Playing Ice Hockey

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This page is not intended to be a complete guide to playing ice hockey. There are 400-page books that have been devoted to this subject, and even those don't cover everything. Rather this page will attempt to briefly cover the basic elements and provide links to on-line and off-line resources where you can get in-depth information.

There is no reason why an adult of any age who is in good physical condition cannot learn to skate, stick handle, and play ice hockey. If you are interested contact your local rink and ask to speak to the director of hockey operations. You can usually do this online as every rink has a web site. Keep one thing firmly in mind at the outset. Ice hockey is the most difficult sport in the world to master. Don't be discouraged.

I started skating at the age of 63. I had never skated before in my life but I suddenly developed an urgent need to do so after watching a game between the Anaheim Ducks and the Philadelphia Flyers. There was something about the way the defensemen skated backwards that made me suddenly decide I wanted to learn to play the game. I have been a hockey fan since 1969, and why I never got this urge earlier is a mystery. I have been skating for three years and playing hockey for two years. I am (as of December 2012) 66 years of age.


The first prerequisite for playing hockey is skating. Skating represents 80-90% of the game. The ability to skate fast is an obvious necessity but the ability to turn suddenly, stop suddenly, and make rapid transitions from forward to backward skating are positively essential for playing the game with any degree of competency.

One of the first things you notice when you step out on the ice to play for the first time is how small the NHL rink is. If you have watched hockey on TV the view you get is an oblique one since the cameras are located usually at the top of the lower level of the arena. This view makes it appear that there is lots of space between the players. When you are actually on the ice however, you soon realize that every player is much closer to you than you may have imagined, and that the time it takes for another skater to get to you is remarkably short. It is rather astonishing how fast plays need to be made in order to avoid being checked by an opposing player.

Stick Handling

The next obvious requirement is the ability to skate with the puck on your stick. The pros make it look simple, but it is anything but. It takes a great deal of practice to be able to handle the puck without looking down at it since you must keep your head up to look for teammates who are open, and opposing players who are trying to get the puck from you.


Of major importance is the ability to make and receive passes. No one can skate as fast as you can pass the puck, so passing is the preferred method of moving the puck into scoring position. Watch an NHL team's power play unit in action. Note how much passing goes on. To get selected for the power play unit you must be an excellent passer. Shooting ability is actually secondary to the ability to make short, hard passes to a teammate who is in a scoring position. You must be able to make and receive long hard passes, as well as short hard passes. The word "hard" cannot be overemphasized. Weak passes, especially long ones, are always intercepted and usually result in an odd-man rush into your zone.

When you make a pass, don't stop to admire it, skate to an open area and expect a return pass.

Learn how to make and receive saucer passes, also known as "cut" passes. This is a pass that is elevated off the ice, anywhere from 6 to 12 inches, in order to clear an opposing player's stick when he is between the passer and the pass receiver. The term saucer pass comes from the fact that when the pass is made correctly, the puck spins and wobbles slightly like the flying saucers in 1950's Sci-Fi movies. To make the puck behave this way requires two elements. One, you must cause the puck to spin, which imparts a gyroscopic stability to the puck. You do this by starting the pass with the puck at the heel of your blade, As you make the pass you drag your stick blade backwards so that the puck starts to spin and move toward the toe of the blade. When it reaches the toe, you flick your wrists to "open" the blade face, which causes the puck to come up off the ice and proceed to the recipient just off the ice. When done properly the puck will only remain airborne for the distance needed to clear the opposing player's stick, and then it will land on the ice flat, making it easier for the pass receiver to control it. When you are learning to receive a saucer pass, expect some of them to still be airborne when they reach you. In this case you must become adept and batting the puck out of the air so that it lands just under you stick blade. It is difficult to master this, but once you do it's a lot of fun.

Line Changes

If you play in a league on a team with a coach, line changes will be controlled by the coach. But if they are not, you should limit your ice time to no more than one minute per shift. When you become fatigued your reaction time slows, your legs are no longer able to deliver powerful skating strides and you make mistakes. Get off when you're tired and let someone else who is rested get in the game.


Everybody wants to take shots on net. Especially slap shots. But slap shots rarely go in the net, or even on net. Start off learning how to make accurate, hard wrist shots. The wrist shot gives you the most accuracy and its quick execution often catches a goalie by surprise. They key to the wrist shot is good balance, proper weight transfer and sliding the lower hand down the shaft to "load up" the blade. Putting pressure on the shaft causes it to bend, imparting potential energy to the shaft which is released when you release the shot. Always look at the spot where you want the puck to go and follow-through with the stick blade towards the spot where you want the puck to go.

Do not neglect perfecting your backhand shot. Every goalie will tell you that the most unpredictable shot they face is off a player's backhand.

