.” If tested, it’s highly probable that he may have possessed the highest Hockey IQ of any player born. Gretzky always seemed to be thinking one or two moves ahead of the game. By the time Gretzky retired in 1999 he had accumulated 2,857 points in the NHL. Gordie Howe is second to Gretzky with more than 1,000 fewer points. More of a play-maker than a scorer, Gretzky's goal performance was still amazing - totaling 894 in a 20-year career, once more a record for the NHL.

Point totals are not the only indication of an effective player and certainly players who play defense as opposed to offense don't typically match the high point totals of forwards. But it is fair to say the best players on teams are the most skilled and the most intelligent. Even on defense, skilled intelligent players are able to contribute more often. Current and past NHL defensemen such as Green, Nidermayer, Lidstrom, Doughty, Coffey and Orr have impacted how the game is played today.

So often when building hockey players, the million-dollar question becomes: Can a high level of Hockey IQ and game sense be developed in players much like teaching individual skills? Or is it just something a select few are lucky to be born with?
There has long been a debate whether or not Hockey IQ can be taught. Some coaches believe you can improve a player’s hockey sense by repeatedly teaching game situations and strategies, in combination with playing games. Others believe it all depends on genetics and natural ability. That being said, proving that Hockey IQ matters is unanimously agreed. The big question is: Can it be taught?

Case study: Wayne Gretzky
Over the years many have heard the stories about Wayne Gretzky's father, Walter, who cultivated a love of hockey in Wayne. Walter even provided him with a backyard rink when Wayne was five years old and nicknamed it the "Wally Coliseum." It was here that Wayne practiced his craft with extraordinary dedication and encouragement from his father. Much has been made about Gretzky's backyard hockey experiences and how he was afforded countless hours of unstructured play, which most attribute as the underlying reason for his greatness. But to simplify his success to a mere backyard rink would be an injustice to Gretzky's story and miss the valuable lesson for why and how he became “The Great One.”

Thousands of players across Canada and the U.S. also grew up playing on frozen ponds and on backyard rinks and lived the life of “rink-rats.” Certainly Walter was not the first parent to build a backyard coliseum and he certainly won't be the last. Many aspiring players with the same passion and desire of young Wayne Gretzky fall short of reaching their full potential, even though they spend countless hours practicing as he did. Some even develop into skilled players but still can not make a big enough impact on the game to advance their careers. This helps validate Gretzky's story and that the game of hockey requires both natural skill and mental mastery. It also serves a purpose to prove that people - and in this particular case, athletes - don't rise up and excel from nothing. Those who achieve high levels of success are in fact the beneficiaries of certain advantages and extraordinary opportunities that allow them to be great.

In examining Gretzky's story closer, the answer becomes clear as to what his advantage was and how he developed into a great player. What was his secret weapon? It was his father and coach Walter. Some people do not realize that Walter was Wayne's personal coach. He played an integral role in training and developing his son. Walter would often put empty laundry detergent bottles on the ice to act as pylons and run his son through drills in the backyard; and he also set up homemade targets in the net for Wayne to shoot at for hours at a time. Walter would even invite older and bigger kids from the neighborhood to play against his son in order to further challenge Wayne. This environment was total hockey immersion with Walter as his son’s mentor and teacher and oftentimes teammate. Walter's drills were his own invention and were ahead of their time in Canada. Wayne remarked that the Soviet National Team's practice drills, which impressed Canada in 1972, had nothing to offer him: "I'd been doing these drills since I was three. My dad was very smart. Without the direction of my father, I don't know where I'd be," Gretzky said in his autobiography.

Over the years, hockey enthusiasts have praised and admired Walter's intelligent teaching methods in training Wayne's skills that created a strong hockey foundation for his future successes. But where this story isn't as clear or advertised is how Walter took the same disciplined approach to skill training and applied it to Wayne’s Hockey IQ. One of the greatest gifts Walter gave his son was teaching him to see the game evolve well ahead of everyone else. Wayne's ability to anticipate and make plays that nobody in the rink expected was a result of his father teaching him the game, which translated into “hockey sense.” Just as he organized skill training on the backyard rink, he would develop skill training for Wayne's brain. Even at the dinner table, Walter would use salt and pepper shakers and have Wayne move them around like chess pieces as they discussed the game. On route to games in the family car (known as the 'blue goose') Walter would quiz Wayne about certain aspects of the game. He did this in an effort to challenge his mind with questions and answers in hopes of expanding his son’s understanding of the sport. When you take in account Wayne's coach, it is easier to understand how he became the The Great One.

To this day, Gretzky is recognized and admired more for his great sense of the game than his pure skill level; which makes for a very strong case that extraordinary achievements are as much about coaching and opportunity as they are talent.
Teaching Hockey IQ
At the Ice Jets Academy, we strongly believe that Hockey IQ can be taught. It is similar to learning a foreign language: the earlier you start, the easier it is to pick up. Not every athlete will produce Gretzky and Crosby-like hockey sense, due to everyone’s own personal limits, but all athletes do possess the ability to build their hockey sense knowledge base and allow for it to develop over the course of time. Research by the U.S. Olympic Committee has shown that athletes who receive quality coaching in “field sense” can have the potential for improvement up to 30%. A sense of anticipation teamed with an uncanny ability to see the ice and predict how the play will unfold is what all players hope to own.

