Protecting Middle Ice (Area Between the Dots)


Strategy & Tactics

Goal scorers know the importance of entering and exiting the neutral zone (NZ) with speed and puck control. These players know the shortest distance to your net is through middle ice (between the dots) so you’d better be prepared to defend this area. It’s much harder for a puck carrier to take the puck wide outside the dots and beat a defender with speed to the outside and drive the net than it is to take the puck directly at a defender, push it through or by them and pick it up on the other side.
In the video clip below the puck carrier has full puck control in the neutral zone and he is able to beat two defenders by pushing the puck through and by the defenders, picking it up on the other side of them, to go in all alone on the goalie. Lucky for the defenders, the puck carrier didn’t score on the play. The talented player with the puck makes the two defenders look bad because of their failure to defend against a play that should be easy to defend.

The following are the keys to defending middle ice in the neutral zone:

Proper Angling Technique: the ability to exercise (use) inside out control on a puck carrier by controlling/protecting middle ice and forcing the puck carrier to the outside. Taking the correct approach angle toward the puck carrier is key. The defender must judge the skating ability and speed of the puck carrier because the only option for the puck carrier is to take the puck wide and beat the defender with speed. The player angling the puck carrier must get shoulder to shoulder with the opponent and NOT reaching first before playing body|stick|puck. A player who has mastered Angling Technique & Fundamentals never gets beat to the inside.

Playing Body|Stick|Puck: the ability to be in a good hockey position; right amount of knee flexion, butt out with chest over thighs, weight on the inside of your feet in good balance to get shoulder to shoulder with the puck carrier to separate the player from the puck with your shoulder and get your stick under the puck carrier’s to gain access to the puck in the same motion. The puck separation through the checking motion is non violent. The goal is to regain puck possession, not to knock the player over or down.

Defensemen Defending the Blue Line: the ability to defend the blue line requires the defensemen to be able to match the speed of the oncoming puck carrier by backward skating between the dots (protecting middle ice) and giving the puck carrier ONLY one option to beat him and that is to the outside. The defensemen’s partner must be playing between the dots as well backing up a couple stick lengths at most apart from each other to protect middle ice. A defensemen must have the skills and abilities to pivot to the outside and use speed to close the gap and get into the puck carrier taking away space forcing the puck carrier to the wall. Defensemen must play tight GAPS in the neutral zone to ensure their ability to match an oncoming forwards speed with the puck at their blue line and play one stick length GAP at the blue line. A skilled defensemen doesn’t give away the blue line by continuing to back up when there is defensive back pressure support from forwards.

Defensemen One on One Play – Body First and NOT the Puck: the ability of a defensemen to defend against a puck carrier in a One on One situation with the puck carrier entering the offensive zone requires strong fundamentals.

The following fundamentals must be adhered to if you’re going to prevent yourself from being beat One on One by a forward carrying the puck into the offensive zone:
– Back up between the dots, protect middle ice.
– Match the puck carrier’s speed with your backward skating speed.
– Good posture matters and assures the ability to remain in balance, weight never forward on
your toes.
– Never allow the puck carrier inside your stick length, if you do, you’re beat.
– Eyes on the puck carrier’s sternum (chest) NOT on the puck. Your peripheral vision allows
you to see the puck while your eyes are on the chest.
– Keep your stick arm bent at the elbow so that you can poke or sweep check effectively. Never
out reached with a straight arm fishing with weight forward on your toes.
– Always keep your body between the puck carrier and your net and get your shoulder into the
puck carrier when playing the body.
– Timing of your Pivot is key to being able to close the gap and stay with the puck carrier as
your force him wide (outside the dots) towards the wall.

Video Breakdown

In the clip below the following mistakes were made resulting in the puck carrier being able to take the puck the shortest distance to the net (between the dots):

• Defender #26 stopped skating when he attempted to angle the player wide and chose to reach and play the puck instead of getting shoulder to shoulder and play body|stick|puck. Never play puck first and reach when you’re angling an opponent.
• The Defensemen made the following mistakes in his execution of the One on One:
– Backward skating speed didn’t match the opponent’s forward skating speed,
– Weight was forward on the toes and he was reaching with his stick too far forward to playing
– Eyes were on the puck NOT the opponent’s chest,
– Played the puck first instead of the body,
– Allowed the puck carrier inside his stick length which is always fatal,
– Failed to force the puck carrier wide and gave away middle ice.

Development Focus
Young players are reminded to focus on proper technique and fundamentals. There is right and wrong way in executing fundamentals, no easy way. Good players practice what they are weak at not their strengths. If you’re aspiring to play at higher levels of competition, focus on fundamentals.


