My actual rec hockey team, post-winning the league w/ 7 skaters. ...Kings socks?

Last night I helped coach an adult hockey class in Phoenix (Gilbert, specifically), and it’s not an easy task.

The toughest thing to remember for myself at these things is that drill comprehension is not something innate, it’s something you learn over years and years of practicing. Every drill has a natural pattern, a flow, and sometimes you find adult rec players who haven’t done drills in decades – lawyers, doctors, and registered mensa members – completely befuddled by a concept like YOU’RE UP DUDE, GO.

I take for granted that this is something I understand that others easily could if they were just exposed to it, so….it’s summer. Let’s expose you to some stuff. Old, young, whatever. Let’s talk our level of hockey, not pro hockey.

The Systems Analyst posts I wrote during the season were well received, but I think they’re best read from the angle of the fan, trying to watch and accurately follow NHL games. But when it comes to the level most of us play, the strategy isn’t going to be the same as the pros. That guy in your Pee Wee league or that guy in your 50-and-over league simply isn’t blasting home too many Jason Garrison-level slappers from the point. As a winger, you can be aware of him, but help low (within reason) whenever you feel the need to. Some things like that are just different.

So, here are the five things that made me speak up while being a “co-coach” last night that can hopefully help. I’ve mentioned most of these things in posts before, but whatever – if one is new, it should help you.

1. First and foremost: pass the fucking puck hard.

Yes, the profanity was necessary.

“Handle it” is a standard comment at a pro hockey practice (or college, or junior) for a reason. Get it to your teammate so he/she has time to make a decision. (Higher up, the expression “You can’t give a good player a bad pass is common too.”)

If you hit someone in the stick-blade with a slapshot and they can’t handle it, that’s on them. The sooner they get it, the more time they have to think before pressure gets there. Also, the less you have to lead them, which takes a lot of the guesswork out of the pass – think of it like reading a putt – the harder you hit it, the less clever you have to get with the line.

There are exceptions, of course – spot passes, chips and so on – but in general, absolutely zip that thing. The Gordon Bombay “egg” thing? Soft hands? Listen to an NHL game. You take a hard pass with stiff hands and that thing ain’t going anywhere. There’s nothing wrong with a good hard *smack* when receiving a puck. It’s kind of satisfying, actually.

2. Gap control

Playing defence on a rush isn’t easy. But as a forward, your dream scenario is a d-man who lacks confidence in his speed that backs wayyy in so as to not get beat wide. What would you like to do now? Criss-cross inside the zone? Shoot through the screen he/she’s providing? Skate in so slowly you make that d-man stop before turning on the gas?

The point is, d-men, getting beat wide happens – hopefully it’s not super clean, and you still force that forward to make a play, but challenge, challenge, challenge. These guys in your rec league that play once a week likely lack the poise to do anything super clever – make them panic, make them turn it over, make them dump it…all by having good gap control.

3. Pass early on 2-on-1′s if it’s there

This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but in general, forwards on a 2-on-1 in rec league want a backdoor tap in. They want to skate in, thread the needle, and have their buddy put it home.

Here’s the reality: goalies aren’t that good. When you come down with the puck, they’ve just tapped both posts, and know exactly where they are in the net. The other reality: you’re not that good. The odds of you threading the needle for a backdoor tap-in aren’t that high.

So, if the d-man is sagging at all (as referenced in #2), cross the blue, and make an early pass above the d-man. The goalie has to move side-to-side, and loses his perfect net awareness. Look up, and to hell with fake-passes or anything else. You’re on a clean breakaway now, because d-men are dumb (I wrote this on defending 2-on-1s for Puck Daddy) and let forwards have a party on 2-on-1s. (I just called goalies, forwards and d-men bad, because we all tend to give our opponents too much credit.)

4. Tip direction

I said earlier that a rec league (or PeeWee, even most Bantam) d-man is unlikely to burn your team too many times with a boomer in one game. Where you can get burnt, is on tips. (So d-men – the second you see the opposing d-men release it, get the stick up of the guy nearest you.)

The problem is, outside of pro hockey, the only place guys want to tip the puck is up. They lay their blades flat in hopes of redirecting one under the bar, and often tip pucks that were going on the net off it. So here’s what you do: don’t stand to the side of the goalie and hope to touch the puck. Get your ass in front of that goalie, and tip that puck in the opposite direction of where it’s going. More accurately, tip it to the middle of the net.

