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  • Rick Traugott

Hockey Coaches: Basketball's Got It Right!


As coaches we often get caught up in winning today’s game rather than truly looking at what is best for our team two months from now or, frankly, what is best for our players three years from now. And our provincial and state governing bodies pretty much leave it up to coaches to deliver curriculum to players at every age group.


Given this, I find it fascinating that minor basketball leagues have rules about defensive play. For instance, the Metro Basketball Association based in Halifax, Nova Scotia has a “No Zone” rule for players up to U14 (and this isn’t uncommon). On a clarification page it states:

No Zone – Zone defenses limit defensive and offensive skill development at the younger ages. Coaches should focus their time on teaching basic fundamental skills at practices versus “strategies” such as applying and breaking zone presses. “Help” defense concepts should be taught and applied along with individual man-to-man defense. The No Zone modification encourages movement, allows for creativity with the ball, passing, cutting and penetration, and more time can be spent in practice on the mastery of basic fundamental principles of play for both offence and defense.

It goes on in another section:

Spirit of the modifications

It is expected that everyone involved will understand the reasoning behind the modifications. Players at these levels are still at the “Learn to Train” stage and phase 1 of the “Train to Train” stage within the LTAD (Long Term Athlete Development) model. The focus is on learning and training to become a multi-skilled, multi-positional player. Using concepts such as zone defense and double teaming limits the training time that coaches can put into individual player development, since so much time must be spent in team practices developing the strategies and tactics involving these defenses. Also, zones and double teams often put players into defined positions which can limit the development of the multi-skilled and multi-positional player/athlete.

So how does this translate to the rink? First and foremost, there is no way you can have a rule like this in hockey. It just wouldn’t fit with the game. But the idea of developing skills by playing man on man, to my mind, is a crucial part of learning the game and not only developing better players, but improving overall team play. My guess would be that about 10% of teams play a man on man system in the defensive zone. So 90% of teams will play what most of us would consider a zone defensive system. Why? Because we think that zone is safer. Because we don’t have faith in our players to “figure out” how to play man on man without getting beat. Because no one else does it. Well, no one else does it because coaches are all worried about losing hockey games in September!

Here are the most important reasons you need to play man on man in the defensive zone:

  1. You develop one on one defensive skills in ALL of your players. Those macro skills being:

  • Playing a one on one out of the corner

  • Covering a player in front of the net

  • Covering the point

  1. You foster a “find a man” mentality all over the ice. Players will start playing the man rather than being puck focused. As players develop, they will learn to be able to play the man while at the same time know where the puck is.

There are two situations that I watch play out in almost every game I watch – whether it be Minor Atom or the NHL. And it drives me a little nuts – especially if it’s my team!

  1. A player in a defensive zone coverage situation who is “in the neighbourhood”, watching the puck and not really covering anyone. Because of this, the opposing player who is five feet away gets the puck and scores before the defensive player can react.

  2. A backchecker races back to help on a 3v2 rush, again only to be “in the neighbourhood”, watching the puck and not really covering anyone. Because of this, the offensive player who is five feet away on the rush gets the puck and scores before the backchecker can react.

If we can develop a “find a man” mentality, by playing man on man, then these situations just don’t occur.

With respect to “reading the rush”, here is a link to two drills from my book Essential Hockey Training that we diagrammed on napkins at a restaurant one day to help backcheckers and defenceman “find a man” on the rush.

Finally, in most seasons since the early 1990’s, I have asked my teams to run a VERY strict man on man system until just after Christmas time. This accomplishes the development of one on one skills in the zone, and fosters the “find a man” mentality all over the ice. Then, I go to a very simple zone defense for the remainder of the season. This creates the small redundancies and safety valves that coaches want but, players’ defensive skill levels should be so much better developed that the system is simply executed that much better.


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