An Approach to Team Building Based on Values: Part 1

Every head coach is tasked with the responsibility of assembling and developing the best possible team. It’s not an easy task. Assembling the best team doesn’t necessarily mean recruiting the players with the most talent. Talent takes an athlete only so far. Coaches are tasked with selecting and developing players who will fit into the culture of the team. Evaluating and recruiting players to a team is a key part of the equation. As important, if not more important, is the development of the players once the team has been assembled. Players are evaluated and recruited based on a set of criteria and it’s not an exact science.

Legendary college football coach Nick Saban rightfully points out that there are some players who have the misguided idea that they have a lot of choices in the development process. Saban points out, that if you want to be good, it takes what it takes, there isn’t a lot of choice in the development process.

Alabama has been successful under Saban because of his ability to evaluate, recruit and develop players. Talented players interested in getting better want to become part of a team and program, that by design, provides the best opportunity for team success and for their individual development.

Once a team is selected it’s absolutely essential the teambuilding process commences. Every team is made up of a group of individuals and it’s a head coach’s job to unite the group as one by having them embrace a clear purpose, process and set of shared core values & beliefs. One of the most important components of team building is the defining, sharing, and operationalizing of the coach’s core set of values and beliefs for the team.

A head coach’s job can be broken down into four buckets of work, essentially; operations management, applied science, coaching, and lastly but most importantly culture.

The 4 Buckets of a Coach’s Work

1) Operations Management – Every head coach must operate within the financial limits (budget) of their approved budget as part of their management responsibility. Communications both internal and external are part of the daily routine. Managing events, practices and tournaments are part of the administrative duties associated with the role among others.

2) Applied Science – Every head coach is expected to ensure that the strength and conditioning of the athletes is part of their program. Each player’s development plan should have a strength and conditioning component. The use of technology to support the coaching process is an absolute must. Every successful head coach spends hours studying video of opponents to gain insight on their strengths and areas of weakness to ensure the right game strategy and tactics are deployed. Video has become an extremely helpful tool for the development of the team and individual players. Video is the best analytic tool a coach can utilize because with slow motion and other features you can properly breakdown the play.

Technology is used for coaching notations throughout the season so that critical information is easy to access. Some coaches are using computer generated analytics for guidance in their day to day evaluation and understanding of team performances which is also part of the science of sports.

3) Coaching – The evaluation, recruitment and development of players is a major responsibility of every head coach. Coaches are responsible for the development of their program taking full advantage of the athletes on the team. The strategy and tactics are based on the talents and strengths of the athletes not philosophy. For successful coaches the devotion of time, energy and effort into the individual player development process is not negotiable. The day to day coaching grind and attention to details in organizing practices and preparing for games is a time consuming and demanding part of the role. The one on one coaching work with players and other members of the team is a time consuming detailed role but pays dividends. Coaches today understand the importance of relationship based coaching.

 4) Culture – The culture bucket of work separates successful teams and organizations from the rest. Every successful individual, team and organization has a set of key values and beliefs that are used as guiding principles in their day to day decision making. A head coach has the opportunity to establish the culture for his/her team by creating, sharing and operationalizing a set of values and beliefs in his/her daily routines. The set of values & beliefs set by the head coach should take into consideration the age group of the players and the level of sport being coached.

What separates the good teams from the great teams is culture. I cannot think of any more important work for a head coach or leader of a business team than to establish the right culture based on a set of core values and beliefs. There has been so much research done over the years by psychologists on high performing teams and why they are successful. It’s no secret that the most successful teams share a common element which is a set of values and beliefs that are used to guide the group’s decision making, actions and behaviours. The values and beliefs are set by the head coach and are used as a filter for deciding all matters related to the team. With a defined purpose and process in place to achieve goals a team has an excellent opportunity to be successful.

Next up in Part 2 of this series: what can rugby teach hockey players about culture?