Back Pressure Support from Forwards Critical to Defending

Back Pressure Support from Forwards Critical to Defending 


A common problem that shows up in reviewing game video is a lack of quality back pressure support from forwards. Back pressure support from forwards in the neutral zone is a defensive responsibility. The NZ is defined as the area between the top of the face off circles at both ends of the rink. The best defensive teams avoid playing in their own end of the rink by being diligent defending their blue line and the area from the blue line to the net zone. 

Generally, most coaches say a back checking forward should leave the puck carrier to the strong side defensemen or the defence pair if they’re unable to force a puck turnover by the time the puck carrier gets to the red line. At that point, back checkers are tasked with the role of picking up opponent’s without the puck in man coverage all the way to their own net. 

Good Habits

Back checking forward responsibilities should include, but not be limited to, the following good habits:

  • Swivel Head to identify opponents joining the Attack Rush that need to be covered,
  • Skating full speed between the dots (shortest distance to your net is middle ice) to pick up individual defensive coverage assignments,
  • Communicating (verbal and non verbal) with each other,
  • Selecting a player to defend in the NZ and taking that player to their own net,
  • Getting on the defensive side of the puck (opponent’s inside shoulder),
  • Getting shoulder to shoulder (no reaching) with the player being defended,
  • Continuing skating, never stop skating or glide into the defensive zone from the blue line into the net area until you’re shoulder to shoulder and matching speed with your defensive assignment,
  • Getting your stick under your opponent’s and tapping up to keep their stick off the ice going to the net to prevent the player from receiving a pass or getting their stick on the puck for a deflection, shot or rebound,
  • Support the strong side D in one on one play against the puck carrier if there isn’t an opponent to pick up on the Attack Rush.

Bad Habits

Teach kids to replace bad habits with good habits. The following are bad habits that start in minor hockey and may continue into the professional levels if not replaced with good habits:

  • Coasting in the NZ without a sense of urgency to pick up a coverage assignment,
  • Consistently getting caught below the puck in the offensive zone & unable to provide back pressure support,
  • Not coming back between the dots to protect middle ice, 
  • Coasting or gliding into the defensive zone from the blue line to the net area,
  • Not getting on the defensive side of the puck, shoulder to shoulder with the opponent, and reaching to defend using the stick versus making the effort to skate harder,
  • Not using a Swivel Head, being puck focused as a defender, watching the puck carrier instead of picking up your coverage assignment.


The best thing you can do for a young player is teach them how to play with and without the puck in all three zones. Tactical knowledge plus sound technical hockey skills are necessary for the development process. 

The sooner bad habits are replaced with good habits the better the player will become. It’s not about wins and loses, it’s about player development. 

Excellent example of HABS Forward providing textbook support:

Video Link:

Use of the Width & Depth of the Ice Surface in the Offensive Zone


Use of the Width & Depth of the Ice Surface in the Offensive Zone 

We have all heard that hockey is a game of time and space. Strong offensive teams deploy tactics that create time and space while strong defensive teams deploy tactics to take away an opponent’s time and space.

Using the width and depth of the Offensive Zone is an offensive tactic to achieve the following key objectives:

  1. Maintain puck possession and control in the zone,
  2. Create time and space for the player with the puck and players without the puck,
  3. Require defenders to move their feet and increase their work rate defending,
  4. Open up seams and lanes to the net,
  5. Create passing and shooting lanes,
  6. Use your teams speed and skills in the zone to create scoring chances,
  7. Engage the D pairing in the offensive zone to support the puck. 

Video Clip

The short video clip below is from a recent game between the Bruins and the Devils. The Bruins demonstrate their ability to achieve some of the above objectives by using the width and depth of the offensive zone that results in them scoring a nice goal.

Strategic Dump-in Recovery Play – An Offensive Pressure Tactic


The Strategic Dump & Recovery Play – A Pressure Offensive Tactic

In the video below there are three short clips that provide examples of “strategic” dump and recovery plays that are well executed. In all three cases the puck dumped into the offensive zone (hard rim or soft dump) is recovered and taken to the net.

It is important to differentiate between a dump and chase play where there is no evidence of strategy or tactics being deployed and a strategic dump-in recovery play. A strategic dump-in recovery play tactic properly designed and executed is an offensive pressure tactic that should be part of every good offensive team’s game plan.

In today’s game the neutral zone is generally well defended to prevent the opponent from entering and exiting the zone with speed and puck control. Teams deploy NZ forechecking tactics that pressure the puck for strategic reasons, such as but not limited to:

1. Creating puck turnovers to regain puck possession and control,
2. Creating offensive scoring chances off the counter attack,
3. Taking away the opponent’s ability to carry the puck through the zone and get scoring
chances off the Attack Rush,
4. Taking away the opponent’s ability to carry the puck deep into the offensive zone to set up
and advance the puck on net.