The point is that the goalie is moving, reacting to the initial line of the puck, and he’s opened up holes. You can even show your d-man which side of your body you want his shot on with your stick if he’s got his head up. If you’re bum is facing the goalie, shots on your backhand side should get tipped inwards, and shots to your forehand side should also get tipped inwards. Don’t open your blade.

And last…

5. Mid-lane drive

On a 3-on-2, everyone knows to set up some variation of a triangle. What that means is that the guy out wide has the puck, someone else is level with him, and someone else is high. In rec/minor hockey, EVERYONE wants to be the high guy. All the glory, right?

Well, here’s where being a good teammate comes in – it’s not that “someone” should drive the net – it’s that the middle guy (as in, mid-lane) is driving the net. Non-negotiable.

So what if the d-men know who’s going through well in advance? They can A) leave him, in which case the puck carrier gives him the puck for a short breakaway, or B) have a d-man go with him, in which case the high guy is open.

This is the beauty of the odd-man rush – if it’s executed in the most basic way possible, you’re getting a quality shot on net. …Or, you could go across the blue three abreast, and create nothing but a turnover.


If anyone has any rec hockey or minor hockey questions, don’t hesitate to email me at, or (that includes Pizzo and more of theScore team).

I think the technical side of our level of hockey is different from that of the guys in the NHL, so let’s talk strategy. At most of our levels, just use your noggin, and you can usually out-think the majority of the “Oh god it’s on my stick how do I get rid of it” crew.

Comments (30)

  1. You’ve just earned yourself a roster spot on our DMHL men’s league in Toronto … I’ll hold a roster spot.
    Welcome to the squad.

  2. God bless rec d-men with a good sense of gap control. I mean, seriously. Makes goalies lives infinitely easier. Nothing like watching your d-man get pantsed at the blue line and you’re all alone on a 2-0 or something. Guh.

    Can you also have a hard talk with fancy pants gooberforwards who overhandle the puck and get their pockets picked all the time as a result? Geez, that makes me nuts. Especially when they do it at MY blue line.

  3. Excellent advice… Especially #1, if you can’t do #1 get a different stick, lift some weights, and keep practicing.

    For #2, I play men’s league D and I’m terrible at shooting or scoring. But it’s surprising how often I’ve been able to just walk up the middle of the ice and shoot the puck because the other team doesn’t pressure the puck carrier. (I rarely score, but that’s just because I can’t shoot).

    #4, if you are defending, keep their sticks tied up, lifted and put some effort into it. Don’t let the other guy just push their stick back down. Similar in the corners, stop them from being able to move that stick quickly or freely.

    A corollary to #4 is move the guy out of the goalie’s vision. And don’t sit in the goalie’s vision either. There are a variety of ways to do this depending on the league rules (cross checking like you see in the NHL usually results in a penalty).

    As someone who plays defense, some other advice I’d give (I just play rec league, never played professionally so take this with a grain of salt):

    It’s very helpful if goalies communicate with the D and yell at them when they are in the way, and tells them when they need someone moved.

    If you are playing with someone experienced enough to point you to where coverage is needed (such as defending a rush), please listen! If you go after the same guy that they already have then you’ve left someone open and they will have to decide whether to try and switch guys or not. Usually doesn’t end well.

  4. How do you feel about dump and chase in rec league?

    • Dump and chase is situationally useful. Need a change? On the PK? Fire it deep, don’t mess with trying to cross the blue line with possession.

      Otherwise it’s usually a bad idea, because very few rec-leaguers (in my experience) can fire a dump-in hard enough to have it come all the way around to where a forward can be the first to it. Even if you get someone who can, the other winger will invariably fail to anticipate it, and it’ll just come right back out and give the other team a transition the other way. :-P

      Chip and chase is different, though; if you get challenged between the red and their blue, and you don’t have an open pass to a teammate, just gently chip it off the wall and into the corner and skate your ass off after it. The D will either get beat trying to turn around, or will get to the puck with their back to the play, which leaves them in a terrible position to make a good pass — if you have a smart winger on the other side, they’ll cut off the behind-the-net pass, and either end up with the puck or force a blind pass up the wall (hopefully to your third F or that side D).

      And yeah, putting speed on a pass is the #1 thing people do wrong a lot of the time. I had a game Monday where the left wing saw the center breaking down the right side and went for the pass, but didn’t get anything on it: easy pick for the other team. If LW had fired that puck harder, it wouldn’t have been cleanly picked off (and probably would have reached its target cleanly) at all.