Being on the Right Side of the Puck in the Offensive Zone

Every young competitive hockey player should be demonstrating the right habits on the ice during games. The development of good habits starts on ice during practice and off ice in video sessions with the team. One important good habit to emphasize with serious competitive players is being on the right side of the puck in the offensive zone. This article and the video shared is intended to focus on the importance of not being caught below the puck in the offensive zone.

Every young player must understand the importance of playing sound positional hockey in all three zones to support the puck offensively and defensively. In the offensive zone every player must be defensively responsible while performing the following tactics:

  • Forechecking
  • Puck Recovery Battles
  • Down Low Play Advancing the Puck to the Net
  • Cycling the Puck etc Attacking the Net (off the rush or from any position in the zone)
  • Forcing Puck Turnovers

Forwards must be aware of the need to transition from offence to defence based on situations in the offensive zone. A forward line should always retain a third player high tactic in the offensive zone to support the puck defensively and offensively. The third player high should be a rotated throughout the offensive and defensive puck pressure situation.

Defensemen who pinch down the boards on the puck side must be sure of their ability to recover the puck and make a good puck management decision. When a D pinches down there should be a forward above the puck positioned to cover the D on the same side of the ice.

How to Avoid Being Caught Below the Puck in the Offensive Zone

Forwards should not be standing still below the puck or stationary watching the play when their team does not have puck possession and control.

Forwards should be cautious against being too far below the puck in the offensive zone forechecking because a good hockey team that can move the puck effectively can trap the forecheckers with a quality exit play.

Forwards should cover for a pinching D on the strong side. Always have a forward above the puck in puck battles along the boards and careful not to have a third forward too far below in the puck in puck battles.

Transition from below the puck to at or above the puck with stops and starts based on the situation being mindful of your defensive puck support responsibility.

The video below provides a good example of the importance of NOT being caught stationary below the puck in the offensive zone when your team does not have puck possession and control. The SENS get caught with two forwards below the puck who should not have been below the puck when the puck battle ensued.

The Senators give up a two on one that resulted in a goal against. Ottawa has the worst GA record in the NHL at the moment. As a team they give up too many odd player attack rushes in games – it’s a bad habit that needs to be replaced by a good habit and mantra like never get caught below the puck in the offensive zone.

Be on the Right Side of the Puck

A good player must know and understand that a good offensive play starts with a good defensive play. In this video clip you see evidence of exactly that. An excellent play along the boards by the Panthers forward to separate the SENS strong side D from the puck with timely second player puck support to recover the puck and exit the zone. I think the video illustrates for players why being on the right side of the puck is important.

Defending the Slot & Net Zones: 7 Tips for Young Defensemen

The chart reveals the area where most goals are scored in the game of hockey. The dark green area (net/slot zones) is a prime scoring area. Goals scored in the dark green area result from some of the following offensive tactics:

  • puck deflection by a player standing in the green area,
  • wrap around by a player coming from behind the net,
  • walk out by a player coming from behind the goal line area,
  • offensive player driving the net with his/her stick on the ice for pass or deflection,
  • player beating a defensemen one on one and going to the net from below the hash marks or front of the net area,
  • player winning a loose puck battle in the green area and getting a shot on net. 

Tip # 1 – Strong Hockey Position

Defensemen defending the green area and area below the hash marks in the defensive zone must be able to dominate in one on one puck battles and one on one situations. The ability to be able to defend this key area of ice is an important part of a defensemen’s development process. Each year players get bigger, faster and stronger so working on your technique and fundamentals is essential to being a skilled defender of this area of the ice surface. Being in a strong hockey position is essential to being able to:

  • Execute explosive stops and starts,
  • Use your body & stick effectively,
  • Move quickly in any direction,
  • Be in a balanced position and remain in a position of balance. 