Keep the puck on the ice when you shoot, especially shots from the point or from the top of the slot. Once players learn how to "lift" the puck, that's all they do, even when it's inappropriate to get the puck off the ice. Shots on the ice(or within about three inches from the surface) are harder for goalies to see when there is traffic in front of them, and low shots are easier for your teammates to deflect past the goalie. Shooting high is appropriate when you are in close, say below the hash marks, and the goalie is down. Be patient and wait for the goalie to commit. If he goes down in the butterfly, shot high, otherwise keep the puck low.

To lift the puck requires you to roll both wrists clockwise which opens the blade face and allows the puck to slide up the blade face slightly, causing it to come up off the ice. How much you roll your wrists determines how much the blade face opens and how much lift the puck gets.

What Position to Play?

You have three choices. You can play in goal, or you can be a skater, which is a forward or defensemen. If your not playing goal, you're playing "out". If you're playing defense, you are playing "back", and if you're playing forward you are playing "up".

The goalie, believe it or not, has to be the best skater on the team. More agility and precision on skates is required to play goal that required when playing out. Playing goal is the most expensive option in terms of equipment costs. That is why every rink allows goalies to skate for half-price, or free (half-price for stick time, and league play, free when playing pick-up). Depending on the equipment you chose it can cost anywhere between $2,000 and $5,000 to purchase goalie equipment.

Playing goal requires slightly different conditioning than playing out, and the skill set is much different. But it is fun.

You should not play defense unless you are able to skate backwards very fast, and be able to do backwards cross-overs with ease. Unless you can do both you will have trouble getting back when the opposing team starts a breakout.

Playing up is the best place to start out. If you are a right-handed shot you should play right wing or center. A left-handed shooter should play left wing or center. Playing center requires more skills than playing the wings.


Knowing where you should be positioned on the ice is crucial. Know where to be can save you enormous amounts of energy since you are not wasting energy skating madly to get to where you are supposed to be.

Proper positioning varies greatly depending on the score, and how much time is left in the game. Basically the wingers, when on defense, should be covering the opposing team's defensemen who will be at a position on the ice called "the point". Your job as a winger is the prevent the defenseman (or point man) from being able to get open for a shot, and if he does get the puck, make sure he does not get a shot on net.

The job of the defensemen is to position themselves between shooters and the net and to prevent any cross-ice passes across the slot. Defensemen should never go behind the net to chase a puck. That is the forwards' job when in the defensive zone.


A "control breakout" is the method by which you advance the puck up the ice, and out of your defensive zone, across the neutral zone (the area between the two blue lines) and into the offensive zone. There are five standard breakout methods. Which one you will use depends on the type and amount of pressure the opposing forwards are placing on your defensemen. Communication is key in making this determination. Usually the center will be the one who makes the call as to which breakout to employ. If you attend a hockey game, you may be lucky enough to here the players communication by shouting "Over", "Up", "Wheel", "Reverse", and "Rim". These are the five control breakout techniques.

Power Play

Technically if your team does not replace a defenseman with a forward after the opposing team goes a man down due to a penalty, it is not a "power play", it is simply a "man advantage". Even seasoned hockey play-by-play announcers make the mistake of calling every man advantage a power play because the original definition has been lost over time.

The players who are sent out on a man advantage, or power play, usually are the team's best passers, not necessarily the best shooters. The resoning is simple. If you can't get the puck to a player who is open with a clear shot at the net you are not going to score no matter how many fearsome shooters you have. You have probably had the misfortune when attending a hockey game to hear some drunk yelling "SHOOT" every time any player gets possession of the puck. What the drunk does not understand is that taking a shot when there is no chance of the puck going in the net (either directly or via a deflection) usually results in a turn-over, and quite often an odd-man rush toward your net. Players will move the puck around, generally by passing, until they can get it to an open player who can see open net he can shot at. And remember, it is not what your eyes can see of the open net, it's what your stick blade can see. It takes a lot of experience to correlate one with the other.

Penalty Killing

To be successful at killing penalties you simply need to out-work the opposing team's power play unit. Obviously you are at a disadvantage because being a man short means that the other team has a much better chance of getting a player open who has a legitimate shot-on-net. But the power play unit often suffers from a touch of complacency. They know they have the extra man, and often will become lazy, or make risky plays as a result.

Rule one is to stay in the "box" formation. Your goal here is to prevent cross-ice passes in the middle of the slot, and below the middle of the slot. Passes between the point men typically cannot be stopped unless one of them makes a weak pass. If a weak pass is made, make every effort to intercept it and either ice the puck, or skate it out of the zone, whichever is least risky.

T O P Hockey Page Ray's Home Page E-Mail Me

Creation Date: Monday, April 19, 2010
Last Modified: Sunday, December 23, 2012
Copyright Ray Smith, 2010

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