“Some of the dumbest guys around are really smart hockey players.”
One of my former coaches loved that saying. You don’t need to have a perfect SAT score or even common sense to have a little thing called “hockey sense,” the key ingredient separating good hockey players from great ones.
The lack of this trait is often what keeps über-gifted players toiling in the minors, while their less talented but hockey-smart rich counterparts carve out nice National Hockey League careers.
So what, exactly, is hockey sense?
“It’s not the easiest thing in the world to define,” former Wild forward and television analyst Wes Walz said. “Hockey sense is one of those things that you just know it when you see it.”
It’s been described as knowing where your teammates are on the ice. It’s been called being in the “right place at the right time.” It’s equated to having a natural feel for the game. It’s the indelible quality that elite players all seem to posses more of than their counterparts. It’s a bunch of clichés trying to explain and describe hockey smarts.
Walz characterizes hockey sense in three different elements. First, is by positional play. Have you ever heard someone ask, “Man, that guy gets some lucky goals, the puck always just seems to find him?” Well, it’s usually the other way around. The player that is often “lucky” finds the open spots on the ice where the puck is most likely to go. But positional play isn’t limited to the offensive zone.
“When I’m watching high school hockey, juniors or even the pros, the first thing I look at is where they position themselves in the defensive zone,” Walz said. “Is he in the right spot defensively or is he costing his team because he is out of position?”
The second thing that the former centerman looks for when trying find a player with good hockey sense is their ability to read and react.
“A player with great hockey sense is able to know where a puck is going, maybe a second or two before someone else,” Walz commented. “A good example is when the puck gets rimmed around the wall: the same guys always seem to come away with the puck.
“That doesn’t happen by accident.”
The final skill Walz looks for in a player when defining hockey sense is their decision-making ability during crucial moments of a game. The 607-game NHL veteran gave the example of a defenseman making decisions during critical plays.
“Will a defenseman pinch down in a tie game when maybe it’s only a 50-50 play for the puck or will he stay back and live to fight another day?” Walz questioned. “You also need to know who you’re on the ice against. If you’re playing against the other team’s best line, and you’re up by a goal, you might want to play on the defensive side of things as opposed to taking chances.”
Some players just seem to be gifted with the preternatural ability of hockey sense. However, Walz believes it is a skill that can be absorbed.
“As you get more experience playing hockey, you begin to learn those things,” Walz said. “A lot of times hockey sense is something that people think it’s something you’re genetically born with, and there is validity towards that, but it can also be taught, too.
“The more you play and live through different experiences in hockey, it can be learned.”
The Calgary, Alberta native believes that young players who are more apt in the classroom and have a good head on their shoulders are typically able to pick up things taught by their coaches. But Walz has seen the opposite in regards to hockey sense, as well.
“I’ve seen guys who have a 4.0 GPA and cannot understand certain drills and you see guys who have might have a high school diploma as their highest level in school and they only need to see a drill one time and they can pick it up,” Walz said. “I don’t like to generalize, but I have seen both sides of the equation in regards to hockey sense.”