Over the course of more than 1,200 games, U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer and Massachusetts Hockey Hall of Fame member Keith Tkachuk scored more than 500 goals, earning a reputation as one of the strongest players on the puck.
It’s a skill he passed on as hockey dad and coach to his own sons, Matt, who plays in the NHL with the Calgary Flames, and Brady, who is currently starring for the U.S. Junior National Team.
It all began with one rule: don’t dump and chase.
“I have this rule where I don't like kids dumping pucks in,” said Tkachuk, a four-time Olympian. “Puck management was always a thing we talked about. You don't just throw it away. I would always tell kids that I would rather them turn the puck over than give the puck up.
“I want to see kids make plays. Try to make a play.”
The Melrose, Mass., has a few more tips that can help anyone work on becoming a much better puck possession player.
Work on your stick skills
As a youth player Tkachuk admits he rarely concentrated on stick stills. He takes the opposite approach now.
“You have to dedicate yourself as a coach in practice to working on handling the puck and stickhandling,” he says. “Skating, toe-drags, trying things with the puck on your stick. Then try those things skating backward. Go up and down the ice with two pucks. Now you're developing individual skill work. After a month, you can do it with your head up.
“In a game, things happen fast. Kids who don't have the skill can't make the plays. If you have the skill, the game will slow down for you. And that's what you want.”
Play to your strengths
While Keith had size to his advantage, that’s not the case for everyone. Take former Boston College star Johnny Gaudreau (and Matt Tkachuk’s teammate), who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 157 pounds, and opened the New Year as the Flames leading scorer.
“Whenever you're a bigger guy or have a bigger lower body, you have to use it to your advantage,” Tkachuk says. “But every guy is different. If you're a big strong guy like Jaromir Jagr, he has the long arms and the big body. And then you have Johnny Gaudreau. He's electric that kid. He plays to his strengths: edge work, agility, footwork, quickness. Everybody's different. But I think it's important to play the small-area games when you're younger. Teach kids how to hold on to the puck.”
One of the tactical ways to do this is by working toward mitigating some of the things you may not do so well.
“It might not be a flashy move or speed,” says Tkachuk. “If you're not a fast guy, put the puck in an area where you can control it, then think about the next thing you can do to control it. If you put the puck in an area and keep a guy on your hip, you can control him. You can spin off and beat him. But you can't expose the puck. When you come down one-on-one, you might have to expose the puck – but if you're below the circles or you're coming out of the corner, put the puck in the area where it makes it more difficult for the guy to get it off your stick.”
As the competition improves at the higher levels of the game, those flashy moves and speed may not be the separating factor it once was for a player at a lower level.
“As you get older, and you can't make that move, protect the puck a little bit better and make it more difficult on the defender,” Tkachuk says. “I put two guys in a circle with the puck and have one try to shield it from the defender for about 15 seconds. It's just teaching kids how to use the body to shield the park. There are five different reasons you're doing that drill and the kids really don't know that, but it also involves making the defender have a good stick and work to avoid taking a penalty.”
Improve your skating (not just your speed)
The game may be faster than ever, but speed alone isn’t what makes a player dangerous.
“Look at Connor McDavid,” says Tkachuk. “I don't think anybody has ever skated that fast, but I've seen guys who are a little bit slower who still manage to work out because they knew how to get to particular areas a quicker way. They have the hockey sense to get to that area. There are guys who are really fast and have no idea how to use their speed or their sense. You have to be able to change gears. If you can slow it down and pick it up, that puts the defender in a difficult position.
It's deception. That's what it's all about when you have the puck.”
And don’t forget, puck possession as a team isn’t simply about one guy holding on to the puck as a personal game of keepaway. Team puck possession relies on all the moving parts.
“I hate watching when guys are just stationary,” Tkachuk says. “You have to be moving; three forwards down low, grinding and working and getting open. They’re finding ways to create opportunities not just for themselves, but his or her teammates on the ice. That's how you break down the other team.”