skip navigation

Developing Hockey Sense with Olympic Gold Medalist Colleen Coyne

By Jamie MacDonald, 04/14/22, 3:00PM EDT


U.S. Olympic Gold medalist and Falmouth native Colleen Coyne shares her insight into what hockey sense really is and how young players can hone it

Colleen Coyne is the president of the Boston Pride and 1998 U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist

The subject of hockey sense is enormous. Developing it is a universe unto itself – introductions, explorations, repeated exposure to the game – and there’s almost no such thing as having too much hockey sense. 

To some degree, nearly everything a young player learns is with some degree of developing hockey sense in mind. Whether it’s skill development in skating, passing or shooting, all of which can be exponentially more effective with hockey sense, or in small-area games and full-ice hockey that presents such fertile ground for learning hockey sense.

For Colleen Coyne, the current team president of the back-to-back Isobel Cup-winning Boston Pride and 1998 U.S. Olympic gold medalist, hockey sense is about understanding.

“It’s understanding the flow of the game — how it works, what people in certain positions do, having the ability to either anticipate what’s going to happen, or is about to happen, or the ability to create what’s going to happen on the ice,” she says. “It’s understanding what’s happening, whether you have the puck or not and making your decisions based on what you see.”

Play and Watch (but Don’t Force It)

Coyne, who grew up playing youth hockey in Falmouth before going on to a standout career that included Tabor Academy and the University of New Hampshire before playing for Team USA, is a big proponent of simply playing the game. Her advice for young players?

“Play, and watch,” says Coyne. “But I mean literally play. [In practice], they’re going to learn skills, how to pass the puck and shoot the puck. But it’s really just playing over and over and over and over again until you start to understand how things work.”

In terms of watching, that’s not to suggest they sit down with a laser pointer with a family member calling out where F1 should go on the forecheck. But just watching hockey can be effective in seeing things develop on the ice. 

Still, even Coyne’s youngest son isn’t really watching much hockey, and she’s in no hurry to force-feed it, either.

“There are other kids who don’t do that,” she says. “It’s just different for every kid. But that’s why it’s so important that the number one thing – if a parent really cares about their kids’ hockey careers – is to make sure they’re having fun. Because if they’re not having fun … It’s … going … to … end. Kids want to have fun. And it may not end in 10U or 12U, but we see kids who stop in the middle of high school. They’re at a point when making mom and dad happy isn’t enough anymore. They’re just toast. That’s what you want to avoid.”

So, if a kid is showing some interest, that’s a good thing. And if they happen to suddenly decide to peel away from chasing a puck-carrier behind the net to instead take a route more likely in that opposing player’s path, that’s a great thing for hockey sense.

“When a player heads to the back of the net at a very young age, most of them aren’t tricky enough to put the brakes on and change directions on you, and so they’re coming right around the other side,” Coyne says. “Rather than chasing them behind the net, it’s knowing how to hang out and wait for them to come out.”

And when that player behind the net sees that his or her options no longer include just curling around the net, hockey sense is growing there, too.

“As that player develops and they start to realize, ‘Oh, wow, every time I come around the net, I get stopped. They know what I’m going to do. I should probably change it up a little bit.’ That’s the sort of cat-and-mouse type of instinct,” says Coyne. 

How Can I Help?

As it turns out, such a complicated topic can also begin with a fairly simple question: How do I help?

Considering that one question on the ice can be an excellent foundation for hockey sense.

“That’s where the anticipation and the prediction come in,” Coyne says, listing off the next steps in building on versions of how a player can help. “If you don’t have the puck and the other team does, it’s one mindset: ‘Who has the puck-carrier, and is it my job to pick them up? And if it’s not my job, who should I be covering?’ If you don’t have the puck when your team does, it’s the same thing – looking up and saying, ‘Can I be of help? Who is helping the puck-carrier? Or does he or she have enough support and I just need to bide my time and see what happens?’”

From there, over the course of all kinds of trajectories that are taking place at different paces while no two players develop the same way, the versions of “How can I help?” just become a little more complicated.

For a young player, the library isn’t all that full. For a player with some experience, or, like Coyne, a great deal of experience at the elite level, the scenarios are familiar and easy to rattle off: “Do I help because the puck is in the corner and nobody else is chasing it? Do I help because my teammate may be able to get it in the corner, but I have to cover the person in front? Can I help by playing solid defense because I have three forwards already up the ice? Or, oh my gosh, the puck-carrier is by himself or herself and I should jump into this play? What’s the best way that I can literally be helpful?”

As knowledge is accumulated — through the complicating factors of who has the puck, how dangerous the situation is, your own skill set, and something like risk vs. reward for something that seems like a good idea at the time – so is hockey sense.

That pass across your own zone may always look like a good idea, but finding it picked off and the puck in the back of your own net looks worse pretty quickly.

