Back to the Basics is NHL.com's multi-part series focusing on youth hockey skill development. During the coming months, NHL.com will feature a slate of guest coaches who will share their expertise on skill development.
The evolution of hockey in the last 30 years has elevated the importance of stickhandling.
"The way the game has changed now, if you don't have the hands, you can’t play," Jan Kascak told NHL.com.
Kascak knows a thing or two about coaching skill development as a former professional player and a British Columbia Hockey League coach and scout. He played four years at Saint Louis University and was drafted by the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association in 1974. He played one season of professional hockey, and then the native of British Columbia returned home to coach at the Okanagan Hockey School. During a three-year stint as coach of the Penticton Knights of the BCHL, Kascak led the team to two Fred Page Championship Cups. He currently serves as a scout for the Penticton Vees of the BCHL and leads their mentorship program.
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"Stickhandling starts right from the basics," Kascak said. "To be a good stickhandler you have to be a good skater. You have to be able to keep your feet moving and move the puck at the same time, whether it's a saucer pass or you're putting it in your feet and kicking it out the other side, or you make that toe-drag, it's so important that you have to have that balance and coordination as a skater."
Apart from being a strong skater, Kascak believes players also need the three D's to be proficient at stickhandling -- determination, discipline and desire. As hockey has evolved, players from the top levels down have improved their hand-eye coordination and overall speed through application of the three D's. According to Kascak, if you are a dedicated hockey player, you're going to do it. Once you get the passion for it and embrace it, those are the kids who keep moving onto higher levels of hockey.
"Stickhandling is a skill that you have to practice," Kascak said. "You practice it so much it just becomes a part of you."
One of the most effective ways to practice is off the ice with a sheet of plywood, which acts as a slippery surface similar to ice. Players should practice every day, getting accustomed to the feel of the puck on the end of the stick. Practice so often that it feels like second nature, until the puck on the stick feels like an extension of your hand. You also can juggle the puck on the blade of the stick and take turns tossing it to teammates in order to increase hand-eye coordination.
The most common mistake Kascak said he has observed in his years as a coach and scout is that players easily lose focus. According to Kascak, coaches want players to be prepared to play for 60 minutes -- and good hockey players change every shift, adapting their game to play the system that their coach has implemented. This sort of focus begins in practice. Players that can focus on the importance of each drill in practice will develop better focus for game situations.
In order to improve stickhandling, it's essential for players to have the proper equipment. Their stick must have the correct lie, length and flex.
Lie: The lie of a stick is the way that you skate the blade to the ice, and should increase in number as a player grows. Most youth players should have a blade lie between 4.5 and 5.5. When kids grow, their stick is going to change, as is their style of skating, which is why you have to look at the lie of the stick.
Length: Players should make sure their stick is a length that feels comfortable. Make sure that it's not too short that you are on your toe when you stick handle and that it's not too long so you're on your heel when you stickhandle. To find the right length, players should put on their skates and stand up; the top of the stick should be even with their nose. If the stick still feels too long the player can cut it shorter. Go by quarter-inch increments to cut it down until it's the right size.
Flex: For a youth player, a flexible stick is the best option. Kids are not that strong. Don't get a 100 flex; 85 even may be too stiff. Go with a 75 flex so the player can feel the puck and as he or she gets stronger, they can increase the flex. Going from a peewee to a bantam is a huge growth jump; it's the same in going from bantam to midget, so don't rush the blade flex.
Coaches should implement skills that help to develop better stickhandling simultaneously with other fundamental skills -- for example, a skating drill around cones or tires combined with a shooting drill that requires stopping and starting with the puck. Coaches can get creative, but should not forget to focus on stickhandling during the course of practice.
"Ultimately, stickhandling is like all fundamental hockey skills," Kascak said. "When you embrace something it's not work. You enjoy doing it. Hockey is a sport that kids have a lot of fun with and they enjoy it. I'm still having a lot of fun with it and I'm playing old-timer's hockey. It's something that, when it's in your system and it's in your heart, you just never let it go."