Backwards is the new forwards

Intermediate was fun this week. Lots of stick-handling and puck-moving drills.

The only nasty moment was when we had to practice backward-skating defending. This is a tough drill, because a forward takes a puck and skates as fast as they can along the boards. The struggling defender (let’s call him, say … “Nicko”) has to attempt to backward skate at the same pace from well inside the defensive blueline to the red line at the centre of the rink before he can pivot and try to back-check/stop the attacker from having a shot at goal.

For people who are really good at backward skating, the drill is an exercise in closing down the angles, and forcing the forward into the boards, or at least contesting the puck head-to-head. For someone like me, it’s an exercise in just trying to skate backwards as fast as you can, while watching somebody coming at – and usually past you.

Luckily, this is okay because I’ve had a revelation over the past few weeks. I’ve realized that while I may still be crap at certain skills, I’m a lot less daunted by them.

In my first time around at Intermediate, late last year, I can remember feeling something approaching dread when certain drills were announced.

“Oh God, not pivots/transitions/backward skating,” the little voice in my head would sigh. I would always have an honest crack, but I knew I was going to fail, and badly, before I began, because I simply wasn’t good enough on my skates to even attempt some of the moves. It’s why I spent the summer trying to just get better at skating.

Thomas Tatar versus all of America, at the world championships.

And you know what? I’m no genius, but that plan might have worked.

Backward crossovers remain a mystery to me, and transitions are still very hard, but I’m much more willing now to actually try them. I feel like I have a better sense of where my feet are supposed to be and what my legs should be doing, where my weight should be, even if I can’t always make it happen in reality.

So, this week’s backward skating drill was in this category.

OK, yes, I suck at backwards skating. It’s a difficult thing to work on in the hurly burly of a General Skating session – I watched a fellow rookie (no need to name names) smash a poor little girl while practicing backward crossovers on Tuesday night … nice work, Alex McNab, you thug – or a stick & puck, where you wobble into the path of good skaters. I really need to get on my inline skates more, for backward work). On Wednesday, I almost battled a puck away from a decent forward skater at one point. Mostly I just tried to build actual speed while pushing backward. Shrug. The journey continues, and for the most part, over the past fortnight, I’ve caught myself grinning between drills from the sheer fun of being on the ice. A journo mate of mine, Fairfax sports writer Will Brodie, wrote a great piece this week about his childhood playing hockey, and the rise of the sport in Australia (look at the old pics of Blackhawks junior teams – gold), and I think Will nailed it with these paragraphs:

Most people who play hockey will tell you that it’s the most invigorating game they have ever played, and don’t ever doubt them. Most sports fans who see a game say they will be back.
For sheer sensation, its hard to beat – with only ten players (plus the two goalies) it has the intimate involvement you get from basketball, but there is contact, so eluding an opponent is everything (the Canadian word for baulk is to ‘deke’), and in the confines of a rink, if you can deke a defender ‘out of his jockstraps’, you can set up a goal-scoring opportunity. The puck feels just the right weight, an ideal object, and your stick is totemic – part pet, part tool. A play where two or three passes combine to set up a shot is an enacted purity of satisfaction.
As a spectator sport, it is hard to beat. Fast-paced, aggressive, but played in a compact arena, you can sense the options available to a player at the same time as he is executing his choice. In hockey there is less of a gap between the thought and action, and between rushes of potential drama, than in almost any game.

Amen.

Dev league was also fun this week, although Kittens, Morgan and I had to share our line with other skaters, meaning we all had to miss occasional shifts. This sucked, because it meant we never felt like we had a settled line (it’s amazing how quickly you come to want that) and, worse, it meant sitting out shifts, when we already had to wait three shifts for our line to come around again.

Alex McNab laughs after killing another defenceless child.

I want to be out there every shift, or at least every second, so it was difficult to sit patiently, watching the game, cooling skated heels.

But that whinge aside, it was a fun session. I did a few good things, including a couple of shots at goal, had some battles for the puck, and enjoyed a couple of times where I controlled a puck in dangerous climes inside our defensive blue line, turned and delivered measured passes to the sticks of teammates.

We’re all getting a lot better at holding our correct positions, especially with Lliam’s coaching from the bench, which remains entertaining, given his penchant for hurling waterbottles at the ref. He also takes the time to preach position to us; where you should be at all times. This can be a mystery in the swirl of a hockey game. Check out the picture above, from the current world championships, where Red Wings prospect Thomas Tatar appears to be taking on the entire USA team on his own. But there are actually systems at play, zones a wing should cover, as opposed to the centre or a D. Lliam is working hard to make us understand our jobs, and I’m drinking the knowledge.

That aside, I think the most pressing, truly urgent issue coming out of Wednesday nights is how I survive Thursdays, when I’m exhausted after so little sleep.

I can’t sleep before 1.30-2 am, post hockey, and the get-a-kid-to-school hack can start at 6.30 am. I was a fucking zombie yesterday. Perhaps I just need to be a hockey player and harden up?

Comments

  1. Accordion says:

    Nicko – time to accept you need an individual lessons. Bite the mouthguard and cough up the fee for a 1:1 30 minute session (approx $40). Worth every cent! One lesson was the tipping point (poor adjective) for me to skate backwards. A figure skating coach is a good idea because their technique rocks. What you need is 1:1 time on a near empty rink. Would recommend a morning session abound 8.30 or 9.00am.

    Cheers!

  2. Yeah, that’s a good call. I spent all summer meaning to line that up but didn’t. I’ll get back on it. Cheers.

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