  5. Great article. I count 8 skaters and a goalie but whatever. I wish you did an adult class here in Southwest CT. The only one I know of is a beginner clinic at Stamford Twin Rinks. The funny thing though is that none of the guys I play with have any interest in improving their game. At all. They just want to play. Either pick-up or men’s league but they have no interest in improving. So if you did an adult (non-beginner) clinic around here I’d be your only student.

    By the way didn’t you play in the AHL? So when you say ‘our level’ I think you are being humble.

  6. I’m a proud member of the “Oh god it’s on my stick how do I get rid of it” crew.

    Dump and chase all day.

  7. Justin, I feel the opposite about those bullet passes, mainly in the neutral zone. From a decently skilled rec leaguer, I find when guys try to pass it hard they have a tedency to elevate the puck. So not only is it coming at my feet or behind me, but it’s shin high. I find the best passes are soft area passes behind the D. Nobody turns fast enough and its easier to adjust to a pass in the wrong direction.

    • Gotta disagree…
      If the puck elevates when you pass hard you aren’t doing it right :) If you can’t elevate the puck and get it to land where you want it to, don’t try. More likely that’s just an accident and it happens in rec hockey. If you can do that, it’s very helpful for threading a pass through traffic. (obvious statement is obvious)

      If it’s at your shin just let it bounce off your skate or pads, try to deflect the puck forward a bit and gather it with your stick. That’s also good practice for intercepting elevated passes.

      That’s one thing I never did growing up (cause no one told me to try it), use your feet and pads to move the puck around if necessary. Try watching how often NHL players user their feet or legs to catch or direct passes, it’s a very useful skill to have especially if your stick is tied up by a defender.

    • I’d say if guys can’t pass the puck hard and keep it on the ice, there are some other issues that need to be addressed there…

  8. God I hate gap control, which is why I don’t like to play D any more.

    When I was a kid you could just hit the rushing forward, which is way easier than trying to judge their speed and stick with them until you can make a decent poke check.

    The few times I get it right I find it works to cross cut hard laterally on them, almost in the manner of a PK Subban ass hit, so they get unnerved and you can get the puck out. If you miss the puck, you’ve still got a lot of backward speed to cut back in again.

    As far as passing the puck hard goes, hells yeah. Soft passes and clears are basically turnovers. And what is it with rec leaguers and fanning on the puck? Happens all the time.

    The soft passes also always seem to make an appearance when a d-man tries to make the breakout pass from down low up the middle, instead of clearing sensibly up the boards or glass. It’s soooo tempting when you have the puck back there, but it’s also pretty much a guaranteed turnover.

  9. This rules. I could read this stuff all day, amateur or pro.

    As regards dump and chase….hell yes. NO defenceman wants to turn around and hustle back into their own corner. A skilled yet lazy Dman with good gap control (we’ve all played that guy) can actually be made to start cheating back and give you a bit of room if you dump it often enough.

    More system analyst please. Variations of 3-2′s and comparisons between good and bad powerplays would be great.

  10. Thanks for the comments, seems like a lot of people are interested in this stuff.

    re: Dump and chase: as a general rule in rec hockey, I insist my teammates don’t do it unless it’s a dump and change (or you’ve just run out of room/options) because A) nobody forechecks hard enough to recover possession, and B) you can’t hit, so your options for dislodging the puck are basically stick-checking, or hoping for a lucky bounce. I mean, hey – we *have* the puck. If there’s any alternative, take it.

    • I love this stuff. I’m 28 and just started playing ice hockey last year before having to leave for a while (military). Since I’m already lacking in multiple areas, I want to be solid in terms of positioning. I’ve watched hockey my whole life, but these guys know what they’re doing and where they’re going well ahead of time.

      I’d love some more insights on defensive strategies of the forwards in their own end, please!

  11. First: I loved this article, just as I usually love the system analyst posts. More, please!

    Second: I once read a piece of advice, I think it was from Gordie Howe: Passes are like cow pies: soft ones draw more flies.

  12. How does everyone feel about playing the trap in rec league? We get into a tight game and sure enough someone shouts out “trap it up” and everyone has a good chuckle. Then we blow the lead and you wish someone else would backcheck.

