Monday, January 18, 2010

Backchecking by Paul O'Donnell

This is the first of a series of articles from Guest writer; Paul O'Donnell
"Backchecking is Not a City in China"
My hockey buddies and I had heard this statement uttered more than once by coaches back in the early 70s while playing our youth hockey on Boston’s South Shore. Over time, this mildly humorous, if not somewhat ridiculous saying evolved into an ongoing joke between us when someone was caught dogging-it on the backcheck. While the phrase always seemed to result in a chuckle or two during those magical times, we were all acutely aware of the meaning that it inferred – Backchecking is not an option!

There are three major factors which prevent many players from being consistently successful on the backcheck: lack of anticipation, poor positional play and fatigue. Anyone of these issues can derail your team’s ability to generate and maintain an adequate defensive posture, in time, to prevent your opposition from successfully entering your zone at will, throughout the course of each and every game played.

In some ways, believe it or not, the game of hockey is a lot like chess. Both games relying on the ability of their players to tactically outman and outmaneuver their opponents during as many individual battles as possible to be successful. While significant parts of each game rely on the skills and experience of the players involved, very often, winning is decided by a player’s ability to anticipate the play farther ahead during every battle, than their opponents can.

In chess, it’s not uncommon for Masters of the game to anticipate their opponent’s tactics 15, 20 or even 25 moves ahead. In the game of hockey anticipation is measured in seconds. Even if the amount of time is only 2 to 3 seconds into the future, players who can consistently and correctly anticipate the play during individual battles as they unfold, more often than not, will be successful over their competition.

When players and coaches talk about anticipating the play, they are actually referring to reading and reacting. Play anticipation takes up a huge chunk of the overall read and reaction process. To reach any level of proficiency with respect to anticipating the play the player must first understand how they are related to one another.

To properly anticipate any play during the read and reaction process the individual player must decide how to combine his knowledge of hockey with the game situation that’s evolving at the time, and have the ability to turn it into positive, appropriate action. Unfortunately, every player’s ability to accomplish this effectively is affected by their proximity to the puck.

The ability to successfully anticipate the play is directly proportional to the reading and reacting process. In other words, the closer a player positions him/herself to the action, the more time he/she must spend reacting to the play, than anticipating the play.

To illustrate this better, think of a person taking a stroll down an unfamiliar sidewalk. While the sidewalk appears to be level and flat, the stroller should realize that there are probably cracks and frost heaves that could result in a fall, if ignored. If the walker is paying attention to their surroundings, they’ll have the time to plan a path along the way that will avoid an obstacle, should one appear. But if they’re oblivious to their surroundings and collide with the obstacle, they’ve lost the ability to anticipate and plan a different route. Their only option is to react to their loss of balance if they don’t want to take a hard tumble on the pavement.

Many young players are under the misconception that if they’re away from the play, that there’s nothing to do. While some become anxious and desert their current position because of their overwhelming need to get into the action, others turn into spectators, being mesmerized by the puck and oblivious to their surroundings.

Players need to understand, that in many cases, being on the weak side of the play is actually a plus, not a negative. It allows that player to see the big picture of the overall battle currently taking place, and anticipate multiple options, on both the offensive and defensive side of the puck.

Positioning on the Back Check
One of the major reasons for ineffective backchecking is that many players tend to place themselves in poor strategic areas of the ice when the puck changes hands. Many players away from puck, place themselves in positions in the offensive zone ahead of the puckcarrier whether puckcarrier is in solid control of the puck or not.

Some of the time, failure begins before the backcheck occurs, especially with regards to the weak side winger or F3 forward. All too often, aggressive forwards, travel father into the zone than they should, recognizing too late, that the transition is about to go bad for their team. These types of compromising positions place these forwards too far away from play to do any good in helping support their defensemen when the opposition is pressing the attack.

In hockey you always want to try to outman your opponent whenever possible, trying to keep your odd- man-down situations to a minimum. Just because you don’t have a man in the box, doesn’t mean that your team is even-up. Every time your weak side winger fails to pick up the opposition’s wide wing on their breakout, he places your team in a man-down situation.

At the very least a team on the backcheck needs to even the odds against their attackers. The most effective way to do this is to always make sure that your widest forward (F3) from the puck is always in a position to take away any passing option from their widest attacking player. But this might be difficult if F3 is standing in the low slot while the battle is being waged high along the boards, just inside the blue line. This might be a good position to be in if the battle is successful, but if the play starts ago the other way, within one or two seconds this player could easily be 40, 50 or even 60 feet behind the play, before he even has time to take a stride.

