Saturday, 13 September 2014

Stickin’ with it

I’ve never been compared to Pavel Datsyuk, the Russian hockey star whose puckhandling wizardry has been in heavy rotation in NHL highlight packages since he became a regular with the Detroit Red Wings in 2001. But at one time I was skilled enough that, when I had a puck on my stick, I felt I was in complete possession of it and could control what happened next.

That feeling has been relegated to the archives of my memory for years now, replaced by the knowledge that I would be soundly trounced if I was ever in a stickhandling contest against a cow equipped with a snow shovel.

In an effort to improve the sorry state of this fundamental hockey skill, I started stickhandling a plastic orange hockey ball in my garage for about 10 minutes every day starting back in early June. The ball felt completely foreign on my stick at first but gradually began to feel more at home.

In August when I finally acquired my shooting pads, I commandeered the larger one for stickhanding practice and experimented with various practice pucks and balls that I’d also acquired. I consulted YouTube for stickhandling drills and adopted a fairly regimented approach to the whole endeavour.

The puck I prefer is a vulcanized rubber one that’s the same size and shape as an official puck except it’s two ounces lighter and it’s blue. On the shooting pad it feels similar to a regular puck on ice although it does jump up on edge a fair bit. Another one I like is a very light floor hockey puck I bought for $2. I like to use this one either on the pad or on the bare concrete floor. It flips around quite a bit as well but otherwise feels similar to a puck on ice.

Various stickhandling objects are available. The Dryland
Puck (bottom left) costs $12 and is purported to be viable
on a sliding surface or floor. In my opinion, it performs
poorly in both settings. The Green Biscuit, which sells for
about $13, slides okay on a slippery surface but feels heavier
and clunkier than a puck on ice. The blue puck ($2) is like a
regular puck except it's two ounces lighter. It works fairly
well on a shooting pad. The Swedish Ball ($4, second row, left)
is a very lightweight wooden ball that really flies around a
shooting pad. It's good for working on quick hands. The
Extreme Stickhandling Ball ($9, second row, right) is heavy
and hard. Surprisingly, on a shooting pad it has a feel similar 

to a puck on ice. The basic orange floor hockey puck ($2), 
slides nicely on a floor or shooting pad.
I also have two balls that I like. Let me rephrase that: I also have a couple of balls that are fun to stickhandle. OK, what I mean is: I’ve got two little balls that are specifically made for hockey stickhandling practice and I like each of them for the specific properties they possess. One of these is somewhat heavy and made of rubber; the other one is light and made of wood. The rubber one, called the Extreme Stickhandling Ball, feels similar to a puck when handled on a slippery shooting pad. The wooden one is called the Swedish Ball and is billed as the speed bag of stickhandling because it moves very quickly, which is good for developing quick hands.

 With my stickhandling, my main objective has been to solidify the basics like moving the puck from side to side and front to back, nothing too fancy, just some fundamental skills that will allow me to skate with the puck without feeling like it’s a grenade with the pin pulled.

Despite my committment to keeping it simple, curiosity got the better of me one day and I found myself on YouTube studying a step-by-step breakdown of the toe drag, a high-level hockey maneouvre that involves pulling the puck toward you with the toe of the stick then quickly dragging it sideways past your own feet as you burst past a helpless defender. When executed well, this maneouvre seems to defy the laws of physics, leaving defenders swiping at air as the puck teleports from one side of them to the other and the puck carrier swoops past to mount an assault on their goalie. As a defender, I’ve been victimized by this move more times than I’d care to relate.

Even though I’m technically incapable of performing this trick, I’ve sometimes succumbed to temptation and attempted it anyway, always with the same result: the defender easily divesting me of the puck along with fragments of my dignity.

Actually, once and only once I did successfully employ the stunt, but I was so surprised to arrive on the other side of the defender with the puck that I lurched into a speed wobble that grew wilder as I careened  toward the goal. In the end, the puck and a glorious scoring chance simply slipped away like an eel.

At any rate, I’ve been working on this toe drag thing within the controlled conditions within my garage, having concluded that, if having some basic skills is good, having some more advanced skills is better. I’m not convinced I’ll ever master this move or be a player described as having “good hands,” but if I spot a cow carrying a snow shovel I’ll gladly throw down a puck and take her on.

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