In addition to her duties with the Pride, Coyne is a hockey parent, too, and she has seen in her own young players how they’re picking up on things, no matter how slowly.

“My son was out to lunch 90% of the season, and he’s smiling and having a good old time, don’t get me wrong, but he’s sitting on the bench when all the other kids are on their feet, and in his own little world,” Coyne says of her 10-year-old. “But, all of a sudden, the last few weeks, totally engaged. Backchecking. Skating as fast as he can. Understanding moments of urgency. And when to engage and when not to. Now he understands, like, ‘Oh, this is my turn to go.’ All of that’s just from playing.”

Note that a lot of that has to do with play away from the puck. So much of hockey development can take place when a player doesn’t have the puck on his or her stick.

Skating Skills Are Key

Continuing to work on skating can give a player all sorts of advantages to let hockey sense grow, too. If you’re no longer so worried about skating, you make some room to think about what you can do answer those more complicated questions.

“Once you have a sense of the game, skating, if you’re good at it and you have some speed, just allows you to take more risks,” says Coyne. “If there’s a 50-50 puck, you can think about whether you can get it or if you’re going to be in trouble if you don’t. Or can I still get back? Can I get on my horse and deal with the misread?”

Coyne brings up Pride defenseman and Burlington native Kali Flanagan, who played at Boston College and for Team USA at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. 

“She just has jets,” Coyne says. “So, if she has the puck it’s as good as out of the zone because she can just get out that quickly, and I think that it just allows you more options. If you’re a highly skilled skater, it gives you those options to react to whatever you’re seeing on the ice.”

Poise with the Puck

Coyne would also like to see more kids developing a sense of calm with the puck, and that panic, which is a very real thing for players of all ages, is not easy to unlearn. But eating a puck every now and again can actually help recalibrate that internal clock to help players realize they may have more time than they think.

“It’s really hard to teach a kid to not give the puck away under pressure,” she says. “It’s such a hard thing. I’d so much rather have somebody take it away. And I think that’s coaching – more often telling kids, ‘If you don’t know what to do with it, keep it, and make them battle you for it.’ Because the second you just chip it up into the neutral zone, you’re just handing it over.”

Play Other Sports

Another element that can aid in hockey sense development, believe it or not, is playing other sports. This falls under the umbrella of developing athletic sense.

“That’s exactly what it is,” says Coyne. “It’s like field awareness. Whether you’re playing soccer or basketball or tennis. Tennis in particular is great for footwork. Not necessarily for hockey sense. But any sport where you sort of have to think ahead as to what might happen next. There are examples from almost any sport. Like in baseball, if I’m playing left field and I have a left-handed hitter up and a pitcher who throws hard, chances are he’s not going to pull it. So I’d better be ready. You just have to think ahead to see what’s going on.”

Ask Questions

When it comes to actually calling out examples where a player can learn hockey sense on the fly, Coyne thinks again of her son.

“If I make a statement, he’s just going to ‘yes’ me to death,” she says. “But if I give him a situation and say, ‘Hey, remember when that player went behind the net and you went right behind him and he just kept going, and you had to chase him? What do you think, next time that happens, what might work better?’”

With nine Mass natives on the roster, the Boston Pride are back-to-back Isobel Cup champions. Credit: Michelle Jay / PHF

Pride Prevail

Obviously, for her day job, Coyne can watch a Pride team full of players, nine of whom on the 2021-2022 roster were from Massachusetts (11 of played college hockey in Boston with five more played from other New England colleges), all of whom are elite athletes with elite hockey sense and skills.

The Pride capped off this season with the franchise’s third overall title, this one played through the bumps of Covid and a late hurdle of the team’s stick bag never having left Boston for the playoffs. Sticks had to be purchased on the road, and it took a three-goal third period to take a 4-2 win in the final.

“They nailed it,” says Coyne. “They played great. It was a challenging season, which wasn’t really anybody’s fault, but it was just one of those years. It was great to see Jillian Dempsey, and Katie Burt from Lynn, and Mary Parker from Milton, and Meghara McManus from Milton, and all the others. It’s great to see these players have an opportunity to continue to play. They’re great players. They’re super talented. And they love the game. So the idea that they can come and play in this league and be part of not just the growth but the competition and the accomplishments, that’s awesome. I’m so proud of the way it’s all coming together.”

Next up for Coyne is an offseason full of planning.

“A lot of planning,” she says. “Planning our roster. It’s budget planning. It’s sponsor planning. And then on equipment, too. Jersey designs. So, it’s fun. There’s a lot to be done but it is fun. We’re just trying to put a great product on the ice that’s entertaining and can win some hockey games while hopefully growing the business side of it.”

In no time, fall will be here, though, and the Pride will take to the ice with its first official practices of the 2022-23 season.

“We have players who will have ice available to them all summer, not every day but once or twice a week,” says Coyne. “Not formal practices at that point, but our first practice as a team will be around late September.”

And so will begin another title defense in Boston.