If ever there was a summer to feel rusty with the hands, this would be it. Between quarantining and the uncertainty of returns to new normal, it would be understandable for any hockey player to let stickhandling skills get away from a player. But Calgary Flames defenseman Noah Hanifin is doing what he can to keep the rust at bay. In fact, feeling rusty is something the Norwood native has tried just about all his life to avoid.
When he’s off the ice for months, rest assured, the former St. Sebastian’s star and No. 5 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft is putting in the work somewhere.
With the NHL aiming for a summer return, just like almost any other time of the year, Hanifin, who has spent most of his forced offseason in the Boston suburbs, would rather not lose whatever touch he can hold within arm’s reach.
“Even if I’m off the ice for months and I’m not skating, I’ll still make sure that I’m in the driveway and stickhandling, just so that I never have to feel that way,” he says. “I’ve never really felt like that. It’s still different when you are on the ice, and obviously faster, so you may get a little bit rusty, but it’s important to maintain at least the basics.”
For Hanifin, one of the most basic points of stickhandling – and one that players of all skill levels and ages could benefit from learning and remembering – is that stickhandling isn’t simply for stickhandling’s sake.
Not even for Tik Tok and Instagram videos.
“You’re not stickhandling to look pretty, and you’re not doing toe-drags to look cool,” says Hanifin. “You have to do it with purpose. And that’s usually to manipulate the defender to open something else up.”
With teammates in Calgary such as fellow Boston College hockey alum Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, or having to defend against Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, Hanifin sees the benefits of great hands when they’re combined with all kinds of other high-end hockey senses and skills.
“That’s what guys like McDavid and Gaudreau do,” Hanifin says. “They are very good at moving a defender’s stick into a certain area. That’s to open something else up. And I think that’s why stickhandling is important. It’s to manipulate the defender. And you can push them into a certain position to expose an opportunity. With Johnny, everything he does is done with a purpose. He’s doing it for a reason. He has the ability to manipulate a defender just by how quick his hands are moving and how deceptive he is.”
Stick tricks and lacrosse-like cradles are one thing, and they’re a blast to watch in shootout drills and without defenders around, but hockey does have a way of leveling the playing field on single-dimension players.
Still, as a building block of hockey, and clearly one of the elements of the game that tantalizes scouts and brings fans out of their seats at the highest levels, stickhandling is a critical piece to any young player’s skill development.
Not surprisingly, the 23-year-old Hanifin has been working on this part of his game since he was a kid – thanks in part to his youth hockey coaches, USA Hockey Magazine, USA Hockey’s video drills and his own driveway visions.
“When I’m on the ice and I’m stickhandling [in practice], I kind of like to think about it as a game setting,” he says. “I’m using my hands in the way that they might get used the most, like around the blue line, and working on skating – moving back in and out, and moving my feet.”
Another go-to for Hanifin is stickhandling with three pucks up and down the ice, keeping all three going at the same time.
Off the ice, there are more options than you might imagine.
“I may use a golf ball or sometimes two golf balls, and I try to stickhandle those two at the same time,” says Hanifin. “I mix it up a lot. In the driveway, I like to mix the weights up, so I have kind of light ball and a heavier-weight ball, and I’ll have a puck-weight ball, and I’ll mix all those together and kind of go back and forth, stickhandling around the driveway.”
Stickhandling is also about keeping one’s head up. Whether it’s in the NHL, youth hockey or in the driveway with no one around.
“[Keeping my head up] is just something that’s habit,” Hanifin says. “Anytime I’m in the driveway, even if I’m shooting pucks, it’s important to get comfortable trying to keep your head up – especially as a d-man. The better you can be while keeping your head up, like walking the blue line, it makes a huge difference to find shooting lanes and screens. If you can keep your head up, scanning the whole time, it’s a huge advantage.”
It has been almost this way since the days Hanifin was pretending to play for the Bruins as a kid in another driveway in what probably seems now – in a world where he generally plays in front of thousands or can experiment with all the sticks or curves he likes – as if it is a lifetime away.
“When I was a kid, I used to go between actual stickhandling drills, where I was doing some thing for, like, 15 minutes, and then I would also find myself in the driveway visualizing things,” he says. “Like pretending I was playing in the playoffs with the Bruins. But I’d always be visualizing those situations when I was in the driveway. I’d pretend it was a two-on-one and I’m doing a toe-drag. I would visualize that a lot. Even today, I find that visualization is a very important tool to develop.”
And it all started in Hanifin’s driveway. USA Hockey helped fuel his development, too, in a way that seems all the more contemporary this spring – through print and video.
“USA Hockey sent out a magazine with cool drills for me to do as a little kid, and I’d get those magazines and go through them,” says Hanifin. “And they used to have players from the U.S. program doing videos with stickhandling drills to practice. That was definitely a time that I was watching those and learning. So it’s been pretty much the same drills forever.”
These days, the stakes are higher, of course, but Hanifin is still relying on the same ways to keep his stickhandling sharp as what made it sharp to begin with.
“Even when you get to the NHL level, your touch seems like the first thing you kind of lose,” he says. “You have to try to maintain that. It’s so important. So you keep working on your hands in the driveway.”