It's only beer league hockey, right?
Although most of us won’t admit to it, we take beer league hockey pretty seriously.
Show me a player that doesn’t display emotion when they score an important goal or a goalie who wouldn’t trash talk the other team after making a huge save.
But just as we celebrate those highs, our team can go through some lows.
There’s nothing more frustrating than facing a long losing streak.
During these trying times, before laying blame on your teammates, you should reflect on your own game.
What is it that you can do to get your team out of this rut?
Sometimes the best option is to return back to the basics.
Whether you're just starting out at beer league hockey or already have clocked many miles - listen up - these tips are for you!
So, what exactly am I talking about? How can I help you improve your game and turn the tide quickly?
Whatever your individual caliber, you need to deliver to the best of your abilities - each and every game.
I am not suggesting that you improve your game through strength training, cardio or hiring a personal coach – but these will certainly help to get you to the next level.
In reality, most people aren’t going to focus on enhancing their beer league skills. They likely have other priorities in life.
But during your games, those exact thoughts run through your mind. You want to do better.
So, as a reminder, you’re here because you asked the question…
How can I play better beer league hockey?
And that’s what I’m going to address with you right now.
I’ve put together a list of elements that you can integrate on the spot.
In fact, these points will heavily mold your game into eliminating bad habits and polishing the good ones.
Basically, you need to minimize your in-game errors and focus on making smarter decisions overall.
Have you ever asked yourself what mistakes are you making on the ice?
I’ll give you an example. Did you ever miss an opportunity to clear the puck out of your zone, ensuing pressure mounted and within 30 seconds your opponents scored?
What about those smart decisions? Have you ever made that beauty cross-ice pass to a teammate who scored the tip-in go-ahead goal? Yeah, it feels good doesn’t it?
Well, I’m here to double up you up on the good memories and minimize the bad ones.
Think of it this way - my list is a how-to guide on fine-tuning your playing habits. There will be hiccups along the way, but with practice, you can pull through.
So, let’s get to the list…
1. Smart Passing
The word that best defines the team aspect of any sport is “passing”. In hockey, remember that the puck always travels faster than any player on the ice.
The goal is to pass the puck to an open man while making yourself available for the next pass.
Here's an obvious one - passes to your teammates need to be crisp and on the pallet of the stick. You want to deliver a pass that your teammates can easily accept.
If the other team's stick is the passing lane, make sure to add some air time to the puck. Master the basics of the saucer pass.
Make sure to practice cross ice saucer passes during warm-ups. Most of your passes will be of shorter distance anyway.
I don't ever expect you to be sending out the long bombs anytime soon, but here's something you can aspire to. Check out this play by Erik Karlsson.
Generally, try keeping the circus passes to a minimum - unless you’ve mastered the art.
This includes drop passes, no-look passes, between the legs and behind the back passes. When you don’t see an option, dump the puck out in the neutral or the offensive zone.
Head man pass
The head man pass is the most important to master. This is a situational pass whereby you want to spring the puck to an moving player on your team. Basically, you're looking for a teammate that’s ahead of the play or has greater momentum moving up ice.
Once you've head-manned the pass, join that player on the rush and make yourself an option for the return pass.
By the way, there’s nothing more frustrating than a player carrying the puck through the neutral zone while their line mates have already skated ahead of them.
Your teammates always end up flat footed at the blue line waiting for you to carry the puck in.
Rather, the headman pass allows for all forwards to cross the blue line with speed.
I can't stress this enough: Head man the damn puck... Every. F&*$ing. Time.
Pass the puck to your trailer
Another important passing sequence involves the trailer (or the 3rd man) in the offensive zone entry.
This scenario happens quite often during a game.
You cross the blueline on a 3-on-2 with your other forwards.
The player carrying the puck is challenged by one of the defensemen, opening up the trailing player.
The end goal is to get the puck to that trailer for a shot attempt. They will likely receive possession in the slot, which is considered a premium scoring area.
No centering passes in the defensive zone
Meanwhile, when you have the puck in your own zone, here's a play I don't recommend at all.
Never make centering passes to your teammates in the defensive zone. You risk a turnover in a premium area of the ice.
Instead, aim the pass towards the neutral zone or keep it safe along the boards.
Sometimes, the smart option is not to make the pass at all. Carry the puck out of your zone and then consider your passing options.
If the opposing defensemen intercept or steal the puck from you in the neutral zone, they'll still need to wait for their teammates to get back on side.
Leave all centering passes to the pros. They train together almost every day and know their linemate tendencies down pat.
Another way to gauge your impact in a game is to count your shots on net. It’s very simple, as Wayne Gretzky once said: "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."