  13. Great, great article, I may just forward to my whole Over35 league.

    Now, if you can provide me with a solution to the problem on the 3 on 2 when F2 and F3 BOTH stay high, because they are slow, tired, or just feel like watching F1 skate in alone…. you’ll be a hero :-)

  14. Great post, love the comments about D. “Move your feet!” is a big one that a lot of rec players don’t do, and just glide along with their stick reached out while a guy skates around them.

  15. Great article. More like this please

  16. Great read! My business partner and I both play rec hockey and started a company called Beer League Sports.

    Please check it out if you get a chance

    We shared this great article on our Facebook page.

  17. This is a really helpful article that is geared very accurately toward adult hockey players.

    As someone who picked up hockey as an adult, there are many things I know I should do but I cannot seem to execute certain skills or execute them quickly enough, so playing smart is key to my game.

    Small insights like how best to deflect the puck and the importance of driving the net as the third player high are things everyone can do. Even if you’re not the best person on the team or a player that carries the puck a lot, there are plenty of ways to make a positive contribution to your team’s effort and I think you point those things out well.

    Like many others, I am looking forward to more posts like this one.

  18. Copy address
    Send to all

  19. Fantastic stuff, bourne. In any field, there’s a shitton of stuff that experts take for granted that’s in no way intuitive to a relative newbie. Hell, ask Dr. Innes about that… But on this topic, hockey is no exception.

    Stuff that you’ve had drilled into you since you were starting to skate at 4? That’s completely new to me. I never had anyone tell me that before. So any rec hockey info I get is good info.

  20. The comments on this post are HILARIOUS.

  21. First off, you can’t hit in your rec league? we must be sadistic in the UK because there are a fair amount of teams who allow body contact at the rec level!

    Second, I would say the biggest thing is pressuring players on their backhand, especially D men deep in the corners. Very few rec players have any backhand at all and you can cheat as a forechecker and take away everything but the backhand play and watch them muff the clearance.

    In fact this works all over the ice. D men cheat to the forehand side and give the foreward the backhand pass or shot, chances are he wiffs on it.

    The other massive thing in rec hockey for me as a D, nobody ever ever backchecks, ever. If you are on a team with forwards that backcheck, you will win every game! most forwards are of the ‘coast back and cherry pick the long pass’ variety. This makes breakouts difficult, but as you mention most forwards don’t forecheck either. So I would suggest defencemen should always pressure the puck carrier, keep them backhand side, they will rarely make the pass. If you can force the puck to the corners off their error, rip it up the wall and one of your lazy wingers will probably be there. Thats about as a good a breakout as you can get in rec hockey!

  22. I play with guys in their 60′s and 70′s – in fact, our four defencemen a couple of years ago were all over 70 and our goalie is 74. Let’s just say that there’s a different definition of a hard pass at our age and gap control means “Can I reach the guy with my stick yet?”
    Great article, great game.

  23. Yes, more of this stuff please, Mr. Bourne! Thanks!

    Our team was horrible, so we hired an ex-NHLer who has been working with lots of beer leaguers here. Once our team practiced the center drive we turned the corner.

    Justin, what are your thoughts about breakouts? We’re now working on saving ice, which doubles and triples our skating, but in concept I’m on board with the short ten foot pass rather than the hail Mary to the lazy wingers up on the boards.

    An addition to the passing tip: I notice that a lot of guys play hot potato and try to snap the puck so they can bail out as quickly as possible. That’s one reason it elevates and isn’t sauced. Then the player tries to soften it up and that’s when they fan on it or passes too softly. I’m making sure I don’t pass unless I’m sweeping the puck this summer. Three games in, and Adam Oates better look out.

  24. Hi Justin,

    I was at the open practice last week, and there were some great points made. I agree that simple drills are required at the “least common denominator”skill level. I was serious about a mnemonic device, like “up, over, up, and go”.

    My defensive partner is pushing lately on having one of us (or a back-checker) “step up” on the opposing puck carrier at our blue line in Rec C to cause more offsides (all the more likely at this lower level). We also have a couple set plays if we win the face-off in our defensive zone, like sending the wing to the far point to catch a pass behind the net and around the boards.

    Thanks again for your help, and for articles like this!
    Kevin (Mensa member)

  25. “Goalies just aren’t that good”…Eff you Bourne! If I get another shoulder slumping dusty asses D man trying to pin another goal on me after yet another 50 shot, 45 minute game, I’m runnin’ ‘em like Hextall, teamate or not! Beer league goalies- FTW!

    ps. Great article. I’m making it required reading for my teamates, or I’m not laying one skate in that crease next game…

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