While there are an unlimited variety of ways to transition in or out of any zone, very often it comes down to a well-timed “D” to wing to center breakout or a scrum of players battling somewhere along the wall. There are instances, when time may limit an off-winger‘s ability to perfectly positioned themselves while their opponents are on a fast break. But when two teams are slugging it out along the wall, somewhere in between the hash marks and the blueline, this is the perfect time for these forwards (F3) to establish a position on the ice that will allow them to have a positive effect on the play (either offense or defense) when the puck finally comes off the boards. I call this perfect location -Neutral Positioning. I’d be very surprised if you’ve ever heard of this concept before, because it’s my concept and I’ve never written about it, until now.

Neutral Positioning
The best definition I can give for this new concept is: A location on the ice surface where support players can position themselves during any battle that will allow them to successfully support the play, whether on offense or defense, following the transition. There are locations on the ice surface, during any battle that allows supporting players to have an impact on the play, no matter what the outcome is of the battle.

For the”F3” forward, watching the battle unfold along the wall, somewhere between the hash marks and the blue line, this perfect neutral position is 30 to 40 feet directly behind the combatants, in the middle of the ice surface, somewhere between the goalposts. This position, not only gives the weak side supporting forward a bigger picture of the overall battle in progress, but it also allows him to move effectively, either north or south, with little regard to the outcome of the battle.

If F3’s teammates are successful retaining the puck, then our weak side wing has the ability to be an integral part of the attack by moving deeper into the zone with the puckcarrier. If the battle goes badly, our third forward can easily establish an effective backchecking position, either by skating with the wide winger who is looking for an easy breakout into the neutral zone or by skating into the passing lane, effectively, shutting down any chance of a tape to tape rink-wide pass.

But that’s not all; not only does he shut down that particular passing lane, but he also performs two very important services on this particular backcheck: if it’s a three player attack, by taking away that wide wing he creates and even men of situation so his defensemen can play the other two forwards man to man on their opponents attack. But more importantly, just by taking that one man out of the other team’s breakout, he has dramatically shrunken the other team’s ability to rally an attack by literally shrinking the available passing surface for the attackers.

The reason that this is so important is that the full size (or the width) of the rink is only useful if there is an available passing outlet to the other side of the rink. By taking away the wide winger on the weak side of the ice, the ice surface shrinks to the width of the next widest available passing option. Usually, the next supporting player is another wing or center (F2) who is the closest player to the puck carrier (F1). If this player is only 15 or 20 feet away from the puck carrier and the puck carrier is moving up the boards, the only available ice surface on the breakout is also, only 15 or 20 feet wide, instead of 80 or 85 feet. Within 2 to 3 seconds our fictitious player has performed 3 crucial tasks - in one felled-swoop.

Another very important added benefit to neutral positioning, in this case, is that while our hypothetical F3 player is waiting for the play to unfold, he should be doing absolutely nothing, except keeping his head on a swivel for any opposing players who are trying to gain a positional advantage. This would be the perfect time for a player to rest and catch his breath, if only for a few seconds, while trying to anticipate possible outcomes of the scrum along the wall.

Of the three pieces to the backchecking puzzle that I describe in this article, probably the most important is the fatigue factor. Fatigue is the X factor that is the fuel, or should I say, lack of fuel that saps the body’s energy and a players’ will to win.

Coaches who consistently shift their lines for more than one minute at a time, during an average game, are not doing their players any favors; and unknowingly, may actually, be assisting their competition. The average shift for an NHL player is 40 to 45 seconds. If the greatest hockey athletes in the world are unable to consistently skate for more than a minute, how can any coach justify long shifts for the average youth hockey player.

Ice time is the carrot as well as the stick for any and every hockey coach. For those players who are affected by selective hearing, there are 3 very easy solutions: tell’em, bench’em, suspend’em.
While I would like to say more about the fatigue factor, there are far too many issues to consider on this very important subject. In a later column I plan to devote an entire article to this crucial and very often misunderstood aspect of the game.

Due to an abundance of requests for copies of my articles, I will be entering the blogging world soon. I hope to have it up and running by the end of January so please be patient. As always, I look forward to your comments, good, bad or ugly at:

Paul O'Donnell writes his syndicated column, Understanding Hockey from the Neck up for Chicago's Hockey Stop Magazine. Paul grew up playing hockey in the Greater Boston Area and played his college hockey at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts. He has been coaching in the Chicagoland area for the past 25 years. Send your comments,good, bad or ugly to:

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