Even if you don’t possess a great shot, take it when you have a good opportunity. This is the best tactic, especially when your entire team is struggling on offense.
If you don’t expect to score, try shooting the puck in a way that causes the goalie to give up a rebound (low on the pads or blocker side).
Don't mistake this advice for hogging the puck all game and trying to score at every opportunity. However, if you haven't shot once the whole game, you should ask yourself why.
3. Puck Possession
Not every player has the skill to stickhandle the puck through an entire team.
It takes more than soft hands to carry the puck with impunity – you also need speed, acceleration and agility.
These skills combined allow for some players to hold onto the puck longer than others - especially in beer league hockey.
I've always been a great stickhandler - but my weakness was my skating speed. I've learned to understand my own limits.
You need to understand your limits too. Don't hold onto the puck more than you have to.
At this point, your options should be to pass the puck, chip it to a safe area of the ice or if nothing else, protect the puck. Get your body in between you and the opposing stick checker.
Make them work to get the puck off of you.
Defensive Zone Possession
Handling the puck in your own zone depends on the situation.
If there's no pressure, you can carry the puck out yourself. But you should always be looking for a head man pass.
When there is mounting pressure on you, keep the puck away from the middle of the ice (between the circles). I never recommend holding on the puck for too long, unless you have a clear path out of the zone.
Otherwise, consider passing to an open man or get the puck out of your zone (away from danger) by chipping it off the glass or boards. Always use the boards when nothing is available, it's the safest area in the defensive zone.
If neither are possible, protect the puck as much as you can. Don't just give the puck up to your opponent - make them sweat for it!
Offensive Zone Possession
When the pucks are in the corner or against the boards, you want to win those 50/50 puck battles. Again, use your body to protect the puck as much as possible.
Not every possession will result in a scoring opportunity – simply winning those battles will tire out the opposing players.
Eventually, you will win those puck battles which will lead to scoring opportunities.
In addition, know your surroundings when you're in possession of the puck. If you’re the last man back – when no other player is between you and your goalie – pass the puck to an open teammate or dump the puck in deep.
Playing keep away as last man back is too risky.
Remember that low percentage plays (such as trying to stickhandle out of danger), without support, leads to disastrous results.
You need to put as much effort on defense than you do on offense! You knew that right?
Don't let the pundits tell you that backchecking should be an afterthought in beer league hockey. If you want to win, add a little elbow grease to those defensive habits.
Whether you’re playing on forward or defense, here are some key elements to remember.
Force your opponents to skate the puck to the outside, along the boards. Always cram up the center of the ice as much as possible.
The reason is that shots coming from the middle are considered premium scoring opportunities.
Defensemen are responsible for the puck carrier and the 2nd nearest forward.
The trailer is the responsibility of the centerman (or backchecking winger). They should protect the area between the zone face-off dots.
Lastly, the wingers need to skate back and cover their points. If the opposing defensemen is ahead of you on the backcheck, they become a threat as the potential 4th man-in.
Don't allow this to happen. It will result in a premium scoring chance for the opposition.
Your objective as an offensive forechecker is to join the rush and make yourself available for a pass or shot.
If the puck is dumped deep into the offensive zone, your main goal now is to recover that puck. As mentioned earlier, you want to win those 50/50 battles against the opposing defense.
By recovering the puck, your team will likely obtain a good scoring chance.
As a defenseman, an aggressive forecheck creates odd man rushes in your team’s favor. Forwards need to be aware of this and cover for their pinching defensemen if the opposition is about to recuperate the puck.
Overall, the defensemen should not make a habit of pinching often.
6. Shift Length
The ideal shift length for beer league forwards is 60-75 seconds max. You can aim for 60 seconds max if the caliber is far greater.
For defensemen, 1.5-2 minutes is pretty common since they tire less quickly.
Remember, most beer league teams rotate 2 sets of offensive and defensive lines. Not like the NHL which ice 4 forward and 3 defensive lines.
A good rule of thumb is to follow the up-down-up-down strategy.
That is, your forward lines should skate into the offensive and defensive zone a maximum of two times, then proceed to make a line change.
Don’t ever change all 3 forwards simultaneously unless the puck is dumped deep in the opposing zone.
BEER LEAGUE TIP: If you see your linemates changing while the opposition is on the forecheck, consider staying on the ice (1 of the 3 forwards) to prevent an odd man rush.
You’ll overextend your shift, you’ll be tired – but you’ll likely prevent a goal against on that very rush. I've witnessed too many goals against right off the poor line change.
In fact, I don’t recommend line changes on the backcheck whatsoever. But it's often the result of players overextending their shift and lack of desire to defend.
The worst possible case is when your opponents have fresh legs and your line is gassed.
