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What the best stickhandlers do

03/26/2019, 2:15pm CDT
By Kim McCullough, M.Sc, YCS

There are three critical aspects of stickhandling for young players to learn

Photo: Susan McPherson

Your ability to stickhandle effectively is a key skill that can really make you stand out in girls’ hockey. It is important to note that stickhandling isn’t all about having the fanciest moves on the ice. It’s about being able to beat people 1-on-1 while maintaining control of the puck. It’s about maximizing the distance between the player defending you and the puck so that you can beat them with speed and strength. 

I tell the players I coach that puck protection is the most important stickhandling skill. The ability to put your body between the defender and the puck is how to control the puck most effectively.  This doesn’t require fancy “dangles” – it requires the ability to control your body in space and to know how to protect the puck from the defender using your body and stick. 

This is especially critical in the female game since there is no full body checking. In the men’s game, if a player is handling the puck, they can be hit. This is not the case in the female game. Therefore, players can feel a little bit “safer” carrying the puck – not having to worry about being run over with a bone-crushing check.  

There is certainly nothing wrong with having great hands and being able to stickhandle with fancy moves. But the reality is that those moves have their time and place in the game – and that’s not every time you touch the puck.  Players with great hands tend to want to showcase that ability every single time they touch the puck and quite often that strength actually becomes a shortcoming of their game. 

Players must learn when it is appropriate to try a fancy move or whether it’s better to just lean into the defender with your shoulder and try to beat them with speed and strength. The vast majority of times in girls’ hockey, the second option is your better one. Think of it in the same way that a basketball player will protect the ball from a defender. In basketball, you don’t just dribble the ball in front of you and leave it vulnerable to the hands of the defender. You put your body in between the defender and the ball so as to protect it. This is a concept and skill that hockey players must embrace so that they can protect the puck effectively and maintain puck possession.  

Three critical aspects of stickhandling for young players to learn are: head up, soft hands, feet moving. You can have the fanciest moves in the world, but if you can only execute them with your head down, you aren’t going to be very effective on the ice. This goes back to the idea of making the best decision possible with the puck. In hockey, you constantly need to be aware of what’s going on around you. When you keep your head down, you are only aware of the puck. With your head up, you can decide whether making your fancy move is most appropriate, or whether you should simply protect the puck, make a pass or shoot the puck. It is absolutely critical that players become comfortable with handling the puck with their head up from a very early age. 

The concept of having soft hands is another one that players must embrace from a very early age. Far too many young female hockey players stickhandle like they are chopping wood. When it comes to having soft hands, it is absolutely essential that players get their hands out in front of them and away from their body. For some strange reason I haven’t quite figured out just yet, girls’ hockey players tend to stickhandle with their top hand glued to or next to their hip. This makes it very difficult to have soft hands as your top wrist has no room to roll back and forth. It also makes it nearly impossible to handle the puck on either side of your body – it limits your range of motion around your body. Players must get their hands out in front of them and allow the top hand to roll side-to-side and allow the bottom hand to slide up and down the stick as needed. Your hands cannot be surgically glued to your stick. They must move and adjust to the puck in order to stickhandle effectively. 

Keeping your feet moving while stickhandling is another skill that players tend to struggle with and must be embraced in order to progress on to higher levels of women’s hockey. For some reason, when girls get the puck on their stick, they tend to stop their feet moving. It sometimes seems that handling the puck quickly and moving your feet quickly are mutually exclusive. Once players have become comfortable handling the puck at slower, more controlled speeds, they must get their feet and hands moving at higher speeds. My college coach used the analogy of the puck being an energy pill. When you receive the puck, it should make you move faster, not slow you down. Players must practice handling the puck with their head up, hands away from their body and at high speeds in order to truly have effective stickhandling skills. 


For a specific eight-week plan to take your stickhandling and shooting to the next level, visit Kim McCullough, MSc, YCS, is an expert in the development of aspiring female hockey players. She is a former NCAA Division I captain at Dartmouth and played in the National Women’s Hockey League for six years. She is currently the Director and  Founder of Total Female Hockey and coaches the Toronto-Leaside Junior Wildcats in the PWHL.  

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Tag(s): State Of Hockey  News  Kim McCullough