Hockey Sense Can Be Taught



Most will agree that the best hockey players in the history of the game were special because of the way they thought the game two steps ahead of everyone else.  They had incredible “hockey sense” and this set them apart from the rest of the pack.  We can all agree that this is a very important part of hockey, so why don’t we spend more time trying to hone this skill?

Ever since I was young, I’ve always heard the saying: “You can’t teach hockey sense.” I never questioned this because it was coming from coaches, scouts and GMs—hockey authority people.  Why challenge it?  It has to be true.  Right?

I believe it is true that there are certain players who have an insanely high level of mental acuity when it comes to the game of hockey.  When you think of the term hockey sense, Wayne Gretzky immediately jumps to mind.  He was an innovator and a player who used his strong mental talents to elevate his game to an ungodly level.  And just like exceptional talents in any field—sports, arts, science or business—it begins with confidence and fearlessness.

For me, saying that you either have it, or you don’t is a myth.  I believe hockey sense can be taught, and I believe that the perception that we can’t is built upon laziness and fear of the unknown.  The first step to opening the mind is to break down barriers, toss out myths and unleash creativity.  In order to do this, a culture built on positivity and self-confidence needs to be created.  In other words, make it fun.  Once kids feel comfortable, they will drop their guards and this is when true development can occur.  This removes the fear out of the game and unleashes a hockey player’s greatest weapon:  confidence.

When a hockey player is confident and devoid of fear, he or she is a force to be reckoned with.  Have you ever experienced the feeling a player has after scoring a goal?  In the shifts following a goal, you feel quicker, stronger and re-energized.  The game slows down and you feel like you can accomplish anything.  Now, imagine you always felt like that.  That’s the power of confidence.  Great players thrive on this—always have.

Nowadays, minor hockey teams rely heavily on system play due to the grossly misguided pressure to win.  There are even a large number of people who believe that hockey systems teach kids how to think the game at a higher level, when in all actuality this is stripping the kids of the creativity that is the foundation of the game.

As a major peewee playing AAA hockey, I had a coach who spent 90% of our practices teaching us “The Trap Forecheck”, “The Left-Wing Lock”, and power play breakouts that would make your head spin.  I remember the anxiety I felt every time I stepped onto the ice.  I had a million things going through my 12-year-old brain and not one of them had to do with reading and reacting.  Most of the time, I would just get the puck and shoot it off the boards and out.  I was terrified to make any mistakes.

As a coach at the junior A level, one of the biggest problems I saw with young players was a severely low level of mental acuity, which was ironic because every OHL and NCAA scout was looking for players with hockey sense.  Players were so reliant on systems that they didn’t have the ability to read and react.  Their minor hockey organizations had trained them to be so focused on “Option 1”, “Option 2”, and “Option 3”.  They didn’t have a feel for the game.  Hockey is a game that is filled with breakdowns and turnovers.  There is no right or wrong, because sometimes the right decision ends up being the wrong one.

So how can a coach teach hockey sense?  Step 1 is to create a positive environment and encourage creativity.  Encourage your players to play without fear of reprimand and try new things.  Step 2 is to design practices to include drills that require more reading and reacting requirements and freelancing, rather than structured paths and directions.  For example, if you’re designing a breakout drill with forecheckers applying pressure, provide basic positional structure without direct paths or instructions.  This allows the players to learn how to read and react to pressure.  Even though they may struggle initially, the positive culture you have created will help them work through adversity and develop the mental skills required to overcome.

The number one rule above all else when building hockey sense in young players is: “Be Patient”.  It takes years and years of practice to hone any skill, especially mentally-oriented skills.  If you start with a positive culture that celebrates creativity and structure your teachings around reading and reacting, this will empower your players and provide them with a huge leg up when they reach higher levels in the game where system play becomes more important.

Remember, it’s much easier to teach systems to a player with hockey sense than it is to teach hockey sense to a player who only knows how to follow a system.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

About Jamie McKinven

Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

View all posts by Jamie McKinven →

3 Comments on “Hockey Sense Can Be Taught”

  1. Another great post Jamie.

    As the coach of a Midget A girls team I am torn between teaching “systems” to provide a framework within which the “team” can win and as you suggest, simply building their individual confidence levels, focusing more on the development of their personal, technical skills (skating, passing, shooting) while enabling/encouraging them to use their creativity. I like to think I provide a mix of both with a big emphasis on the fun factor (particularly at the Midget A level). This is, of course, easier to do if they get a few victories along the way. One of my end goals is making sure my players want to continue playing the game next year and beyond their minor hockey careers; perhaps even coming back to coach themselves so the game continues to grow. Keeping the game fun is the best way I know to do that.

    Thanks for your insight and affirmation of my approach.


  2. The Hockey Black Hole

    Thanks for your advise. I have a 6 year old who plays houseleague, and also AP’s for the select team. I have already come to see politics in the game, even at this age. I have also noticed that way too much time is spent on drills that aren’t fun for a 6 year old, and in the select games, the coach has already made it clear that the top playing kid’s will get the majority of the ice time, which they have. Some of the less skilled kid’s are getting only 4-5 shifts in the games.

    I was initially pushing my son a bit too hard because I thought I knew what was best for his development. I have had a reality check, and have had to take a step back. We can sometimes have tunnel vision and get sucked into the black hole of hockey.

    When I was ragging on him for not performing well in practice I began to notice that he started getting quiet, he even mentioned to me that he really didn’t feel like going to the practice. This was unheard of him to, not want to get on the ice, and I started realizing that he was not having as much fun as before.

    Before he began the AP program with the select team, I would take him to stick and puck, and we would play together, and his smile was ear to ear the entire time. Now he has 3 practices a week, and a game, so we haven’t really had time to go to stick and puck together any more. I’m thinking it might be more fun and more beneficial to him and me, to skip the odd practice and go play stick and puck together like we used to.

    I’m also a first year head coach of his houseleague team, and really enjoy having fun with the kid’s. I think some parent’s start with the right intentions, but really get caught up in trying to keep up with the skill level of the other kids. It start’s becoming very competitive between the parent’s, and the kids end up unintentionally becoming 2nd priority.

    I have learned a lot in a short amount of time, most of all, not to get caught up in the hockey black hole. Articles like these one’s have really helped remind me of what is important, and that’s the happiness of our children, and watching them playing the game that we all love so much deep down in our hearts. So remember when you feel it slipping away, think of the big picture, and take a step back to your childhood, and remember what it was like to really enjoy something with all your heart.

    Keep the fire in your heart burning


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