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Pervasive Myths in Adult Beginner Hockey

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I consider myself to be ever so fortunate to play in on three different beginner-level adult recreational teams.  Two of these are women’s teams, and the other is a co-ed team.  While in the overall scheme of hockey skill, I would definitely fall closer to a beginner than an expert, I play in beginner leagues because I am usually the goalie, and I am a beginner goalie. Although I am far from a skilled player, I do have a lot of experience in and around the game.  Because of this, I become a de facto coach/manager for each of these beginner teams.  Often I am the only one on the team who understands icing or where players should be positioned on faceoffs.  While working with beginners, I have also heard so many odd comments about hockey that really don’t make any sense to me.  I am not sure where these “myths” originate, but they are pervasive in beginner adult rec hockey. 

Below are some of the remarks I hear the most, reeled off as absolute truths but leave me scratching my head wondering, “Who the heck told you that???”  And, when I try to propose an alternate viewpoint to some of these beliefs, I am again surprised at how many other players in the room or on the bench believe the same and never even thought about considering a different perspective.

“You have to be able to skate backwards to play defense.”

The most common phrase I hear uttered is related to who can and can’t play defense, usually based on their overall skill levels, but generally in relation to their backwards skating.  

Probable source of myth—watching NHL players (always a good measure of comparison for beginning adult players)

Analogy—If your car loses its reverse gear, you won’t be able to get to work.

Truth—If you can’t skate backwards as fast as your opponents can skate forwards, your ability to skate backwards is somewhat irrelevant in defense.

I once knew a fairly decent tennis player who played at a fairly high level who won a fair amount of matches without a backhand stroke.  This doesn’t seem to make sense at first, but this girl was literally fast enough to run around her backhand and return serves and volleys with her rocket of a forehand.  And, in cases where running around the backhand wasn’t possible, she’d do her best with her very weak backhand and was often able to keep the point going until she could get the shot on her favored forehand.  

This doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t have worked on her backhand.  And this also is the reason why she probably didn’t go further in her tennis career than she would have with a reasonable backhand.  It just shows that there are always ways to adjust your strengths to make up for your weaknesses.  Can you get to work if your car doesn’t have a reverse gear?  Sure you can.  You just will have to watch where you park and plan ahead a bit more.  Should you get your car fixed?  Of course.  Can you play defense without being able to skate backwards very well (if at all)?  Sure you can.  Should you work on learning to skate backwards in the mean time?  Of course.  Especially at the beginner level, players can be far more effective in defense if they just turn and skate forwards with their opponent, cutting of angles, forcing the opponent to the outside, and inhibiting that opponent from making or receiving passes or from shooting than that defender would be trying to skate backwards and not being able to keep up with the attacker.

I am not saying that backwards skating isn’t an important or even crucial skill in hockey. BUT, a player needs to eventually be able to skate backwards no matter what position she is playing.  While a player is working on improving her backwards skating skills, she can still play defense and learn the positioning and strategies.  And, chances are good that if she actually plays defense, her defensive backwards skating skills will start to develop without a conscious effort as a necessity of game situations.


“A neckguard protects you from puck injuries.”

Probable source of myth—A cautionary tale told by league officials to help convince players to comply with league policy.

Analogy—A sweatshirt will protect you from injury if someone throws stones at you.

Truth—A neckguard does not protect you from being injured by a puck.  It is designed to protect your neck from cuts from skate blades.

On many occasions, I have been regaled by tales of how a neck guard saved beginner players from the wrath of a puck on an elevated wrist shot.  I still am unable to fathom how this could even be possible.  A hockey puck is solid vulcanized rubber, weighs more than a baseball, and is as unforgiving against a human body as concrete would be.  A skater’s neck guard is made completely of flexible fabric and is, at most, a centimeter thick, filled with soft and collapsible padding.  It literally would provide as much protection to your neck from a puck as a sweatshirt would protect your arms from thrown stones.  

The outside layer of fabric on a hockey skater’s neck guard is made of either Kevlar, ballistic nylon, or some other sort of cut-resistant fabric.  The purpose of this equipment is to protect your neck (especially your jugular vein) if your head or upper body should come into close proximity to a skate and the skate blade slices across your neck.  The intention of the device is to prevent a complete slice of important veins and arteries in the neck.

There is much debate on 1) the extent to which neck guards can fully protect against skate lacerations, and 2) the need to wear neck guards at all.  Regardless, if your league requires you to wear a neck guard as a skater, please do so. But don’t expect it to stop pain if you are hit on the neck with an errant stick or elevated puck.


“You don’t need to wear a mouthguard if you have a full cage or face shield.”

Probable source of myth—Players who like to flash their pearly whites through their cages.

Analogy—You don’t need to wear your seat belt if your car has airbags.

Truth—You don’t need to wear a mouthguard at all.  This is your choice.  However, a mouthguard does more than help prevent direct-contact dental injuries.

I am not a dentist nor do I work in the dental hygiene industry.  However, I have been an advocate of players wearing mouthguards ever since my very first time on the ice playing a game.  I fell over backwards and smacked my head on the ice.  The force of the back of my helmeted head hitting the ice was such that my jaw snapped shut sending shooting pain through my back molars up into the sides of my face.  The pain caused by this incident had nothing to do with a puck, stick, fist, or errant referee whistle hitting my face.  It was purely a fall where the impact of my head on the ice forced my teeth together.  I was not wearing a mouthguard.  The pain lasted a couple of days and was soon accompanied by a headache.

