Boston College head coach Greg Brown has seen a lot of hockey from the blue line.
After his own storied career as a defenseman, he’s spent nearly 20 years drawing on his experiences and coaching a new generation of players.
“I enjoyed it when I played, and it still looks like a lot of fun right now,” Brown said. “I’m glad that I got to have my time. Now, I’m doing my best to help our kids enjoy their time and hopefully learn a few things along the way.”
As that relates to defensemen, Brown brings decades of experience. He’s been a one-time Eagles captain, Hobey Baker finalist (1988) and two-time Olympian who played nearly 100 games in the NHL as a defenseman — and also a couple of high school seasons as a forward, but more on that later.
And as the game has evolved, so, too, has the role of a defenseman. But when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts fundamentals of the position, some things really haven’t changed.
“The importance of being sound defensively is the same as it has been for decades,” Brown said. “The game has definitely expanded for defenseman, and there are many more things they have to do to fuel the offensive of side of the game, but to play really sound defensive hockey, you still have to have those key attributes of being able to close space, take space away, and defend with your stick and your body. Those things haven’t changed.”
Everything on the ice, however, which has innumerable implications for defensemen, does happen a whole lot faster than ever.
“The speed with which you have to defend and the agility with which you have to defend — because the rules have changed to open up the game and you can’t just latch onto a guy and hold on for the ride anymore — means defensemen have to be more mobile than they ever have been,” Brown said. “And with that mobility, you still have to be able to create body contact, or at least get in the way of a play and have a good stick. You’re still trying to separate the puck from the offensive player.”
Speed in the game represents a bit of an arms race that keeps taking the game to newer, faster places. Faster, more skilled forwards and a focus on immediate transition leads to defensemen having to keep up.
“You have to really rely on your skating ability — to be able to skate and pivot with the forward much more now,” Brown said. “So that’s a big point. That’s why defensemen today have to work. You can’t just be big and strong. You really have to work on your agility and mobility if you’re going to be able to play in today’s game.”
For Brown at BC, one of the ways the Eagles can focus on the fundamental progress of the game and the position is to give more players more repetitions more often in these kinds of situations through small-area scenarios.
“We play a small-area game pretty much every day,” he said. “And it does help with quickness of skill and quickness of mind. I think those are very beneficial for both forwards and defenseman.”
In many ways, the expanding role and skills of defensemen open the position up to more kinds of players, too.
“It might depend on the individual,” Brown said. “There are big, strong kids who like to be physical, so that part of the game is there. And there are smaller, faster guys who can really contribute to the offense. There are guys like Adam Fox, or the style of play like Jacob Trouba. Depending on what their disposition is, and who they are and what their physical attributes are, you could warm up to lots of different aspects of being a defenseman. You’re still going to want to have some size [on a team], but there’s much more room for smaller defenseman than there was before. Back in the day, teams might have one defenseman who was on the smaller side who were just tremendous at breaking pucks out and defending different ways. Now, you can have two or three, or even four. They’re not breaking guys’ legs, but they’re being very effective in the way they are defending.”
No matter the defenseman’s size or natural abilities, there is one thing that will always make life a little easier for defensemen of any age.
“You need to be thinking ahead,” Brown said. “Everything can’t be a surprise to you. The analogy I use is that if you’re like my dog and waiting to see where the ball goes and you don’t have any anticipation, the game goes really fast. So, hopefully, you’re sizing things up and doing the math as the game is unfolding so that you have a decent feel for what might come next. And then you’re ready to react. That’s very important as you grow up.”
Of course, being a defenseman isn’t always easy, and another building block of the position is learning to manage the responsibility of how hard it can be.
“The hardest thing is if things aren’t going well,” Brown said. “Can you take a step back and manage the game when maybe you don’t feel your best or you aren’t as sharp as you want to be? Or do you push it and try to do too much, rather than just settling in and making sure you’re keeping things simple? When things are going badly, we all react differently, and that’s kind of what we talk about. If it’s not a great night for you, do you cut your losses and make sure you’re just keeping it simple enough to give your team the best chance to win?”
Before winning becomes “a thing,” though, as in the early stages of youth hockey and in the early development years, settling on a position may not quite be beneficial.
“You should play every position for the first few years,” Brown said. “It would depend on the individual [in terms of picking a position], but I played forward in eighth and ninth grade, and I think that helped my overall understanding of how everything was going. I enjoyed that. I’m not sure everybody needs to do it that late in their career, but if you play forward when you’re a defenseman, you get to appreciate how they think and what they need. And vice versa. A forward can see where the defenseman needs them. It can really help either position learn a great deal about the overall game.
When it comes to the aspects of a defenseman’s game that will serve him or her well, there are many elements that come into play.
“The game gets faster every year,” Brown said. “It’s incredible, the speed that it’s played at now. With the new rule changes, we can’t slow guys down. And with the training of everybody, they’re faster than ever. So, if a defenseman can’t keep up, it’s going to be a very hard game. That’s constantly worked on and should be worked on at every level. Even the good skaters want to keep working on their speed. You haven’t heard of anybody ever being too fast.”
In the midst of keeping up with the pace of the game, it’s important to work on the fundamentals, like shooting.
“The key thing is to get it down [to the net],” Brown said. “The way shot-blocking is in today’s game, your most important thing probably is to get it off quick because teams are so good at getting in lanes and blocking shots now. If you can get it down, it doesn’t have to be a canon. But, if you can get it down to the net quickly, then that’s very valuable. We stress that all the time. You have to get it down quickly. It’s better to get a puck down to the net a little quicker than it is to get shots blocked all the time. This is definitely a focus of ours.”
Decision-making is also a critical aspect of a defeseman’s game. While it’s not always something that can be tangibly practiced, Brown believes it can be improved through repetition and experience.
“Whether you call it hockey sense or more of situational recognition, just understanding what is coming next, I’m thinking can be developed, improved and enhanced over time,” Brown said. “By playing more games and playing in those situations more in practice and in small areas, you figure things out quicker. Coaches call it different things. But it can definitely be improved through good repetition of useful drills and useful situations like small games or in-game situations during practice. Then, coaches can point out, ‘That was a good play, but there are other options,’ and then that player has the other options in their head. A week later, maybe the player executes that other option.