Check off these boxes to ensure you’re in a strong hockey position at all times when defending:

  1. Butt out
  2. Chest over thighs
  3. Head up
  4. Knees flexed (right amount of flexion)
  5. Weight on your inside edges
  6. Feet outside your shoulders

Tip # 2 – Swivel Head 

Too often defenders as a group are focused on the puck carrier in this critical area of the ice surface. The D pair must work together to ensure players entering the green area are picked up in man on man coverage situations. This fact, requires the D pair to be communicating (verbal and non verbal) instructions to teammates to ensure coverages are being picked up. 

Having your head on a swivel as a defensemen means you’re regularly looking in all directions to ensure your individual man coverage assignment is picked up.  A swivel head also allows the D pairing to communicate other assignments to teammates. Offensive players are constantly looking to skate an open lane/seam or open space to get open for a pass or shot on net in this tight area. A swivel head is critical to being able to respond in a split second to a coverage assignment.

Tip # 3 – Keep Yourself Between the Net (Goalie) & Offensive Player 

An offensive player’s job in the green area is to get open so that they’re in position to get their stick on the puck for a deflection or receive pass to shoot. Offensive players are taught to set up in the area outside the blue paint to screen the goalie and block their field of vision and to be able to get their stick on the puck for a deflection, pass or rebound situation. 

Defensemen have a responsibility to ensure the area of ice outside the blue paint in the net zone is properly defended. It is important to know that as a defensemen you’re entitled to defend this area of the ice surface. By keeping yourself between the offensive player and the goalie in a strong hockey position is important to defending. Recognize the fact that offensive players will be skating to this area so position yourself on the opponent’s inside shoulder and keep yourself between him/her and the net (goalie). 

Tip # 4 – Physical Strength & Conditioning Level

If you want to be a dominant player in the green area and other tight spaces take pride in your physical strength and conditioning level. A superior level of strength and conditioning will give you the advantage in many areas of your game. You want to be tough to play against and dominate one on one battles with opponents. Get your work done in the gym. A strong upper and lower body will help you in tight spaces. 

Tip # 5 – Mental Toughness 

Defending in tight spaces in high level competition isn’t for everyone, lets be honest. If you want to be tough to play against and dominant in the green area or other tight spaces you must have the right mindset. Don’t let yourself be distracted by the opponent’s tactics to reduce your effectiveness and ability to do your job. Being mentally tough means you are mindful and emotionally aware of your opponent’s intentions to prevent your from doing what you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to the way you were taught. Be mentally tough and don’t take a needless penalty because of any opponent’s actions towards you in the heat of battle. 

Tip # 6 – Quick Feet

Whether you’re a fast or slow twitch athlete you should work on foot speed and agility. There are on ice and off ice drills to help you with foot speed quickness, agility and mobility. The drills whether they’re on ice or off ice will focus on posture, balance and being in a strong athletic (hockey) position. 

Young defensemen are encouraged to work on developing their ability to effectively move in all directions in tight spaces. 

Tip # 7 – Effective Use of Body & Stick

Defending tight spaces isn’t easy in the game of hockey, especially, in this green area. Being able to use your body and stick effectively to defend is a difference maker. We share the do’s and don’ts in the effective use of your body and stick in one on one coverage.



▪︎be in a strong hockey position ■stand up tall with feet shoulder width apart – you have zero leverage
▪︎two hands on your stick when you pressure up on your opponent ■don’t have one hand on your stick and push the opponent with your other hand
■be in control of your stick and don’t let it get above waste height ■don’t be reaching in coverage
■perfect the sweep and poke check but always return your arms close to your body after – you loose power when your arms are away from your body don’t cross check the opponent
■timing of when to engage (pressure up) coverage assignment matters
■get your stick under the opponent’s and tap up, keeping opponent’s stick off the ice which prevents them getting stick on puck
■keep square with your opponent and lead with your shoulder
play the body in all one on one situations; you can play stick body or body stick but always play the body one on one


7 Deadly Sins of DZ Exits & NZ Entries/Exits

The top teams are able to exit their defensive zone and enter/exit the neutral zone with speed and puck control. There are good reasons for their consistent and effective execution in these two zones. If you’re interested in improving your own play in these two zones there are some pitfalls you need to avoid. It is essential players understand that puck turnovers in these two zones determine the outcome of hockey games. Players must master their execution in these two zones to become a good offensive team; one that spends more time in the offensive zone than the other two zones of the rink. The extra effort required to play a 200 foot game will pay dividends.

