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Sticking to It

Players from youth hockey to the pros can get better at stickhandling. Here's why stickhandling is trending up-and why having a garage matters

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

SEATTLE -- As a young hockey camper, Carl Clark remembers it like yesterday.

"I attended [Seattle Totems captain] Gordon Sinclair's hockey school every summer in Woodinville," says Clark, 69, who lives in Mukilteo and, like the rest of us, is eager for NHL hockey in 2021. "Guyle Fielder [Totems superstar] would set us up with puck and tell us to move the puck back and forth on our stick [blades] without looking down."

Clark is laughing over the phone line.

"For Guyle, it was easy," explains Clark. "For us? Not so much."

When Fielder was in Seattle earlier this year to be honored NHL Seattle, he chuckled at Clark's camp story.

"It's not easy to pick up but it can be taught," said Fielder during an interview session in April. "You have to practice a lot."

Fielder says he sharpened his stickhandling skills with his own personal catch-up course. 

"My first year in juniors [elite level amateur hockey], I used to stickhandle with my head down," says Fielder. "One night a little defenseman for Flin Flon [Manitoba] caught me with a hard check. He knocked me colder than a cucumber. I woke up in the dressing room."

"I went home that summer and practiced in the backyard with my head up to feel the puck on my stick."

Today's NHL puts a premium on speed and playmaking. In his day, Fielder was considered not only a fast skater, but the fastest skater with the puck playing in the then-pro Western Hockey League. Developing a no-look comfort level with the puck on your stick is a coveted skill for young players.

"You definitely want to move the puck without looking at it," says Lexi Bender, Snohomish native and a fourth-year pro with the NWHL's Boston Pride. "You always want to use your peripherals [side vision] when skating and playing."

Bender conducted a free two-session girls hockey clinic at Lynnwood Ice Center in early August. While there are any number of stickhandling-aid practice devices on the market, Bender suggests your garage might be just the place to move closer to the Guyle Fielder level-or the likes of Chicago's Patrick Kane and Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau.

"The best drill for summer stickhandling is get in your garage with your stick and puck [or ball]," says Bender. "Then scatter a bunch of stuff around the floor and stickhandle around everything."

You can start using your eyes to track the puck. But be sure that you get the touch for the puck on your stick: How it feels tapping on each side of the blade or pulling it along or sliding it without losing it. Then progress to stick work keeping your head up and looking ahead.

The NHL All-Star Skills Competition is always a fun January night of oohs and aahs for fans and players alike. But there is one skills event that proves a learning experience. Watching top pros like Kane and Gaudreau in the puck control competition is a stickhandling clinic for fans and players alike.

Competitors start by close-in stick work, moving the puck in rapid fashion in and out of 10 stationary red pucks lined up in a forward line (the players can look at the puck). Next is weaving in and around eight cones places in a zig-zag pattern, requiring tight turns and alternating the puck on each side of the stick blade while getting around the cones like a skier hitting all the right gates in an slalom race. This drill-Bender calls it "The Peanut"-is hard enough to do without the puck coming along for the ride.

The final segment of the competition is basically impossible for most humans. Players contort their stick blades to work as sort of a spatula or burger flipper to pick up the puck. At NHL Skills Weekend, the players do the spatula lift and put the puck through shots at three different heights before a final shot in net.

At the 2019 competition in San Jose, Kane started with an impressive time of roughly 28 seconds. He looked like the winner as other gifted NHLers-Vancouver's Elias Pettersson, Toronto's John Tavares, Colorado's GabrCiel Landeskog and more-fell short of beating Kane's time. As the final contender, Gaudreau retained his Puck Control (he won in 2018), beating the Blackhawks surefire Hall of Famer by one second. 

Video: Gatorade NHL Puck Control Recap

Kane's teammate and another surefire Hall of Famer Jonathan Toews is an example of pro players who still think they can learn a thing or three about stickhandling. Toews worked with stickhandling coach Pavel Barber a couple of offseasons ago to up his game. While Barber trains individually with pro players, his hockey school emphasizes stickhandling more than ever. 

"I think [a few] years ago, I could kind of see the direction the game was going," said to SportsNet. "I noticed all these elite stickhandlers and puck protectors were the guys who were kind of making it. And the rules were changing, there was less clutch-and-grab, which opened up room for these skill guys."

SportsNet convinced Barber to name his top 10 NHL stickhandlers. Barber weighed eight different variables to concoct his rankings: (1) deception, (2) ability to shoot and pass out of handles, (3) ability to create space, (4) creativity, (5) puck protection, (6) small-area work, (7) soft touch, and (8) hand speed. This list is impressive and fodder for hockey debates-and maybe inspiration for stickhandling, whether at the rink or in the garage:

1. Patrick Kane Chicago Blackhawks

2. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

3. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders

4. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

5. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

6. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

7. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

8. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

9. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

10. Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators

 

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