Keep your head up, son!

I get asked all the time what is the most important skill for a young hockey player to master. I have spoken to many experts in this area and they confirmed my own opinion. Skating is the answer. I have always believed if a player can skate, get around the ice quickly and efficiently they have a chance to contribute to the game.

I am starting to think that there is another skill that is not above skating but right below it in terms of importance. On-ice awareness.

The more hockey I watch at all levels the more this becomes evident. If a player has his head up he can find the open man to make a pass to them or get open to receive a pass. Being able to recognize who the dangerous player is on the ice and where on the ice he is, is a skill in itself that takes time to develop.

A huge part of on ice awareness has become and is self-preservation. Take a look at the video below.

Team Canada dumps the puck in and Slovakian defenceman Patrick Luka goes back to retrieve the hard rimmed puck. I don’t know if thought he was just in a shinny game or he had just paid his two dollars for public skating but he has no idea what is going on around him on the ice. He doesn’t even bother to take a look up the ice. He simply follows the boards around, waiting for the puck to catch up to him. No clue!

Anthony Camara comes right down the boards and runs him right over! I loved it! A legal hit if I ever saw one. Unfortunately for Luka he was not able to get off the ice on his own. I never like to see that; I am not a barbarian. That being said, the responsibility for this hit is on Luka. He needs to get his head up and protect himself.

Are we teaching players, young and old to be prepared for contact? Hockey is a physical sport. Young players need instruction in this area. I have heard many stories of players leaving the sport when hitting comes into games. Maybe if there was an emphasis on getting players to understand the dangerous areas of the ice like five feet from the boards less kids would get hurt. There will always be injuries but with more instruction I believe more hits could be avoided.

There is also a need for players to protect themselves. Can anyone remember Mark Messier getting run over? I watched a lot of his games and I can’t remember him get slammed. There were two reasons for this. One, he had great awareness of where opposing players were coming from. Two, he never let himself be a victim of a hit without giving something back.

Just because hitting is a part of hockey doesn’t mean you need to accept getting hit. Messier understood this very well. When a player was coming to hit him his stick would go up as well as his elbows. It made delivering a hit a lot less enjoyable for the hitter and took some of the steam out of the hit. Often, players are in vulnerable positions along the boards. This is an area where having your stick high deters other players from running you.

I often think of Taylor Hall versus Drew Doughty. Hall has a tendency to fly up the ice without to much concern as to who may be lining him up. Drew has good timing and has made Hall fly a couple of times. Taylor needs to start getting dirty. When Doughty comes to run him put his elbow or stick around Drew’s chin. Sure, Hallsy may get penalized and even suspended. It is worth it for a couple of reasons. One, Hall won’t end up injured. Two, the rest of the league all watches the highlights. He will get fewer guys running him because they are unsure if and when he would do it again. My approach may seem aggressive but that is how players acquire space and a reputation through the NHL.

I go back to Messier, what kind of reputation did he have? I don’t remember players wanting to earn one by messing with him, the outcome was too unpredictable. Another guy who was a master at this, although it may surprise many was Peter Forsberg. He was the master of the reverse hit!

A reverse hit is when a player waits till the last second before a player hits him and he hits the hitter. It surprises the hitter big time. Forsberg would often do it in the corners. Quite often the guy coming to hit him would end up on his ass and Forsberg would have a clearer path to the net. It was a great play. He wouldn’t accept being hit.

One last thought on this hitting topic that has been bothering is the diving. Check out this sell job that Tomas Mikus does after being hit by Team Canada’s J.C Lipon.

I don’t dispute it was a dirty hit by Lipon but did Mikus have to flop around on the ice after? This is the part of the game I literally hate. I can’t stand seeing guys lying on the ice when everyone knows the player is fine. All Mikus was trying to do was sell a five minute penalty to the refs. It is brutal and not the way hockey should be played.

I’ve never understood the motivation? Why show weakness? Unless your legs are broken or something very serious has happened, go to the bench. Nine out of ten times players can get to the bench. If you are cut, go to the bench, which is where help is. Bad shoulder, your legs still work, get to the bench. Blocked a shot off the side of your foot, you guessed it; ice is one the bench, go to it!

Not only does Mikus lay on the ice for too long, he ends up scoring the goal on the five minute penalty call! Wow! This guy must be a fast healer! I would like to see a rule put into the books that would be the following. A player who lays on the ice for longer than five seconds after receiving a blow that resulted in a penalty cannot play on the ensuing power play. Very simple and clear. How many players would stay on the ice? Very few, if any. Trust me!

Hockey is a physical sport. I like watching it played that way. I have no issue with Team Canada playing that way at the World Junior Championships. As a hockey playing nation we have a responsibility to teach our players the skills required to compete in that style of hockey.

It is enough to simply say ‘Keep your head up, son’.