The Strategic Dump & Recovery Play

To counter a pressure defensive NZ forecheck it’s important to teach a method of dumping the puck into the offensive zone that provides the ability to recover the puck and advance the puck on net. Whether you deploy a soft dump-in or a hard rim there must be group puck support to ensure recovery of the puck and the ability to advance the puck in the zone off the recovery tactic.

Execution Keys:

1. 1st player enters the offensive zone with speed to the puck.
2. 1st player ability to separate the opponent from the puck.
3. 2nd & 3rd player enter the zone with speed to contain the puck battle area.
4. Every player knows their role and how to execute their role in the puck battle recovery play.
5. Triangulate off the recovery in tight space to advance the puck as a group.
6. Use of short touch passes and indirect passes or chips to open ice off the recovery.
7. Every player involved in the puck recovery play should be in a strong hockey position.

A strategic dump-in recovery play is a pressure offensive tactic that must be defended with pressure. If the defending team doesn’t number up or outnumber in the puck recovery battle to recover the puck and exit their zone, watch the video below to see what may happen. The teaching of young players on how to win puck battles in all three zones must be part of the development process.

A Business Case for 1 on 1 Meetings with Players

I watched a short video clip on The Coaches Site recently with Ken Hitchcock. Ken was saying that the majority of players these days need one on one coaching sessions. I couldn’t agree more with Ken’s statement. I would advance the statement to say all players need coaching sessions one on one. I would even add to the statement to say that every coach, team, and organization need one on one meetings because it is one of the best development tools out there to build strong relationships between coaches on a staff, the Head Coach with his GM and the GM with his owner.

The days of intimidating players and benching players to change a player’s behaviour should be part of our past. Don’t get me wrong, when all else fails there is a time and place for discipline. Taking away an athlete’s playing time is sometimes necessary but should be a last resort. If it is a chronic issue, the player should know in a one on one meeting that this disciplinary measure may result, if necessary.

It’s my strong belief based on personal experience that one on one meetings executed properly can lead to strong positive relationships between a coach and player (employee). For these meetings to be valuable, both the player and the coach must know there is value in attending the meetings. The meetings must be a conduit to helping the player achieve their goals and objectives and the coach his/her goals and objectives. These meetings require time, energy and effort when conducted properly. If the time, energy and effort isn’t part of the process the meetings will be a waste of time for the participants.

The business case for holding one on one meetings with players is an easy one to write. There is a lot of information out there in support of these meetings, which can be highly effective when executed properly.

Effective one on one regular meetings with players provide:

  • A setting and process to forge strong relationships
  • A platform for open, honest, and safe communications between player and coach(es)
  • An opportunity to set clear expectations with a player on a regular basis and the chance for a player to set clear expectations with his/her coach
  • An environment to listen and find out what is going on in the player’s life to be able to understand the player’s behaviours and provide support
  • An opportunity to provide meaningful feedback to a player on their performance with tools like video to support the coaching session and replace bad habits with good habits
  • An opportunity to listen to a player’s self-performance assessment/evaluation
  • A platform for development planning; setting goals, objectives, and the key necessary work to be done to accomplish goals
  • A means of following up on the development plan in a constructive environment and format
  • A platform to teach, coach, and work on character development issues that may need strengthening
  • Character muscles are the same as the muscles in the body, they need to be exercised to remain strong and fit for maximum performance
  • An opportunity to put a self-improvement plan together to deal with any current issues
  • An opportunity to have open lines of communication and send messages the player should want to hear and know because they support his/her development and ability to control their own destiny

The common theme between successful sports teams and private sector businesses is their ability to evaluate, recruit, and develop talented people. One on one meetings are an effective tool in this process. You can’t coach any individual who doesn’t want to be coached. I recommend you take the first step in coaching and that’s to forge a strong relationship with each player.


How to Creat an Obstacle – Leaping, Adversity Defeating – High Performance Hockey Team: Part 3

Every Head Coach should take advantage of the opportunity to create a Culture Statement that outlines the specific values and beliefs that will be used as a filter to make his/her decisions. These values and beliefs are to be used by every team member to guide their decisions, actions and behaviours. The values and beliefs become the “way things are done on this team”.

Team meetings are an excellent opportunity to talk about the teams’ values and beliefs and this is best accomplished with video and concrete examples where members of the team have demonstrated positive examples of leadership, mental toughness, selflessness, character, etc. These meetings may also be an opportunity to break down situations where team values and beliefs weren’t followed and a negative consequence resulted. The good and not so good…we learn from our mistakes.