The NZ is generally accepted to be the area between the top of the face off circles at both ends of the rink. The following is a list of the seven deadly sins that are common pitfalls to be avoided when exiting the defensive zone and entering the neutral zone:

  1. Forcing or rushing of the 1st pass 
  2. Absence of D-partner support 
  3. Forwards not coming back to the puck
  4. Absence of quality passing lanes
  5. Skill gaps 
  6. Absent or faulty timing 
  7. Not using the width & depth of the ice 
  1. Forcing or the Rushing of the 1st Pass

The top teams deploy a method of forechecking in the offensive zone and neutral zone that provides the best opportunity to regain puck possession and control. Generally, these teams will deploy an aggressive system that puts pressure on the puck so that the opponent doesn’t have time to set up a structure to support puck recovery or movement of the puck in the zone once the puck is recovered. It is therefore absolutely essential not to force or rush the first pass in the zone under pressure, especially, when a clean passing lane option doesn’t exist. It is also absolutely essential that a structure is in place that supports the exit of the defensive zone and entry of the neutral zone. 

To exit either of these zones under pressure of a fore-check the first player on the puck should have at least one, preferably two, quality passing lane options. The player with the puck should not rush or force the first pass under pressure because the success rate of the first pass is critical to the exit/entry of the zone. If there isn’t a passing lane/seam option and the player with the puck hasn’t got an opportunity to skate the puck out of the zone then he/she should not be afraid to slow the play down until players come back to the puck and provide passing lane support and structure to exit as a group. Never panic.

If you force or rush the first pass and a turnover occurs, the likely result leads to a scoring opportunity for your opponent. Consider the following factors that support effective and efficient DZ and NZ exit/entry play:

  • use of the width and depth of the ice surface to set quality passing lanes/seams
  • five players (even strength) in position to support the play 
  • there are at least two quality passing options (set lanes/seams)
  • the timing of the exit or entry of the zone supports the play
  • players have the technical hockey skills to execute

2. Absence of D-Partner Support

Defensemen who have played the game at a high level know the importance of partner support. As mentioned, top teams apply pressure on the puck in the defensive and neutral zones in an effort to force the first player on the puck to rush or force the first pass. Having D-partner support to run a reverse, set a hinge (passing lane option) or get open weak side is absolutely essential to zone exit/entry play.

There are coaches out there who position the weak side D in front of the net on all DZ puck recovery and exit plays. There are some coaches who want the second defensemen guarding the net/slot zone or middle ice under a pressure forecheck. I disagree with this thinking because puck recovery, control and exit of the zone is critical to playing less time in your own end of the rink. To move the puck and control the puck, you must have puck support for offensive and defensive reasons.  You can have the first forward back into the defensive zone or neutral zone provide puck support in this area of the ice, it doesn’t have to be a defensemen.  

A D-Partner positioned to support the exit/entry play has eyes up the ice while the strong side defensemen often, even with shoulder checks, benefits from eyes up ice knowing how the group is setting up to support movement of the puck. I support tactics that provide the best opportunity to recover the puck and exit the defensive zone even if it requires both D in the strong side corner to recover the puck and start the exit play. A forward can cover the net/slot zone as well as a defensemen. It makes good sense to have your D set up below goal line behind the net weak side if there is F-1 support in the net zone for coverage. Use your resources on the ice wisely to support the objective. 

3. Forwards Not Coming Back to the Puck

This is a common problem even at the professional level. You see it far too often. Forwards gliding back into the defensive zone against an attack rush or in the neutral zone against a pressure forecheck. There is nothing more frustrating for a defensemen with the puck than to watch a forward who is above the puck looking at them, not moving their feet (gliding) with a defender directly behind them who can step in front of the forward to intercept a pass. The forward is not open and there is not a passing lane option. 

