Bill Guerin tallied 427 assists in his 18-year NHL career. (Credit: USA Hockey Magazine)
Guerin was inducted into the Class of 2013 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Bill Guerin may have been best known for his scoring abilities, but you don’t manage to score 429 NHL goals, including a career-high 41 in 2001-02 with the Boston Bruins, without knowing more than a thing or a two about passing. We recently caught up with the Massachusetts native, who went from playing youth hockey in Wilbraham to playing more than 1,200 games in the NHL, and we found out that he is, indeed, an expert on the subject.
Guerin, currently working as assistant general manager with the Pittsburgh Penguins, is also an Olympian and U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer, and he shared with us some of the keys to what makes for great passing at the elite and youth levels.
Mass Hockey: When you look back at your career, what made the best passers?
Bill Guerin: Oh, man, I've played with some of the best. Guys like Doug Weight, Mike Modano, Joe Thornton, it was always the guys who could buy you the time to get to the space that you needed to be in. They always had the patience and the vision to see what was going to happen.
They're also guys who had the ability to either avoid checks or protect the puck and, like I said, buy you time. One of the other things, with guys like that, especially a guy like Dougie, they never looked at you. There was always some deception in the play.
Mass Hockey: You could just sense he wasn’t looking at you?
Bill Guerin: You know he's not. He's not looking at you. He's looking up at the defense, but you know he can see you coming in the slot, you just know it. That's a gift guys like that have.
Mass Hockey: And when you talk about time a good passer can buy you, it’s only fractions of seconds, correct?
Bill Guerin: Yeah. Oh, yeah. We're talking about fractions of seconds. But the game is so fast that it's all it takes. When I played with Sidney Crosby, he could actually buy you seconds with the way he controls the puck down low and the way he can cut back and forth. He can buy a lot of time.
Mass Hockey: With some of those truly elite guys, is it also a matter of them being able to shift a defense on a move they make?
Bill Guerin: Yeah. It's kind of like they put everybody in a trance, that they start to follow the puck. Defensive teams start following the puck, and then they're focused on the puck and on that player. Then you just have to worry about the guy covering you – you only have to beat him to the open ice to get your opportunity.
And, when you're on a rush play, like a 3-on-2 or 3-on-3, the great thing about playing with these guys is you never have to break stride. You're never straddling the blue line.
Mass Hockey: What a freedom it must be to not have to worry about that.
Bill Guerin: It's incredible. You look at Modano. Modano could come with the puck through the neutral zone, at full speed, and you could go alongside with him, also going at full speed, and he could make the most finessed, soft play with the puck, and it was at full speed. It was incredible.
They're so good with the puck. There are so many things they can do. They can put it through peoples' feet. They'll put it over peoples' sticks. They'll put it behind them. It's not always a direct pass to your tape. It could be something played in behind a defenseman.
Mass Hockey: When you’re in the NHL and so many guys can do so many things well, are there conversations where you’re talking about where you want the puck?
Bill Guerin: All the time. All the time. You have to get to know your linemate or your teammate. You have to know where he likes the puck. I tell guys that I work with today that they should show a teammate that you want to shoot it – so, that way, he gives you the proper pass. He may have to take a little off, but that way he'll find where you like to shoot. That's part of the chemistry. That's part of the communication.
Mass Hockey: If you had to pick one guy that you had the best chemistry with, who would it be?
Bill Guerin: It was Dougie Weight. He's a big enough, strong enough guy where he could go into corners. The great thing about all the guys I mentioned – Modano, Thornton, Weight, Jason Allison was a great passer, he was amazing – they were all willing to play in traffic. They went to the ugly areas to get the puck. They would hold people off to make good plays. They took hits to make good plays.
Mass Hockey: All these things have some application for young players, but how can you translate some of this to youth players? How can a young player practice these things that for some professionals are almost innate?
Bill Guerin: It's just like anything else. Hey, you want a better shot? Practice your shot. If you want better passing, you have to practice your passing. It doesn't take much. It takes you and one other guy, or you and a couple of targets. Work on the basic stuff. Everything goes back to the basics.
And knowing the game, too. Hockey sense plays a lot into it. Everybody's been taught about the good, flat pass, but you have to make the right pass at the right time. With passing, you want to advance the puck as quickly as you can. You want to be able to control the puck, control the game.
For passing, shinny hockey, small-area games and stuff like that with young kids is the best – where you play a game with almost no shots, you just have to move the puck and move it quickly.
Mass Hockey: And with those small-area games, isn’t one of the great things you learn is that you can’t fire the puck all the time, that you learn to change speeds?
Bill Guerin: Yeah. Every pass can't be a rocket. There has to be some deception in it. My lacrosse coach had a great saying: "Show ‘em this and give ‘em that." Show them that you're going to pass to the right wing on your forehand, but then make a drop pass to the left. There's stuff like that. And you can keep the coaches out of it – just play. Let the kids think the game.
Mass Hockey: At the youth level, even the best shooter on a team has to be a good passer, too, right?
Bill Guerin: You have to be able to do everything. You have to try to be the most complete player you can possibly be. The game's not just shooting. If there's a play to be made, you have to be able to make it. Brett Hull was a great goal-scorer, but going on a 3-on-2 or a 2-on-1, he was a great passer. He was a great passer. And he always bragged that he never shot on a 2-on-1, and he probably didn't.
You look at all these guys. You look at Jeremy Roenick. JR has 500 goals, but he has 700 assists, too.
Mass Hockey: Not long ago, we talked to JR about shooting and goal-scoring, and he said his accuracy as a shooter was key, but he was just plain gifted with the puck, wasn’t he?
Bill Guerin: Crazy gifted. Insanely gifted with the puck. JR and I played against each other when we were 10, and he was so good, like, from Day 1. We knew each other more in our teen years, but, yeah, I remember playing against him and I was playing for Wilbraham. And he was a superior player. He was unreal. And to have a player who was so fast and powerful and had a cannon of a shot who could make a finesse play, too, that was one of the great things about JR.
Mass Hockey: Can we define some of the most important elements of passing as patience, awareness and anticipation?
Bill Guerin: Those are great words.
Bill Guerin: With patience, you have to have enough patience and enough confidence to hold on to the puck so you can give it to your teammate at the right time.
Bill Guerin: With awareness, you have to be aware of what's going on around you and how the play is developing and then get ready to make the right play. [Keeping your head up] is so important.
Bill Guerin: With anticipation, it goes back to hockey sense – you have to know what you're going to do with the puck before you get it, and you have to have a sense of what's going on around you.
A million things could happen by the time the puck reaches someone else's stick, so you have to be able to make quick decisions, and I think that's why playing pickup hockey, shinny hockey in small areas, without adults around, and just play the game and see what happens, is important to building hockey sense.