  • Bi-Curious Gord

    Great points, JS. As much as I love Hall’s reckless abandon, I cringe when I watch him try to slip between the boards and a defender. Taking a penalty or two could go a long way as far as self preservation goes.

  • book¡e

    Nice to hear these points from a player. Although I don’t like dirty play, given the reality of the NHL I have often thought a little wildness backs off the headhunters.

    Hall definitely needs to do something to protect himself.

    Glenn Anderson also must have been a treat to deal with in his prime, elbows skates and stick flailing around going into the corner.

  • book¡e

    Anyone who thinks Hall never defends himself should watch this. He didn’t even get a penalty. He did it earlier to Doughty as well at a higher speed, but I can’t find the video. He didn’t get a penalty in either case. Very Messier-like.

  • book¡e

    @Jason Strudwick while I do agree that players need to keep their head up and diving sucks your solution isn’t feasible. 1) when do you start counting to 5 seconds 2) what if the player is winded 3) with all the concussion talks this just screams get up and play your fine.

  • Toro

    First thing my dad taught me was keep your head up! I loved the Camara hit wish you would see more of that type of hit in the NHL but it seems too me there trying to get the big hits and toughness outta it, bringing in more European style hockey to appease American fans , just venting.. damn you lockout

  • GVBlackhawk

    Nice blog today — you really made great points about on ice awareness and player protection. A recent player’s perspective is greatly appreciated by this hockey fan. Can you please do more of these blogs? It is very refreshing after reading about prospect development and CBA or rink negotiations ad nauseum.

    Players will roll around on the ice because they will do anything to help their team get an edge. Even if they cannot play the PP, their team is still on a man-advantage. This still gives them a reason to stop, drop and roll.

    I think it is up to the referees to get the call right in the first place. Commit to penalizing a player for diving or flopping. Confer with the other ref and/or linesmen. I would even suggest the use of video replay to confirm major penalties (besides fighting) if they have any uncertainty about the call.

    Good job Jason.

  • book¡e

    Great post.

    I thought it was strange how a few years ago the media was really promoting keep your head up, then after the Crosby concussion it was all, we need to eliminate hits to the head.

    What did you think of Sutton’s hits that got him suspended last year? I like how he didn’t back down and said he’d do it again if he had to. Trying to say his hit wasn’t dirty, he’s just big and that’s how he plays.

  • Jason, great article and totally agree with you! Players need to be always aware where they are on the ice and who’s on the ice too! One thing that I really don’t like what today’s players do is turn their back when they see a hit coming. I was always taught to protect yourself and never put yourself in a bad position, especially you are close to the boards. This incident a few years back with kitchener’s Ben fanneli, was an example where the player put himself in harm by turning his back to the player that was going to hit him. Fanneli was probably wearing his chin strap too loosely which cause his helmet to be ejected upon impact. Checking from behind rules should be changed to also penalizing the a player turning their backs to the hit.

  • Amen. I’ve always thought that the direction the game is going in this area is dispocable. When players go into the coners head first without checking over their shoulder and get rammed, then are surprised after. This infuriates me. 9/10 times the hittee is at fault for the injury for not protecting themselves. The antics of the canucks are not something that should exist. Flopping and diving are way to prevalent, because under today’s rules all the onus is put on the hitter. Messier protected himself, because he knew that nobody would do it for him. Players today are too protected from retribution (not just marty mcsorely assaults, but big hits), that weasles have found a place to live.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Keep your head up, NHL…..suitable title considering those involved in the NHL will be left scratching their heads when hockey returns next Christmas.

    How to flush a billion dollars+ (post lockout revenues) down the toilet, brought to you by Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr. If the Canadian dollar were to hit that 70 cent mark in the near future, the NHL would be in dire straights. Does Rome even have a fire department?

  • Rob...

    If a faked injury results in a major and a game, the suspended player should be re-instated and the faker should be assessed the game suspension instead, subject to appeal requiring proof of an injury that would have resulted in the actions displayed on the ice.

    Any team that continues to play a player who shows signs of concussions on the ice should be subject to a massive fine, possibly even a drop in draft position.

  • I like how Ray Ferraro called Schiefle’s blantant dive in the first USA game ‘heady’.

    If we are in a playoff game, and Hall goes down to get a call, I wonder how people would feel if we scored on the pp to win the game……

    I bet the popular opinion would change a bit…..

    But we fought to change the game, and get more powerplays, and now this is a side-effect……just like the oilers firewagon style was trumped by the trap, the clutch and grab has been replaced with the dive-flop……

    The circle of hockey rolls on……

  • Buke

    Better yet, if a player causes play to stop due to injury (either real or imagined), the player must pass a full medical examination before being allowed to resume play.

    I’m not talking about the old smelling salts routine, but a full dark room examination! This will cost them a period or more.

  • Spydyr

    This article is like your in my head.Could not agree more on any of the points.

    Keep your head up and your stick on the ice.Defend yourself at all times on the ice.

    Keep your elbow high.The runs will stop.