Team building sessions are a great way to reinforce the teams values and beliefs. Every coaching staff must put on their creative hats to provide opportunities for players to engage in matters related to the team culture. Player engagement is a great opportunity for reinforcing values and beliefs and giving players a chance to lead.

Selection of the team captains is an excellent team building opportunity. The coach has an opportunity to put in place a process that engages players and coaches. The decisions on the captains must be filtered through the values and beliefs of the team.

One on one player development meetings provide a perfect forum and opportunity to address the values and beliefs of the team as they may relate to the individual team member. The values and beliefs of the team are the same for every player on the team. In some cases a player may need to engage in dialogue with the coaches about a specific issue(s) or subjects where he/she’s behaviours may not be properly aligned with the values and beliefs of the team. Players should want to develop to their potential and there is nothing more important than explaining the process for how things are done on the team to accelerate the growth of
the individual and the group. Telling players the truth is important and this is an excellent forum to do just that.

Head Coach and coaching staff behaviours on and off the playing surface must be aligned with the values and beliefs of the team. The leaders of the team are expected to make others better. Walking the talk and demonstrating 100% commitment to the values and beliefs of the team is essential.

Pre and post game speeches provide a perfect time to message the values and beliefs of the team. Short, clear and concise references to specific values and beliefs at times when the players most need to be reminded of what the team is all about.

A team covenant, mantra(s) with signage specific to the teams values and beliefs posted in the dressing room and around the facility help to focus the team on what is important on a daily basis.

As a Coach you must operationalize the core values and beliefs for your team to ensure they become part of your daily thinking, decision making and coaching process. All decisions and actions are filtered through these key core values and beliefs. The focus can’t be on wins and losses or position in the standings. Focus must be on the coaching process because when you nail the process down the outcomes will take care of themselves. Start coaching your players up with a great process that includes:

  • A purpose statement so players clearly understand why they are playing,
  • Core values & beliefs to filter all decisions, actions and behaviours of team members,
  • A development process that addresses skills and abilities and tactics to be successful.

The best analytics are your eyes. As coaches you can determine a lot about your group by watching how they practice and play in games. You can’t control the outcome of games but you certainly can control the process. You have the opportunity to coach your players about how to compete and play the game of hockey and the game of life.

How Your Personal Beliefs & Values Affect Your Team: Part 2

I share with you in this article the values and beliefs of Jack Clark, Rugby Coach at the University of California, Berkeley. I watched coach Clark’s speech years ago on the subject of coaching high performing teams and wanted to share his 5 values and beliefs. I have added “character” as a 6th core value because I think character must be part of the day to day coaching and development process.

The values and beliefs shared by coach Clark are common values and beliefs for high performing teams and are likely shared by other coaches. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using known values and beliefs that are linked to results of high performing teams. It is absolutely essential though that every member of the team believes in the set of values and beliefs and is using them in their day to day process of getting better individually and as a group. 

The Caveat 

The head coach has the privilege of setting the values and beliefs for the team and in defining the culture of the team. It is absolutely essential the coach walks the talk and uses these values and beliefs as a filter in making decisions and in guiding his/her own actions and behaviours.

Players watch their head coach’s actions carefully because they are looking to him/her for leadership and to direct them through the good and tough times. Every head coach must be respected by players, coaches and all members of the team and organization(s) to be successful.

 Core Values and Beliefs Example: Head Rugby Coach Jack Clark’s Team (1-5)

1. Selflessness: A team 1st approach is essential. No individual team member or group of members interests within the team are more important than the best interests of the team. 

2. Constant Performance Improvement (CPI): Every member of the team must be committed to the teams’ purpose, values & beliefs and development process. Every team member must be focused on getting better every day. The league standings don’t always reflect the daily improvements being made. It’s the Head Coach’s job to make sure the team is aware of the developmental progress with examples on a regular basis and use of the right performance metrics.

3. Merit: Every high performing team functions as a Meritocracy. Consistency matters. Playing time is earned, period. Other factors like seniority, title and past performances don’t matter when it comes to time on the playing surface. Minutes are earned.

4. Mental Toughness: The ability to do what you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to do it the way you were trained to do it. Nothing must detract from your ability to execute the task at hand. It’s all about performance and you can’t let anything or anybody detract from your ability to accomplish the task at hand or the next play. Emotional awareness and control are key competencies that must be learned.

 5. Leadership: Based on the ability to make team members better. Not based on your title, seniority, position or any other factor. The more leaders the team has the better the team should perform. Leadership by committee is welcomed. 

6. Character: Performance character strengths and moral character strengths matter. Our character is what defines us and is the basis for all of our decisions, actions and behaviours.

Next up in the third and final Part: building true high performance teams.