There is a trend in hockey that has been bothering me for some time now. I began noticing it when I first got into coaching, talking hockey with other coaches and parents. The first time it really stuck out for me was when I was scouting at a prospects tournament for a junior team I was working for and I watched a coach reprimand a 16-year-old AAA player for making a play on his backhand instead of pulling it over to his forehand to make a “stronger”play. Since that time, I began to notice players getting blasted for making plays on their backhand from junior hockey all the way down to novice.
After seeing this a few times, I asked one of the coaches why he was so adamantly against players using their backhand and he said, “We want all of our players making strong plays on their forehand. 70% of the time, when players try to make plays on their backhand, they end up flubbing it, resulting in a turnover.” I asked him if he works on backhand plays in practice and he said, “No. We don’t want our players practicing bad habits.”
A few months later, I was on the ice running a clinic for 14-year-old AAA players with a group of skill development instructors who had experience working with players ranging from AAA minor hockey to the NHL. One of the instructors was running a drill where players were contorting their body, turning away from where their momentum was taking them in order to present a forehand target. It was such an unnatural, flow-breaking movement and I asked the instructor, “Why don’t you want them presenting a backhand target here? Doesn’t it make more sense for them to pick up this pass on their backhand?” He replied, “Most of these players can’t handle passes on their backhand.”
The more I see this, the more it really gets under my skin. The reason it bothers me so much is because it really doesn’t have anything to do with the players. The main reason minor hockey coaches don’t want players making plays on their backhand is because they feel that it threatens their ability to win now. By the time players reach the junior levels, they have no abilities to do anything on their backhand and in the moments when they have no choice but to use their backhand,it usually produces a disastrous result. You then have a situation where coaches at the junior levels are banning the backhand, as well.
Most players can pick out a specific game or two that they can definitively say, “That was the best game I ever played.” I can actually pick out a specific practice and say, “That was the best practice I’ve ever been a part of,” and I’ll never forget it. This magical practice happened at a time in my career when my skates were almost all the way hung up. I was 26 years-old playing on the last place Amarillo Gorillas of the Central Hockey League. It was right around Christmas time and I think we had a team party the night before, so the give-a-shit meter was about as low as it can get. Our captain that season was Sam Ftorek and his dad, Robbie Ftorek was in town to visit Sammy and his family during the holidays.
For those of you who don’t know who Robbie Ftorek is, he had 750 points in 707 games combined between the NHL and WHA. After having success at the game’s highest level as a player, Robbie went on to a 30+ year coaching career where he won a Calder Cup, led the New Jersey Devils to a 47 win season and coached Wayne Gretzky during his first season in LA after “The Trade”. Robbie was a legend and had forgotten more about the game of hockey than any of us would ever know. He had a thick Boston accent and never uttered a sentence that didn’t contain at least two colourful 4-letter words.
For the first 10 minutes of practice, as we bumbled our way through generic flow drills, Robbie just watched quietly. Finally, he called everyone in to the center ice circle and calmly put us on blast, picking apart everything from the basic footwork of our D to the way our goalies played dead angles. For the next 40 minutes, Robbie put on a skills clinic that had a bunch of washed up minor leaguers in awe.
There were several things that I took away from that practice that I’ll never forget, but one of the biggest things I took away was when Robbie went on a Clark Griswold rant when a player had an opportunity to make a play on his backhand and instead pulled it over to his forehand. Robbie was incensed. He couldn’t understand why you would take an extra second to move the puck over to your forehand when you could easily make a pass with your backhand. The player tried to rationalize his decision, “Well, I can make a firmer play on my forehand there, so why wouldn’t I do that?” Robbie’s reply to that was, “Because at the next level, you don’t have time to make that transition.” He was right. At every level, as you climb higher, the amount of time you have to make plays gets smaller and smaller.
His other argument about making plays on your backhand is that you’re much harder to check and cover if you can make plays from both sides. If you know a player will only make plays on their forehand or has a weak backhand, then they become much easier to defend against. You basically become half a hockey player if you only use your forehand.
Not being able to make plays on your backhand really begins to limit players the higher they climb in their careers. I run an annual defence camp in the summers and I always preach the importance of developing the “less popular skills”. Without fail, I’m always met with resistance from the players, who say, “But Jamie, my coach doesn’t want me using my backhand.” My favorite thing to do is show them a video I pulled from YouTube that shows a day in the life of Nicklas Lidstrom. The main reason I show the video is to stress to kids the importance of game day routines and preparation,but I also love showing the video because, of the 8 passes that Lidstrom is shown making during the video, 5 of them are on his backhand. We’re talking about one of the best to ever play the position, and he’s decoying forecheckers and flipping pucks off his backhand. Gretzky and Crosby are two of the greatest players of all-time and were able to make ungodly plays on their backhands.
My message, by writing this post, is not directly geared towards players, but rather coaches, especially minor hockey coaches. Please, please, please teach, support and most importantly, encourage players to make plays on their backhand. Put aside the “I have to do whatever it takes to win this game today” mentality and look at the big picture. Prioritize development with these young players and the results will come. We need to stop developing half of a hockey player with these kids. We need to develop the full tool box with all players and lay the groundwork, and it starts at the grassroots.