Unfortunately, today many coaches, players and parents are subscribing to the theory that hockey sense was and is the byproduct of countless hours on frozen ponds or indoor rinks playing shinny hockey. There is a belief that players need less structure and direction from coaches and can learn better on their own free time simply by playing and imitating what they see on television. The notion is they can learn through their successes and their failures and allow the ice to be their teacher.

As experienced professionals, we completely agree with promoting unstructured settings during the season and letting players enjoy their own personal freedom to be as creative as they choose. But to think over the entire scope of training, that the average player adopting the aforementioned regiment is going to develop into an exceptional player, is in our opinion completely false.

So why don't more players have a better Hockey IQ? We have come to the conclusion that it's three fold: hockey programs don't believe it can be taught, coaches lack the knowledge how to teach it, and coaches believe it is up to the player to develop it on his own during games.

In recent years there has been a push by USA Hockey to promote skill development and to provide information to coaches, players and parents in hopes of educating them on various training techniques. In surfing the web you can easily access plenty of articles and literature on the subject of skill development. But when you try to access information on how to become a smarter hockey player and raise your level of IQ for the sport, you are left without any real substantial answers.

So what if there was an organized system to teach players the game and break it down into various principles and components, similar to what successful coaches do when teaching individual skill development? What if players had coaches working on their behalf with the same energy and focus to increase their hockey sense as they do towards teaching them how to skate and shoot?

It is our belief that players across the country are becoming better informed in skill training but they are not becoming smarter and do not know how to use their skills in games. Many can do a drill, but they struggle to transfer those learned skills into game situations and it affects how they play the game. In other words, they are improving their tools but lack the toolbox. Or as some refer to it, 'they have million dollar skills but a nickel of hockey sense'.

A player with great skills and marginal hockey sense is just as limited as a player with great hockey sense and marginal skills. It is not uncommon to have players who are physically gifted but behind the play because they don’t read and react quickly or understand the situation. Just because a player is covering a lot of territory and skating fast doesn't mean he is spending his time effectively or usefully. Reading and reacting will always be an integral part of the game especially since the puck moves at faster speeds than players can skate.
Game-Breaker teaching program
At the Ice Jets we have devised a Hockey IQ teaching program called Game-Breaker. This teaching model sets the standard for hockey sense development based on experience, research and competence. This revolutionary instruction plan breaks the game into multiple phases using a sequence-based approach, which affords players to digest information easier and more productively.

We have devised our teachings to simulate the progressive nature of video games where users are forced to learn to read and react, to make step-by-step quick and difficult decisions to successfully advance to higher levels. Similarly, Game-Breaker breaks the game of hockey down to teach hundreds of critical decision making moments on and off the ice in the form of lesson plans.

Game-Breaker centers around the theme that hockey is a game of common reoccurring situations. When players are exposed to this truth they can learn different principles in various offensive and defensive situations with and without the puck, as well as how the offensive and defensive games are tied to each other. When this understanding is achieved, the players can execute their learned positional roles as forwards and defensemen to deal with various play situations and tactics. By teaching athletes about common reoccurring situations and how certain elements and conditions lead to a particular reaction, they play with more confidence and poise and the result is an increased level of Hockey IQ.

Our Game-Breaker teaching does exactly what it says; it breaks the game down and teaches players how to increase their Hockey IQ. It has been designed with the sole purpose to create a more intelligent player who can possess a high level of hockey sense independently and cooperatively with teammates. Since hockey is a team game, the best players and teams learn how to cooperate with organized team play in all offensive and defensive situations. We know that when individual players and teams have a strong grasp of the inner workings of the game and work together as a group, positive performance will result and they will become "game breakers."

It is our theory that just as skills can be trained in a manner of progression, so too can Hockey IQ. The theory is based on the idea of four developmental elements:

  • Technical
  • Tactical
  • Team Strategy
  • Systems.

In linking these four elements at the core of our teaching we can introduce, improve, stretch and broaden our players’ minds in regards to how they see and play the game. We teach them to understand different patterns of play that involve 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 players. The focus shifts from individual movement to movement within a group of players and where each should be in relation to the puck and its various destinations. As such new concepts are applied and intertwined, others are introduced progressively. By using this teaching method we can paint the big picture for players one stroke at a time.

The Game-Breaker teaching program is taught through lesson plans on and off the ice. It instructs, drills, educates, motivates and builds confidence in players. The teachings are centered on the development of 10 primary objectives:

  1. Teach the transfer of individual skills into team and game play
  2. Teach individual tactics in player roles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
  3. Teach the linking between offense and defense
  4. Teach positional play strategies
  5. Introduce & educate hockey concepts and terms
  6. Teach individual playing roles
  7. Teach team situational roles
  8. Teach team strategy
  9. Teach team systems
  10. Teach the principle of common reoccurring situations.