Aerial passes to space? Flipping pucks to yourself in traffic? Playing an almost rink-length slapshot ricochet pass off the end boards to set up a goal on the power play, as Torey Krug did for David Pastrnak about a week ago?
In a brave new world filled with spin-o-ramas and toe-drags, creativity is perhaps more welcome in the game of hockey than ever.
But why are some coaches still punishing it and viewing creative attempts as mistakes and failures?
Paul Moore, Mass Hockey’s Coach-in-Chief said that old-school mentality needs to change.
“At the younger levels, it’s crucial that we don’t stifle kids’ creativity,” Moore says. “There was a time where the message was, ‘Don’t play with the puck, dump it in.’ Clearly, we’re light years away from that. We’ve been embracing creativity and not stifling it.”
An early adopter of the American Development Model, Moore also believes in the benefits of cross-ice and small-area hockey –so much so that a rink his organization built in Falmouth includes one full sheet and another that measures 89 x 85. Moore pushed for that small sheet and will even put his high school team on it for practices.
“I believed in the ADM and where the game is going,” says Moore, who runs an ADM practice every week with the Clippers. “[On the small sheet], they operate in a small environment and you are inherently going to get kids developing skills. With a full sheet, there’s very little conflict, especially at 8U where the best player takes off and the seagulls follow. Something like cross-ice benefits even the best players because they’re going to have more conflict. There’s nowhere to go. They’re going to have conflict even against lesser players, and they’re going to have to make more decisions and be more aware.”
And if it all looks a little like pond hockey, that’s not such a bad thing either. That freedom of an open sheet of freshly frozen ice can be a breeding ground for creativity.
“[New England ADM Regional Manager] Roger Grillo likes to say that we’re trying to bring the pond inside,” says Moore. “You let the kids go and you get out of the way. Let the game be the teacher. And I think you’re starting to see the benefits of that.”
The benefits are more tangible than ever. Moore had a high school player this season who flipped the puck over a defenseman’s head, whacked it out of the air to settle it and scored on what had become a breakaway very quickly.
It’s happening at the NHL level, too, of course, and the winds of change are greeted warmly by those who preach player development. One-handed goals. No-look passes. Backhand toe-drags. Batting pucks out of the air. Earlier this year, defenseman Neal Pionk wheeled a spin-o-rama in front of his own goaltender and was hailed by many for then going up the ice and scoring on an end-to-end rush. Pastrnak stickhandled through his own legs on a dazzling effort for one of his first goals of 2018-19.
“With the high-end players, I think you’re seeing that they’re athletes, too,” says Moore. “They’re not specializing. They’re not playing hockey year ‘round. They’re playing other sports. I think that’s a key element.”
Another key element is what players are doing without the puck. The puck spends a fraction of a game on a player’s stick, so creativity certainly extends to looking for opportunities without it. With it, make the most of that opportunity for your own development as a player.
Shooting from once-frowned-upon angles. Go into traffic with the puck and make a move that may once have been considered ill-advised. Don’t be so cautious with the puck or play for the safest outcome. In a youth sport, played by kids who presumably like to have fun, why not give these things a try?
“I tell my kids, ‘From the blue line, have at it,” Moore says. “I have a 10-foot rule, I don’t want them to turn the puck over there, but get creative. Try different things.”
And why not risk failure? Why not ask a defenseman to attempt making a play rather than ringing the puck around the boards? Or why not ask a forward to make a move at the blue line rather than playing dump-and-chase?
“I don’t think we saw it in [my] era,” says Moore, “I think we embrace failure so much more now. So, when kids make a mistake, it’s not a punishment. Letting kids try things and embracing failure is really where it’s at.”
The positive outcomes are myriad, including the building blocks of creativity. That creativity is also part of a mix that’s finding the era of five very strongly defined positions evolving into something more amorphous. The term “position-less hockey” has made the rounds.
“I think we’re already there,” says Moore, who can’t remember a time this year when he referred to a “right wing” or a “left wing” in the zone.
“It’s F1, F2, F3,” he says. “If you’re the first guy, you’re F1, you’re forechecking; F2, you’re support; F3, you’re the high guy. It’s not the ‘center’ going here or the ‘right wing’ going there.”
Putting players in these fluid situations may have another benefit, too.
“Can you teach hockey IQ?” Moore wonders. “I used to think not, but you can put players in the position and in the environment where thinking is involved. I believe you can teach it, based on my experience.”
Moore, into his third decade of coaching, still says the best three hours of his day is at the rink. And while he doesn’t have a single bad memory from his own playing days in a very different era, this new brand of hockey, with all the creativity and skill, suits him just fine.
“If you don’t evolve, you won’t be successful,” he says. “But what is success? Sometimes in high school you’re judged by wins and losses, but we are helping build young men to be successful in the future. It might sound corny, but when you look back, what is it all about? Hey, I’d love to win a state championship. But not many teams do that. What is it about? It’s about the experience.”
And that experience is as creative an exercise as ever.