There are few things in hockey that make jaws drop more than a finessed deke around a defender, but the art of stick handling is so much more than that.
It is an essential skill in hockey that can add to a player’s game if learned correctly.
Jeremy Rupke is the creator of HowToHockey.com, a website aimed at improving players through tips and drills. He appeared on the Breakaway podcast to share his knowledge on becoming a better stick handler.
With the speed of the game always increasing, it is important for the development of stick handling to keep pace.
“I like to say that speed isn’t just how fast you can get from one end of the rink to the other. You want speed in every part of your game, and that includes skating north and south, east and west, your crossovers, your transitions, stops and starts, you want speed in all of that but also with your hands,” said Rupke. “How quickly can you move the puck from one side of your body to the other side? Or get three quick stick handles in to kind of throw some smoke and keep the defender or the goalie guessing which direction you’re going to move the puck?”
“A lot of times those quick hands can sometimes be all you need, especially if you have that speed with your skating. Just move the puck quickly, one side to the other side, and you can be around a guy.”
Being able to protect the puck is a skill that can be directly tied in to one’s ability to stick handle. The notion of ‘soft hands’ has always been tied to how smoothly a player can move the puck.
In order to develop this ability, Rupke suggests starting slow. By barely touching the puck, a player can begin to build a feel for it on their stick while keeping their head up, which Rupke says is the most important part of it all.
“Any skill really comes down to repetition. You got to do it over and over and over. Even once you have it, that’s when some players think ‘Oh I’ve got it so I don’t need to practice it anymore.’ That’s when you practice it even more, but you have to push yourself. So now you can do it – do it faster. How quickly can you do it and can you shave any little bad habits off of it?”
While practicing on a smooth surface, Rupke suggests that players use a toilet paper roll or a water bottle with the top and bottom cut off and place it under the lower hand. This reminds the player to hold the stick tightly as the grip will be lessened and emphasizes the importance of the top hand for control.
“If you can control the stick with your top hand you’re going to move the puck to one side of your body. You can let go of the stick, drop that other hand and really block off any access to the puck.”
The issue of stick length was brought up to Rupke, who understands both sides of the argument. While the norm emphasizes a stick that reaches just below the chin, Rupke says it’s about a player finding the right fit for them.
“The problem with a longer stick is that it can cause the stick to get plugged right against the player’s hip and that can limit the range of motion. It can also cause them to stand up a little bit too tall and they won’t develop that good knee bend. If the stick’s too short, it can cause them to hunch over too much. Especially if they hit a growth spurt… that stick is going to be extremely short so it can cause them to always have their head down or bent over.”
Rupke remembers watching Pavel Datsyuk debut in the NHL and has noticed the length of his stick change since he first came into the league. As one of the league’s top stick handlers, many could turn to Datsyuk when it comes to sizing a stick that allows for maximum movement.
“It’s really about not being set in only one way. You want to try things and find what works for you. Try a shorter stick then try a longer stick. See what you’re successful with… it’s really about personal preference.”