Defending Puck Hogs (at a young age)

Defending Puck Hogs (at a young age)

Success in hockey requires a heavy emphasis on team.

At the younger age groups, at least two lines and sometimes three are required depending on the pace and length of the game.  As the age of the players and the speed of the game increases, teams need three or even four lines of players to be able to compete.  Each shift all six players have to be involved in the play for a team to be able to defend their goal and create offense at the other end.  One player can’t do it alone.

Or can they?

Watch a game at any level and it is pretty easy to pick out the most effective players.  They are typically the ones with the puck a good majority of the time.  Sure, every team needs defenders, those invaluable players who are most effective when they are barely noticeable at all in a game and who always seem to be in position to break up an opposing attack and get the puck to their teammates.  But a team also needs players who can control the puck and score goals.  To me, the best defense is a good offense.  Who wants to play without the puck when you can play with it?

Yet, pay attention to comments from the stands during a game or listen in on post-game parental analysis in the arena lobby afterward and you are bound to hear the team “puck hog” mentioned at least once or twice.  And typically, not in a positive light.

Being a puck hog is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on the age of the players and the level of play.  Let’s face it, some players really don’t want the puck in certain situations or really aren’t willing or able to do what is necessary to get it or keep it.  Others are more than content to let their teammates do the dirty work and find some open ice to set up shop and wait for a pass.   As a coach I would prefer to have a team full of puck hogs than a group of players who don’t want it at all.

So what exactly is a puck hog?  To most people a puck hog is a player who does not pass the puck when it seems like they could or should.  I agree with that definition, but I really think it changes with the age of the players and the level of play.

In my opinion, every player eight years old and younger (or playing on a team or in a league where the majority of players have less than two or three years of experience) should be a “puck hog”.  They should want the puck and want to keep the puck until someone takes it away, even if it is their own teammate.  You don’t learn how to stickhandle or carry the puck if you never have it and if you never get the chance to do it in a game.

And yes, it can be taught and developed in practice just like any other skill or concept.  But the truth is, no matter how hard we try, we can never re-create “game-like conditions” in practice.  (Unless of course we can incorporate parents in the stands and coaches on the bench yelling at the players when they feel like the puck should be passed in practice).

There will always be a big difference between practices and games for players.  Some kids look great in practice, but never seem to be involved or get anything accomplished in games.  Others are just the opposite.

The reality is every time young kids are on the ice they should be hungry to have the puck and keep it. As coaches we do players a disservice by providing too much structure in the game at this age, making them “stay in their position” forcing them to “pass the puck” when they don’t yet even understand when or why they should pass the puck.  There is nothing wrong with ‘beehive hockey”, as it is referred to by some, at the younger ages.  In fact, as a coach I would encourage, rather than discourage it.

Oftentimes at this level, the fastest skaters, not necessarily the best puck handlers, control the puck.  While that is not really a bad thing, having these kids play cross-ice or half-ice games where these best skating players also have to become better stickhandlers and the less experienced skaters have more of a chance to get the puck is definitely the best environment for every player to continue to develop and improve.

And while it is important that kids develop a hunger for and confidence to control the puck when they are younger, it is also important that they are allowed to learn when and why to pass the puck and interact with their teammates as they progress.  Simply telling them to pass the puck doesn’t cut it. They have to understand why and when it is the right play to make.

So why is it that some players don’t pass the puck as they get older and move up the hockey ladder?  I really think it depends.  In some instances it might be because their parents don’t understand the game and tell them that they should carry the puck not pass it.  Sometimes there are coaches who direct certain players not to pass the puck because they want to win and know that they have to ride the only horses they have to do so.  Sometimes the players themselves are smart enough to realize that passing the puck to certain teammates is like giving it up to the other team.

Others just can’t “see the ice” or read the play to ascertain when and when not to pass the puck.  The faster the pace of the game, the tougher this is to do.  It can look easy from the stands or from the bench, but making a split-second decision while controlling the puck, avoiding opponents and looking for open teammates is not as simple as it might seem.

That is where coaching comes in, teaching simple concepts like creating two-on-one’s with the puck, give-and-go, supporting the puck, finding open ice and creating passing lanes.  Then in practice creating situations to allow them to learn to make the right decisions with and without the puck.  And most importantly in games allowing the freedom to be creative, to make mistakes and eventually to learn for themselves what they can and can not do with the puck.

Ultimately, each and every player is a work in progress.  Some pick up skills and concepts and learn to play the game quickly.  Others take more time, and it is hard to tell when and if they will ever really get it.   But one thing that is certain, at least to me, is that the player who wants the puck, often has the puck and sometimes appears to be hogging the puck is the player who has the most potential.

And just as importantly, they had better learn how to and be willing to make good decisions, interact with teammates and play a team game because at some point they will not longer be able to control the game, it will control them.