There is no better time than summertime for hockey players at the 14U and 16U level to make vast improvements to a fundamental skill that’s often overlooked during the season: stickhandling.
At this age in USA Hockey’s American Development Model, players should work on sport-specific technical skills with an increased emphasis on hockey. Players can see big gains in their stickhandling with as little as 15-20 minutes a day of focused practice.
However, this is the age when players need to be self-motivated.
“At 15, you can control your own destiny and you shouldn’t have to be asked to go out and work on this stuff,” said Guy Gosselin, USA Hockey ADM regional manager. “Parents and coaches may provide some direction at the younger age, but you don’t want to turn it into work. Work ethic is huge, but that’s got to be up to the player. It comes from within.”
If your child is willing to put in the effort, here are five summer drills to take their stickhandling skills to the next level.
Even when stickhandling in the basement or garage, players should get in a little warmup before starting. A great way to kill two birds with one stone is to stickhandle while going through a dynamic warmup. At 14U, players should be doing exercises like lunges, squats, skips and jumps before hitting the ice.
“When you’re doing this stuff, you can be stickhandling while you’re doing it,” Gosselin said.
“You can work on your range of motion with your stickhandling away from your body. You can do some lunges and reach out with your hockey stick. You can do some athletic movements under control with your stick and a ball or puck.”
Players shouldn’t be sedentary in the offseason and need to continue development of speed, strength and stamina while maintaining flexibility. Adding a ball and stick to a dynamic warmup will help expand their athleticism and coordination.
Balance board/stability ball
Players don’t need a BOSU stability ball to add balance and core strength while working on their stickhandling. Using two two-by-fours, a player can create a balance board that will add all kinds of challenges to their mundane stickhandling routine.
“When you’re working on [a balance board], you’re developing your motor skills and your stickhandling, but you’re also developing core strength and balance,” Gosselin said. “Body position is key – you need stability to be stable on the ice. You need to be in the athletic position with flexion in your ankles and knees, hips down and chest up, with your head up.”
If you have a friend or teammate, they can create some conflict by lightly pushing on your hips or nudging you off balance while you try to maintain control of your balance and the puck.
“It’s a great drill because it’s just like being on skates – actually it’s harder,” the two-time U.S. Olympian said.
Another drill that will help with body control and multitasking is the “toe tap” developed and augmented from a basic soccer movement. Place a soccer ball in front of you and alternately tap it with the balls of your feet, while stickhandling with your head up.
“You’re wiring your motor skills,” Gosselin said. “To be able to do more than one thing, you’re starting to work on awareness and what’s around you.”
“When you’re kicking the ball back and your hands are moving, it simulates moving through traffic. You have to know what’s going on around you.”
Line up a row of obstacles (pucks or cones work well) along the ground with about a foot and a half between each. Moving forward, push the ball away from your body and in front of the obstacle and then toe-drag (pull) it back towards you.
This drill will develop soft hands, cupping the puck, wrist flexibility and side-to-side movement, something that’s necessary in today’s game.
“You have to work on your lateral movement,” said the former University of Minnesota Duluth standout. “You have to be able to play with the puck toward your body and away from your body. Those movements, when you’re opening up, you’re cupping the puck – that’s going to help you protect it and control it out on the ice.”
You can get creative with the push and pull.
“If you want to do some more refinement, you can work in lateral, forward or backward figure 8s,” Gosselin said. “You can push and pull and flip it over a two-by-four or four-by-four.”
Which leads us to our final drills:
Stick flip and hacky
With the stick flip, lay a stick or board in front of you. Rolling the ball in front of your body, flip it over the board and catch it on the other side. This is a difficult drill that develops a soft touch.
“Even pros work on that kind of stuff, they’ll be stickhandling fast, stop it and flip it up quickly and then transition,” Gosselin said.
Hacky can be played by yourself or with a group of friends. Flip the ball up to your blade and see how many times you can bounce it without falling onto the ground. If you have a few others around, keep passing the ball in the air. Make it a competition. If someone drops the ball, they’re eliminated and the survivors keep going until there’s only one player remaining in the circle. It takes a lot of work to be able to get the hacky skills of an NHL player.
Gosselin has a final piece of advice for the players who want to take their skills to the next level.
“When you’re doing these drills, don’t just go through the motions,” Gosselin said. “You have to focus and concentrate on how it feels when it’s being done properly and how it feels when you’re making a mistake so you can learn from that.”