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12U: Secret About Holding Your Stick

04/17/2024, 10:45am MDT
By Michael Rand

Small Details, Big Gains

Roger Grillo isn’t trying to get a rise out of hockey coaches, he promises.

But when he tells them their players usually should have just one hand on their stick instead of two, Grillo does get some strange reactions.

“Coaches look at me like I have two heads,” says Grillo, a player development director for USA Hockey. “Coaches are like, ‘What is he talking about? That's sacrilege. You can't say that.’”

Two hands on the stick, players used to be taught. But Grillo also says that like other outdated models – he uses an example of how while growing up playing baseball, players weren’t allowed to drink water but instead were given salt tablets to prevent cramping – this one needs an update.

Sticks are too important, particularly defensively, to go to waste.

The Exceptions

There are times when a player wants two hands on his or her stick.

Obviously when you're going to shoot, you're going to pass, maybe when you're going to catch a pass, or when you're going to go in to battle and you want to be strong on your stick,” Grillo says. “But that's such a small percentage of games.”

The Reality

How small? Grillo says most players should probably play about 98% of the game with one hand on their stick. They can skate faster and have better balance with one hand on their stick.

“You watch some of the high-end players and marvel at their ability to move the puck offensively with one hand on their stick, to push it to open space, to get it out in front of them and to protect the puck from exposure,” Grillo says.

And it’s invaluable to have a good stick on defense.

“Kids need to understand that their stick is another tool within the game hockey to take away time and space to steer people into bad ice, to deflect shots, to take away passing lanes,” Grillo says. “There are so many aspects that the stick that can be used for in a positive manner, and I just don't think it's a big enough emphasis right now. It's something that needs to be emphasized starting at a very young age – to hold it correctly, to use it correctly and to put it in your toolboxes as a way to be a more effective player.”

Good Sticks for All

Smaller players tend to be better and craftier with their sticks, likely as a way to compensate for their lack of size. Minnesota Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon, an undersized player who has carved out a long and successful career, is a good example.

“I bet you their stick details are really good because they had to be. Players need to figure out a way to win space and possess the puck,” Grillo says. “It's harder when you don't have a reach, it's harder when you don't have leverage, it's harder when you don't have the size and strength. So you do have to be better in those little detailed aspects of the game to be effective.”

Players like that are invaluable at doing the gritty work to win pucks and change possession.

“The best players are so strong on their stick. It might not be the biggest guys, they might not have the longest reach,” Grillo says. “But man, you know if they’re going into the battle they're going to come out with it because they're just better and stronger on their stick.”

But why should good stick work be limited to players who don’t have other gifts?

“Can coaches then take those athletes that do have those benefits and make sure that the detailed parts of their game are good? I would say absolutely,” Grillo says. And that's just observing what your players do well, and then not allowing them to just use their strength in practice.”

Vital at 12U

Teaching good stick work, particularly on defense, is of vital importance for the 12U age group, Grillo says.

“It's the stage just before body checking,” he says. “And what I tell coaches all the time is you’ve got to treat 12U hockey almost like it's driver's ed. You’ve got to encourage body contact, you’ve got to encourage angling, but you've got to strongly encourage stick on puck. If you're not talking that language at 12U, and you wait until 14U when they're able to check, it's like handing the keys to the car to a 16-year-old without driver’s ed.”

Grillo says he emphasizes a “stick on puck mentality” at 12U, giving players two years to phase into the idea of being in a crowd before body checking is legal at 14U.

“I talk to coaches all the time about starting drills and starting small area games with a 50-50 puck scrum on the boards,” he says. “You’ve got to put players in those situations if they're going to be better at it.”

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