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The 3 Pillars of Playing Defense for the UBC Thunderbirds

09/20/2017, 5:00am PDT
By Kelvin Cech


One of the most difficult things about coaching minor hockey is the sheer amount of responsibility. Holy cow does that ever sound complainy, but it’s true. It’s a lot of work! 

I coached teams from hockey 3 all the way through major midget and everything in between for nearly ten years, and it would take me a hundred years to document every memory from every team. You’re in charge of the product on the ice, the varying personalities of all your players, the schedule, working with the minor hockey association, and oh yeah then you have to answer to the parents, the primary stakeholders footing the bill and paying your stipend. 

I’m not complaining (I swear), my minor hockey experience helped shape the coach I am today. But I am happy my focus is much narrower these days.

When I accepted the job as assistant coach with the UBC Thunderbirds about 11 months ago, I wasn’t completely sure what my role would entail. I played forward most of my life and concentrated on forwards when I was coaching the North West Giants, which in hindsight set me up nicely for a completely new role with the UBC Men’s Hockey Team. 

Coaching Defense

I didn’t have an extensive history coaching defenseman when head coach Sven Butenschon assigned me that task. It was difficult at first, but the clean slate accompanied by my obsessive thirst to know more was ideal. I’ve spent the last year studying defensemen in the NHL as well as throughout the minor hockey ranks during events such as the U16 BC Cup and the LGS West Coast Prep Camp. Plus, of course, working with my defensemen at UBC.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

For Coaches: Keep it Simple

No matter what level you’re coaching, it’s crucial to keep the message straight forward and to the point. Every hockey player on earth plays better when they’re comfortable and confident. Thinking during a game isn’t ideal because it interrupts flow. Flow is a desired game state that hockey players strive for because decisions are instant. They dictate rather then react.

With that in mind, I worked with my UBC defensemen on coming up with a simple approach to the game that can be adopted by every player regardless of their unique playing style, and I think it’s something minor hockey coaches at every level can use, too. 

1. First 3 Steps Are Not Optional

This is the most important aspect of playing defense at UBC. We teach our D to defend with their feet. Every start, every pivot, every change of direction, is built on the first 3 steps. It takes time to master, but if you can permanently burn this into your players’ minds then every drill will be quicker, every race to the puck stands a better chance of success, and every d-man will have increased success in battles for ice.

2. Stick On Puck

Every player has heard this a hundred times by now, but it’s taught in university, junior hockey, and it’s taught in the NHL, so there’s some weight behind it. Gone are the days of separating the man from the puck with a devastating check. These days we teach our defensemen to take care of the puck with a good stick. If the first 3 steps are solid, then they’ll be in good body position in the event the opponent is able to protect the puck or slip it through the feet.

3. Toes Facing the Puck

Toes facing the puck also depends on a good first 3 steps. It keeps defensemen accountable and takes away an opponent’s time and space. Ever see a d-man turn away from a forward because they haven’t properly gauged their speed? It happens at every level. It can be tricky at first to keep the toes facing the puck because it’s a bit terrifying, but it’s an aggressive style to play that eliminates chances in the defensive zone before they start.

The key behind these pillars is repeating them enough that they become second nature. Flow is a lot easier to achieve when the pillars come naturally and without a second thought. 

Without a first thought, actually. 

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