Forwards should be coming back to the puck under the pressure of forecheck in the defensive and neutral zones for offensive and defensive puck support. You need structure to support puck movement in your zone play and defensive support should a puck turnover result in the exit/entry play.

4. Absence of Quality Passing Lanes

Teams that forecheck well know the importance of sticks in passing lanes and pressure on the puck. Good forechecking teams apply secondary pressure strong side above the puck and will mix up their weak side and middle ice coverages forechecking. It is essential the structure in place to support zone exit/entry provides clean passing lanes as much as possible. It is essential to use the space of the ice surface to set quality passing lanes. It is almost impossible to pass a puck to a moving player who is directly above the puck carrier. The setting of an angle to support the passing lane is very helpful to a good outcome. Indirect passes off the boards are under utilized and an effective way of moving the puck under pressure. 

The use of Give and Go plays is very helpful to advancing the puck. The tactic is helpful to engage defensemen on the rush and execute two on one and three on two situations in space. 

5. Skill GAPS 

The art of passing (giving and receiving) the puck with precision (accuracy and speed) is something we need to get back to in our teaching and coaching. The ability to play fast with speed and puck control requires the ability to pass the puck and control the puck. Under pressure the ability to give and receive a pass properly is absolutely essential to effective zone exit and entry play. Touch passing, indirect passing and passing the puck with speed and accuracy must be taught and coached with emphasis on correct fundamentals. The ability to execute indirect passes and chips into space is very helpful under pressure of a strong forecheck in tight space.

6. Absent or Faulty Timing  

Knowing where to be on the ice surface and when to be there is part of the structured puck support required to advance and defend the puck. Structured puck support is necessary to advance the puck in all three zones of the rink. It is also necessary to provide defensive puck support in all three zones of the rink. 

Timing in the execution of passes is essential in order to exit/enter a zone with speed. Under pressure of forecheck the forwards must time the setting of passing lane (driving seams and lanes) options to support the puck. Only in the situation of a player Posting Up in the zone should a player be stationary. The player Posting Up is used to distribute the puck to a player accelerating to top speed. Timing of puck and player movement is essential in your execution. A passing lane may be open for a second or two so the timing of player and puck movement is critical.  

7. Not Using the Width & Depth of the Ice Surface

Too often we see exit/zone play failures related to a rushing or forcing of the puck strong side under pressure. Teams with a high percentage of exit/enter zone success don’t panic. These teams don’t force or rush the puck first pass or in subsequent pass situations and have a low puck turnover or give away rate. Using the width and depth of the ice surface is essential to setting quality passing lanes and to create time and space offensively which is important to zone exit/entry success. Using the width and depth of the ice surface is also essential to provide space to move the puck under pressure when there aren’t passing lane options and you want to move the puck to an area for puck recovery/exit with support. 


It’s hard work to play a fast high tempo game for sixty minutes let alone a full season. Playing a fast high tempo game is essential for young players to develop their technical hockey skills and their tactical hockey skills (individual and group). Avoid the pitfalls shared today and start to emphasize good work habits with players in these critical areas of the ice surface. The NZ shouldn’t look like a Ping Pong Match. Entering and exiting the NZ with puck support and speed improves your attack rush and ability to set up in the offensive zone.

With the right practice in game like conditions; 5 players supporting the puck properly strong side or using the full width and depth of the ice, should be able to exit the defensive zone or enter the neutral zone under the best pressure of a 3 player aggressive forecheck consistently. Too many teams spend too much time chasing their opponent around in the DZ. These teams need to learn how to recover the puck and exit their zone. It’s doable but a team’s work rate must be high and they must outnumber on the puck off pressure triggers and use their resources effectively. Review and reinforce the right habits with players to aid in their development.