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Developing hockey sense a key for young players

by Adam Kimelman
Talk to any coach or scout, and the one thing they mention when describing a player they really like is hockey sense.

But what is hockey sense? To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."

Players like Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom and Pavel Datsyuk are among the current players who rank high on the hockey IQ chart. They're almost always in the right place in all three zones, whether they have the puck or not. It's what makes them some of the elite players in the game today.

So was it a learned skill? Or is it a knack that you either have or don't?

Well, it depends who you ask.

Jim Dowd, who spent 16 seasons in the NHL and was part of the 1995 Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils, said it's impossible to teach hockey sense. He now spends much of his time coaching teams his two sons, ages 10 and 7, play on in central New Jersey.

"Can you teach common sense? No," Dowd told "You have guys with book smarts but no common sense. I don't believe you can teach hockey sense."

Keith Primeau, who spent 15 seasons in the League and also coaches kids at various youth and high school levels, disagreed.

"Absolutely," he told when asked if hockey sense is a teachable skill. "We're teaching situational hockey. … You can teach them the game of hockey enough so that they know what the right decisions are, what is the right play in a certain situation."

Primeau believes hockey sense is "understanding situational play. Understanding where I'm supposed to be as the non-puck carrier, where I'm supposed to be on the forecheck. … It's all situational play."

He believes that repetition and a precise understanding of the team's style of play can raise a player's hockey IQ.
"Can you teach common sense? No.  You have guys with book smarts but no common sense. I don't believe you can teach hockey sense." -- Jim Dowd
Dowd, however, believes too much teaching can turn a player from a natural talent into "a robot."

"Hockey sense, for the most part you can't teach that," Dowd said. "You can turn the kid into a robot, but you can't teach hockey sense.

"It's either you get it or you don't."

What Dowd does with his players is tell them to watch certain NHL players, but not just for the highlight-reel plays they make. Instead, he advises them to watch their favorite players and teams, and keep an eye on the more mundane tasks players do that might help their team win, whether it's backchecking, forechecking or puck support.

"I came in one game and the Leafs had played the Rangers early in the season, and Phil Kessel was unbelievable," Dowd said. "I said, 'Guys did you watch that Ranger game? Did you see Phil Kessel play? He was the best player on the ice -- driving the net, making passes, making plays.' I find out what their favorite team is -- if they're Flyers fans, watch Mike Richards, watch Chris Pronger. If you're a Devils fan, watch Zach Parise."

Whether watching how an NHL star backchecks or supports a play in the defensive zone can turn into a natural habit for a 10-year-old is questionable. But one thing that's for sure is that players with high levels of hockey sense have a much greater chance of having a successful hockey career.

"As these kids get older," Primeau said, "what's going to separate the good players from each other -- because the playing field becomes level -- what separates is the kid that understands the game."

Contact Adam Kimelman at
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