When I played at the University of Toronto, we played a tournament in Vancouver one Christmas break. We were in a pool of three teams: UofT, Manitoba and Yale. Each team managed to finish 1-1 but after tie breaking formulas were applied, we finished third and had to play the 5th place game against Seibu of Japan - a Japanese professional team made up entirely of Japanese nationals. It was a cold 9:00am game. I believe some of our players may have gone out the night before. I have a feeling some of the Japanese players may have been out too. Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for playing for 5th place early in the morning.
The game remained close for the first period. We marveled at the Seibu players who weren’t seeing much ice wearing big football bench jackets with hoods to stay warm. Both teams were going through the motions. Us fourth line players were enjoying a little more ice time than usual and trying to take full advantage of it.
Sometime after the second period started, we had a little bit of a revelation. Whenever we were forechecking in neutral ice, the Seibu defencemen were ALWAYS looking where they were going to pass. We were so used to never being fooled on a forecheck by being “looked off”. We always expected defencemen at the university level to not telegraph passes and intent, and we would try to read body language and player position to be most effective when pressuring the puck. Once we “caught on” the score quickly ballooned to a 14-0 victory for us.
What struck me then (1986! Yikes!) was how instinctual it had become for us as players (who had all played junior hockey and now played at the university level). We never thought twice about “looking off” defenders - we did it all the time, almost every time we touched the puck. We rarely looked where we were passing. We rarely looked down at the puck when we carried it, which allowed us to be deceptive with our eyes - thus the term “looking off”.
Conversely, a number of years ago I was working as a camp coach with Canada’s top female university players. I remember one defencemen skating down the middle of the ice on a 3v2 rush when she made a no look pass to a winger skating down the boards - freezing the defenceman momentarily who was looking to check her. It was a moment of realization for me that most of these top female university players, for the most part, didn’t have that instinct to be deceptive in their play. It was something they simply were rarely in the habit of doing.
So this begs the question, how many coaches actually teach deception? It’s such a crucial part of offensive play but one that is something that we, as coaches, seem to just leave up to our players to develop on their own. And remember, our players aren’t on the outdoor rink all afternoon learning these things on their own. Nor are they playing ball hockey from sun up to sun down on the street experimenting with these things.
So, what can coaches do to promote deception in their players? Here are four simple steps to improving overall team deception:
1) Work with players to keep their heads up when the have possession of the puck and when they shoot. The more coaches insist on head’s up puck handling the better. This will undoubtedly help with…
2) Getting your players to “look off” opponents. Explain to your players how an eye fake can be just as effective as a fake pass or shot.
At the core of being deceptive is trying to make your opponent think you are doing one thing but then do another (typically in a different direction). Coaches should teach, talk about, and practice the art of deception. There is lots of material online to learn more. Searching “hockey deception” on YouTube brings up some great instructional videos that coaches can translate to their practices. Here are some links that I thought were noteworthy. I have mentioned Wally Kozak’s channel before. He has lots of great, quick hits that are easily translated to your practices.