When Kelly Miller was asked about ‘toughness’ in hockey players, he quickly referred to a different word.
“It’s not so much ‘toughness’ that we really focus in on a lot,” said the former NHL forward and current assistant coach at Michigan State University. “What we really like to focus on is ‘compete’ – the ability to compete for pucks, to win those 50-50 pucks or win those battles to possess the puck. I think one of the key things that we think is important in a hockey player is that you have guys on your team that are just really great competitors. They want to win those battles, they really stick their nose in there and they are relentless on the puck. We think that’s a real good quality.”
So, is ‘compete’ really just a way to change peoples’ perception of the word ‘toughness?’
“I guess that could be considered toughness, but I think a lot of people, you know, associate toughness with hitting and that kind of thing, where for us, we’re looking for guys who are going to enter into battles for pucks and figure out ways to come out of the pile with the puck and win their share of the battles.”
High Energy, but Self-Control
Miller, like many others, wants people to reconsider being ‘tough’ on the ice. The former Spartans forward and longtime Washington Capitals winger said that hockey coaches want to see players who can contain their emotions on the ice, yet still exert the necessary energy to make positive plays for their team.
“We want guys who compete very hard. If you’re trying to be tough and in your pursuit of trying to be tough, if that goes overboard and you’re in the penalty box constantly or you’re way out of position to hit a guy, you’re not playing smart hockey,” added Miller.
Toughness is not retaliating illegally, taking dumb penalties, ambushing defenseless players, post-whistle face-washing, head-hunting, brawling or any of that nonsense. That doesn’t belong in the game – and coaches don’t want it on their teams.
“We want to find kids who compete, but we also want kids who play smart hockey,” said Miller. It’s finding that right balance between being tough to play against and taking yourself out of position or putting your team down a man in the penalty box. It’s finding that right balance, finding how to compete hard but compete smart.”
Strength and Skills
Don’t get him wrong, though. Miller knows you still have to be willing to “grind” when you’re on the ice, especially in those crucial battles for the puck. Games can be won or lost in the battles along the boards, as teams try to earn possession and control of the play.
When asked how a player can improve his chances of regaining or retaining the puck, Miller said it’s a mix of mental and physical prowess.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” Miller said. “Obviously there has to be a willingness to get your nose in there and battle. No. 2, I think it’s important to have good skating skills, because your skating skills – especially your strength and your comfort level on your edges and having a real good strong foundation underneath you when you go in those battles – is really important.”
Stick strength is also important. Being strong on your stick and having the ability to lift your opponent’s stick is key to creating turnovers and maintaining puck possession in the corners and other high-traffic areas.
“Some of that translates to your physical strength as well, but some of it is just your ability to have good balance on your skates, be real strong and have a good knee bend when you’re in those battles,” Miller said. “A big part of it is just that willingness and that relentless attitude, and then part of it is more physical and skating in terms of balance and strength on your skates.”
Much of the same advice applies to the other most common battle spot on the ice: the net-front.
“One of the drills we do is called ‘house hunters,’ and the house is that area in front of our net and the other team’s net,” Miller said. “A lot of scoring in games, it really comes down to your compete level and your ability to win battles in those areas. I think that’s a very important area of the game, very important area of the ice, and you have to win those areas if you’re going to be successful. We spend a lot of time as a team on those areas of the ice, and again, it’s 1-on-1s, it’s 2-on-2s, it can even be 3-on-3s right in front of the net.”
Developing Battle Skills
How can players work on these crucial game situations in practice? By competing in small-area games, a concept incorporated into college and NHL practices, not just youth ones.
“I think the small-area games are really good to help players in terms of winning those battles, those small-area battles, because you can set up situations where the players have a 1-on-1 battle in the corner or a 2-on-2 battle in the corner,” said Miller. “I think those are excellent ways to not only get comfortable with sticking your nose in there and the willingness part of it, but also how to use your balance, how to use your stick strength, how to use your body positioning to get the edge on the person that you’re competing against in the corner.
“I think the small-area games are excellent for bringing out that compete and that battle hunger in the corners and all over the ice.”