(Originally published at Kukla’s Korner, March 1, 2013)
Many years ago, I trained a horse that was so smart it was difficult to train him. He learned everything instantly. Half the time, I didn’t realize what I was teaching him. (“Seriously? Is he really shaking his head every time I scratch my nose? Does it matter if I use my left hand or my right?”) People are just like that horse. We might think we’re practicing one thing, but we’re also practicing everything we do before and after that thing. This is the basis for all those superstitions hockey players talk about.
I had a friend who lived in Palo Alto. I went to this friend’s house about twelve times, once or twice a year for holiday parties. The first couple of times I went, I tried to memorize the directions but didn’t get it quite right. By the seventh or eighth visit, I couldn’t find her house without taking all the same wrong turns and back tracking. It had become part of the way to her house. How did I solve the problem? She moved.
Practice what you preach. I don’t mean it the way Ratto meant “just win the game!” I mean it quite literally. Need to shoot more? Practice that. Want defensemen to shoot quickly, at game speed? Practice that. Need to execute better? Practice that. Now practice it all together and don’t stop until you get it right.
Two lines stood out in the last two games, one line in each, by performing above expectations. Sheppard, Burish and Galiardi were surprisingly effective in the game against Colorado, especially since they weren’t even a line before the game. Kennedy, Handzus and Clowe stood out in last night’s game against Detroit, by getting crazy close chances through hard work and relentless digging. Both lines had this in common: they were playing their first game as a line.
I have to wonder if this newness isn’t exactly why they worked. Being in a new situation challenged their instincts, made them sharper, made them fall back on instincts from before they played together, maybe before they played with the Sharks. The problem with this formula is that it wears off quickly, and it doesn’t always work even once. I don’t include the Marleau-Gomez-Couture line in the list because their first game together was a dud, though the subsequent two were pretty good. They got better because they are all skilled players who do improve with practice.
The Sharks should take a cue from the successes and failures of the above lines. The team might have some bad habits that need correcting. Better than tossing guys together and hoping the shock makes them forget all their bad habits, the team should practice good habits until the bad ones are but a memory. I know, I know, these guys know the game, they know what they need to do, they shouldn’t need remedial hockey lessons. My teacherly hard-ass response to that is: until they start doing the things they say they need to do, they should review the basics until the boredom makes them cry.
Yesterday morning the Sharks spent quite a while working on passing drills. They were great drills, they seemed like just the thing to help cut down on giveaways: hard cross-ice passes, touch passes, passes between skaters through the neutral zone. They were all done very quickly and precisely. While the Sharks had a lot of troubles last night against the Red Wings, passing wasn’t at the top of my list.
The main issue I had with last night’s game, the issue everyone had with it, was a shooting shortage. On top of that, too many of the offensively skilled players would take the foot off the gas as soon as they gained the zone. They need to not do that. Maybe they should practice going to the net full speed. Afraid of more goalie interference calls? Worried about penalties for spraying snow on the goalie? Tough. The Sharks have bigger fish to chew.
Another trick I learned while training horses was “run through the wall.” I would bet most hockey players hear a similar phrase on the subject of hitting. I wouldn’t ask a horse to run through a fence, and in the vast majority of cases the horse wouldn’t. They might try to jump over it, but they will hardly ever just run smack into it. But if you are training a horse to run the full length of the arena before stopping, the horse must not be taught to anticipate stopping sooner. The rider needs cannot think about stopping before they feel like they are in danger of hitting the wall. If you think about stopping sooner, the horse picks that up and stops much too soon.
If the thought-action sequence can go that fast from person to horse, how fast does it go from player brain to player body? Thornton might feel like he’s at the circle as soon as he crosses the blue line. He needs to keep going right past the circle, right through the goalie if that’s what it takes to reset this bleeding “roll to a stop as soon as I can see the net cam.”
You don’t always practice what you want to do. You have to practice the opposite of doing it wrong until you are doing it right. Then maybe when you’re at game speed, with all the distractions of those players trying to stop you, maybe then your instincts will stop betraying you.
Practice what you preach. I don’t mean it they way Ratto meant “just win the game!” I mean it quite literally. Need to shoot more? Practice that. Want defensemen to shoot quickly, at game speed? Practice that. Need to execute better? Practice that. Now practice it all together. This is where it gets remedial and not fun: no more smiling.
Anyone who has watched a hockey team practice can tell what is being practiced because that thing is all they do. Engage in board battles until the whistle, back away, take a breather. Skate up the ice doing so many passes, get back in line. Carry the puck in and shoot, get back in line. Skate out when it’s your turn, take a pass and shoot, get back in line. Each thing is done by itself, followed by waiting in line. There are too many players to not stand in line, but maybe the Sharks need to stop doing these drills in isolation.
It wasn’t something I noticed until someone pointed it out during a practice: too many drills end without a shot taken. For a team in need of scoring, isn’t it a no-brainer that everything should end in a shot? If they have a puck at the end of the drill, they should shoot it like they mean it. No more passing it to the goalie, unless that’s the drill.
I’d expand that to say that no drill should end until it would end in a game, until a whistle or a goal light would stop the action. If the team practices breaking up the pieces of play, the odds are they will do the same thing in a game. It might only be a momentary hesitation between passing and skating, or between catching a pass and shooting, or between crossing the blue line and going to the net. Their brains need to stop getting back in line before the next drill. They need to stop stopping.
Then maybe the team will do what it keeps saying it needs to do.