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14U/16U: Treating the Puck Like Gold

12/16/2021, 4:15pm MST
By Michael Caples

Matt Larke said that at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, the premium put on obtaining a hockey puck and keeping said hockey puck compares only to the world’s most valuable commodity.

“At the NTDP, our practices always have situations that are game-like and have our players battling for pucks,” Larke said. “We treat the puck like it is gold. If we have it, keep it, possess it…and if we don’t have it, get it back. In these drills, we build and develop a competitive mindset like the game is in overtime or it’s a very important game. That’s what we preach. The mindset is the first battle.”

Compete Level

Larke is a fresh face at the program in Plymouth, Mich., but one of the main reasons he’s there is to help the gifted youngsters at the NTDP get the puck and keep the puck. He is the new player development coach for the two-team program, working closely with the players both on the ice through isolated training sessions and off of it with video breakdown.

After spending a few months with his new group, Larke said it’s easy to see why they were selected to represent and train under USA Hockey’s guidance, as they all have the drive and hunger necessary to battle for gold – whether that’s in regard to pucks or championships.

“I believe it’s why the majority or all of them are here,” said Larke. “All of them have a compete level that is very, very high. There is not one practice where I don’t see players not battling or not being competitive. Yes, they have a very high skill level, but what makes them really special is their ‘compete.’”


So how does Larke help the NTDP players channel their compete level in terms of winning puck battles? He said it all starts with understanding why body contact exists in hockey in the first place.

“At the start of body contact in youth hockey players’ careers, sometimes the message isn’t clear,” Larke said. “The whole purpose of body checking and body contact is to win possession of the puck.”

When first approaching an opponent, a player needs to consider where his or her stick is, and what they’re doing with it. From there, initiate contact. 

“Lead with your stick to disrupt a possible release or pass,” Larke said. “Always make body contact after leading with your stick on the opponent’s stick/puck, then continue your body into theirs. Having an active stick, taking away their lane and then closing them off to the boards is a big thing, and not giving away the middle of the ice.”

The body contact Larke discussed is more simple and subtle than one might think; you’re on a mission to get the puck back, not put your opponent through the boards. All it takes is a split-second to take control of the situation and the puck.

“Going into a puck battle on the boards, there are points on the body to get your opponent off balance,” Larke said. “If you are able to use your free hand to push on a player’s hips, this can buy you time to access the puck. Go through the player’s hands and stick is another one, pinning those hands and the stick against the boards will release the puck from their possession.”

When you are engaged in a puck battle, it’s important to maintain proper body positioning to increase your chances of leaving with the prize. Make sure you are in an athletic stance – knees over toes, hips hinged almost into a seated position, and your chest/chin are aligned with your toes so you’re not leaning too far forward or too far backward.


Another thing Larke stresses is that puck battles should not be seen as individual activities on the ice. Just like everything else in hockey, it takes teammates working together to have success.

“Puck battles are nothing without support,” Larke said. “Using your teammates, right? You can go into a puck battle and try to do it all yourself, but the end of the day, you have to realize that at the higher levels, the puck is on your stick for max 1-2 seconds. Having the proper support system is very important for puck battles. If you are by yourself, say a one-on-two inverted puck battle, most of the time you’re not going to come out of it with the puck.”

Skating Sets the Stage

While it may not seem like it matters much in a scrum along the boards, a player’s skating ability is a crucial skill – both leading up to and after the battle.

“Having the urgency of getting there and not waiting, anticipating the play and then using your skating ability to close off time and space on your opponent is key,” Larke said. “If you are on the boards, and you’re able to get away [with the puck], the first four steps to get away from pressure is very, very important. Once you maintain, you can’t just stand there, because they’re going to re-gap and then close your time and space off. The words I use are, ‘getting out of the hole.’ You have to have your first four steps, getting you out of the hole, to create a gap between you and your opponent.”

While small-area games and other similar competitive practice structures certainly help, Larke said you can improve your skating to help with puck battles no matter what kind of drill you are taking part in – it all comes down to how you start.

“Really anything explosive on the ice – go into practice and start every drill with three to four quick steps – that will build some habits. If every time you have a quick start, your first four steps will be good in a game.”

Situational Awareness

In the same regard, knowing the situation and where you are on the ice is crucial. Coaches always say to ‘be a student of the game’ and when it comes to puck battles, it’s important to pick your spots.

“For me to know what the situation is, if the game is tied and you’re a defenseman pinching on a forward on a half-wall that creates a scrum, per-say, with a couple minutes left in a tie game, you don’t want to activate on that puck battle, you want to back off,” Larke said. “I think that’s a big thing about puck battles – anticipating when the puck is going to pop out and how aggressive you’re going to be. If it’s the offensive zone and you’re the first player in, then absolutely, but there’s a time and place.”

Watch and Learn

Who should you watch so you can learn from the best? Larke has had the opportunity to work with many professional hockey players, and when asked who young hockey players should watch and emulate, he quickly brought up Ottawa Senators captain Brady Tkachuk.

“I was able to be on the ice with Brady Tkachuk recently, and this guy would not stop in the corners,” Larke said. “He wouldn’t stop in the drill until the whistle blew. So I really, really started watching him in games, and his skills are great, but he told me something that was pretty good and pretty spot-on: ‘Hard work first, and then you’ll have more time and space for your skill work to open; it’ll give you more time.’ A lot of kids think that they’re going to walk through players based on skill – that is backward. 

“It’s hard work first, then use your skill. Pay attention to Brady Tkachuk, he’s a good one to watch.”

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