John Harrington knows the importance of winning battles in front of the net, both as a player and a coach.
A member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold medal team and a Minnesota Duluth product, Harrington is currently the head coach of the Minnesota State women’s team.
Winning battles in front of the net is certainly one of the top priorities for Harrington’s team, and it should be for young hockey players everywhere. So what would the member of the Miracle on Ice team tell a 14U/16U player in regards to be being better in front of the net?
“I’d say the first thing is that they have to get to the net,” Harrington said. “That’s something we all work on. The willingness to get there and the willingness to stay there, whether the puck’s there or has not gotten there, we work on that as coaches. I think that’s the first thing. The second thing is the ability to establish position, to stay loose so you don’t get tied up or get your stick up in the air. I tell young players, if you play baseball, you see a lot of groundballs go through a player’s legs if they don’t have their glove down, but if they have it down it’s easier to come up. It’s the same thing with the stick, if you keep it on the ice, not only is it easier to redirect pucks, but it’s easier to come up and deflect a puck there than it is to try to get your stick down on the ice as the puck is coming by.
“I think those are a couple of things, and then just an awareness of where the puck is shot from and having a feel of being in front of the net. To know where the puck is and where your position is. You see players’ heads spinning around like, where’s the puck, and it’s down in their feet. It’s the ones who can have a feel to follow it in and have a feel for how it’s gotten through if it’s gotten through and then the ability to find the puck.”
Spending some time in the weight room certainly doesn’t hurt your chances of getting your stick on the puck during a net-front scramble, either.
“If you believe you’re stronger because you’ve done that and you’re working out for things like that, yes, it’s going to give you a chance to not only get to the net, but also be better for you to be able to play with that strength you have,” Harrington said. “Each level you go up in hockey, it gets tougher to get to the front of the net, it gets harder to play in front of the net, so working out and conditioning and staying with that is certainly going to help you as you move up in levels of hockey.”
Where goals are scored
For the forwards, it’s critical to get to the front of the net, because that’s where the majority of goals are occurring.
“What’s important, is the ability to go there and having the timing that you’re there when the puck arrives or if you’re a little bit early to stay there if the puck is going to come there,” Harrington said. “I think a lot of players play through the net front area and say, ‘Well, the puck wasn’t there.’ You’ll see that in the game and all of a sudden the puck gets shot as they’re skating behind the net or turning to the corner. Now the puck’s getting there but you didn’t finish there, you didn’t stay there when you got to the net front.”
Where goals are thwarted
On the other side of the battle, Harrington has plenty of advice for defensemen, and it all starts with positioning.
“As much as you can, keep your feet pointed up ice so you can see where the puck is coming in and have an idea for how you’re going to defend,” Harrington said. “Don’t get your back turned to where the puck is coming from. Establish position. The ability to box out – not letting somebody come to the front of the net and then try to eliminate them or try to move them out if they’ve established position. It’s finding people and trying to keep them outside that area so, one, they can’t screen the goalie, and two, they can’t get a stick on a tip or a rebound.
“The third thing is that once you’re there and somebody has gotten an established position on you, you’re not going to be very successful playing behind the person. You’re almost going to have to front the person if they establish themselves in front of the net, and then it’s your job to redirect pucks or block pucks and play defense that way, if someone has established position in front of the net.”
Bumper to bumper
How can all parties concerned improve their play in front of the net? Small-area games.
“Small-area games are huge,” Harrington said. “The ability to think quick and what I call head-to-hand speed. How quickly can you process something? There are some players who see a play they should make or a puck they can get to, and then it’s, ‘Well, OK, now I have the puck, OK, now I have to make a play, OK, now that player’s open.’ But those players who can play in small areas, they can do that much quicker. They see it right now, they get it and the puck is moved.
“I think any time you have to problem solve with less time and less space to do it will develop your skills more. I say that there are a lot of players who can play on the freeway, but you have to be able to play in city traffic, too. You have to be able to bump bumpers and honk horns and fight for position, too. That’s a big part of the game of hockey.”