There's nothing more sad to watch when all three of your forwards are making a line change and your opponents are on the rush. That’s being selfish to your goalie, defensemen and the line waiting on the bench.
Time to circle back to the up-down-up-down strategy. Make sure to stick to it.
7. Defensive Zone Coverage
Wingers must cover their points.
As a winger, it’s important to keep at least 5 feet between you and the opposing defenseman while in defensive zone coverage. I'm referring to when the player you're covering doesn't have the puck.
If they try to rush towards the net, always position yourself between them and your goalie. Don't let them sneak by you to the slot area
You always want to have position on them. Remember, always stay between the goalie and the man you're covering.
Otherwise, if the player you're covering has possession, challenge them for the puck.
Center must protect the slot area.
The center must cover the slot area between the two faceoff circles.
Leave the corners to your defense, unless a 2nd forward (on the opposing teams) comes in to help retrieve the puck. Provide support, but make sure to keep yourself between the opponent and your goalie.
Defense is responsible for the front of the net and the corners.
Left and right defenseman will mostly occupy the front of their net. If the puck goes to the left or right corner, the respective defenseman will cover their side of the ice. Their partner should always stay in front of the net.
8. Play to Your Strengths
Not every hockey player is built the same. Some are faster skaters, others are sharp shooters, good passers and so on.
What you need to understand, is your own skillset. If you’re a shooter, shoot the puck when you can. If you’re a passer, be the best playmaker you can be.
Don’t try to wear too many hats or impersonate someone you’re not.
It’s fine if you simply play with an edge where you fight for loose pucks and chirp the opponents. These contributions might only be small victories but can have an overall positive influence for your team.
Whether on the ice or the bench, you should constantly be talking to your line mates.
- Let them know when you're open for a pass.
- Have them to cover for you on the backcheck.
- Be their eyes and ears. Tell them they have space to skate with the puck.
Whatever it is, you want to look out for each other.
I can tell you one thing though - there is nothing worse than teammates arguing on the bench. Not only does it take you off your game but it provokes tension with everyone else on the team.
If you're upset over a play, the best approach is to use constructive criticism.
Recommend for your line mate keep an eye out for you next time and explain that you were open on the previous play. There’s no need to belittle their efforts.
10. Play on Your Stick Side
Wingers & Defensemen – this is for you!
This is something often overlooked in beer league hockey - it's the side players choose to play on.
Many forwards like to play on their off wing since it allows for a better shooting angle on zone entry. A better shooting angle means better scoring opportunities.
It even allows for the inside out stickhandling option against the opposing defense.
However, the reason to opt for playing on the correct wing side has to do with puck recovery.
That is, recovery along the boards both in offensive and defensive zones.
When you are on the opposite wing, pucks are not handled as easily. You’ll be recovering the puck on your backhand in both instances, decreasing your maneuverability.
I'll give a couple of examples here:
i) Your defense shoots the puck around the boards and the puck is coming towards your wing. If you play on the proper wing, you're recovering the puck on the forehand moving towards the neutral zone.
ii) Your defense passes the puck to you on the breakout. Again, if you play on the proper side, you'll gather the puck on your forward moving up ice.
It’s easier to stickhandle, pass and shoot starting on your forehand than on your backhand.
By the way, if your team has good puck control on the powerplay, this is the only time I'd recommend playing on your off wing. Especially, if you can tee off a one-timer from the slot.
Sometimes, you’ll play a team that is icing a really good player. Try to identify them early on.
Usually, when the hockey league is made up of many teams, they'll split you with others of similar calibre. However, it's possible that some players on each team stand out over the rest.
At times, these individuals are not regular roster players. The other team might be icing a ringer!
Rather than planning your scathing text message to the league organizer, the best approach is figuring out how to contain them.
Have one of your forwards shadow this player most of the game or simply cover them extensively in the defensive zone.
At the very least, you’ll impede their chances of scoring, or maybe get under their skin and draw a penalty.
Trust me, there is a considerable amount of pleasure in defending against these types of players.
If you end up taking on the task, you’ll earn the status of unsung hero amongst your teammates for successfully containing them.
Beer league hockey is extremely fun when your team is competitive every game and you can stockpile those wins.
When things aren't going so well, players lose trust in each other and the errors compound even further. It's a rabbit hole we've all experienced at all levels of hockey.
The easiest thing to do is to point the finger at your teammates.
Sometimes, the solution is to have the team demoted to a lower division - if the option is there.
The real solution is to suck it up and modify your individual game. If you follow the best practices listed above, you'll be better at defending and increase your chances of scoring.
Remember that good overall puck management will lead to more goals. Positioning and backchecking will lower decrease chances against.
Getting your team back on track starts with you!
What other tips can your average beer league player quickly add to their arsenal?