Before I played again the following week, I went to my dentist and had a custom mouthguard made for around $50.  I found that the store-bought, self-fitted varieties were very bulky and uncomfortable.  While I probably wouldn’t win a contest reciting tongue twisters with my new mouthguard, it was comfortable and stayed in place.  This mouthguard has lasted me six years so far, and I won’t play without it. As much as I am less clumsy of a skater than I was years ago, falling is inevitable in hockey.  I don’t ever want to have the dental and facial pain again that I experienced when my head thunked on the ice that first game.

Concussions resulting from sports such as hockey are a very hot topic right now.  Part of the problem with diagnosing, treating, and preventing concussions is that every blow to the head is different:  sustained from a different angle and at a different speed, affecting different parts of the brain.  There is not a lot of hard, incontrovertible data regarding what can actually minimize the effects of a hit to the head.  Several experts have stated that wearing a mouthguard can help minimize the severity of a hit to the head and probable subsequent concussion by reducing the impact energy that can be transferred between a player’s upper and lower jaw.  However, like with anything else concussion-related, this is difficult to prove.  Obviously a test case with a control group and an experimental group is not really possible.  Even evaluating the effectiveness of mouthguards from actual sustained head injuries is difficult because, as stated above, every concussion is different.

What you won’t find is any unequivocal documentation stating that mouthguards do not help alleviate concussion symptoms, nor will anyone tell you that wearing one will make a concussion worse.  Several Team Canada Women’s National Team members always wear mouthguards despite the full facial protection of a shield or cage.  

Some people say that wearing a mouthguard makes them gag, or makes it hard for them to talk, or is uncomfortable.  To those people I would say, go talk to your dentist or dental hygienist and ask them to either make you a slim fitting mouthguard or modify the mouthguard you have so that it is more comfortable.

The worst excuse I have heard for not wearing a mouthguard was when I once overheard a fellow women’s rec player proclaim, “I don’t need to wear a mouthguard.  I have dental insurance.”  I don’t even know where to begin trying to counter that argument!


“Beginners should learn to play with a wood stick to develop a feel for the puck.”

Probable source of myth—Old-timey players who have a soft spot in their hearts for the wood sticks that they grew up using.

Analogy—You should learn to type on a typewriter so that you have a better feel for the keys before learning to type on a computer keyboard.

Truth—You should learn to play with whatever type of stick you plan on using as you continue playing hockey, which will most likely be a composite stick.

When I first started playing hockey 8 years ago, I had a wooden stick.  The reason I had a wooden stick was because that was what I was given by my brother-in-law.  It was great—I didn’t have to go out and buy a stick.  (The stick he gave me was also a left stick, which I used for a year before realizing that I should be a right stick, but that’s a different story for a different blog.)  I wasn’t playing long before I started to be envious of everyone else’s shiny and colorful composite sticks.  I asked my friends, all of whom were older and more experienced players than me, if they thought I should pick up a composite stick.  They all were in agreement—no, I should stay with a wood stick to learn a feel for the puck.

I continued playing with wood sticks and I found that after a year, I still wasn’t able to raise the puck.  Eventually, while on a retail therapy spurt, I splurged on junior composite stick.  I am sure I probably shouldn’t have been buying a junior stick either, but hey, it was on sale, it looked pretty, and it was just the right height for my short stature without me having to cut it down.

The next game, I was able to raise the puck. Why?  Well, it turns out that it is actually easier to control and make use of the flex in a composite stick.  Wood sticks are a bit harder to flex, and have inconsistent points of flex in the shaft.  The flex is what makes the stick bend when you are taking a shot, and when the flex releases, it adds power, and if done correctly, lift, to the shot.

From that point forward my shooting improved exponentially, and I started to resent all the time I had wasted playing with a wooden stick.  Yes, the feel for the puck is different with a composite stick than it is with a wooden stick, but you can still get a feel for the puck with either.  

When beginners ask me if they should start using a wooden stick, I tell them that they should start using whatever stick they think they will want to use as they progress in hockey, and I remind them that wooden sticks, though cheaper, are getting harder and harder to find as composite sticks have pretty much taken over the market.  If you learn to play with a composite stick, you’ll improve as you go with a composite stick.  

“Right shooting skaters should play right defense or on the right wing while left shots should play left defense or on the left wing.”

Probable source of myth—Passed down through generations as no one ever questioned the validity of this oft-cited convention.

Analogy—If you are right handed, you should sleep on the right side of the bed so you can more easily reach your alarm clock on your beside table.  And if you are left handed, you should sleep on the left side of your bed for the same reason.

Truth—You can play on either wing or either side of defense regardless of whether you are a right or left shot!  

The conversation I hear before almost every game between a pair of wingers goes something like this:

Winger 1 to Winger 2:  Do you want to play right or left wing?

Winger 2: Uh, well, ah, I don’t know.

Winger 1: Are you a right or left shot?

Winger 2: Right

Winger 1: Then you should play right wing!!!

The same conversation can be heard between defensive pairs.

I suspect the source of this treasured belief is that a right-stick player can more easily keep the puck in her offensive end because her stick will be a forehand against the boards.  This argument lends itself to the unfortunate but common focus on the offensive game over the defensive game.  Because, the truth is, when a player is in her own end of the ice, she will be facing the other direction and her stick will not be a forehand against the boards.  And, in theory, a player will play approximately half of any game facing her own net in defensive positioning.  

There is also a theory that when wingers shoot from the outside of their bodies, the goalie has more trouble following the puck as it is more obscured than a shot coming from towards the center of the ice.  Here again we run into a collision between high-level and beginner hockey.  In the beginner level, few players have such incredible shots that the side from which the shot is taken matters.  As well, in the beginner level, few goalies are going to have any more or less trouble with a shot depending on whether it comes from the inside or outside of the shooter’s lane.

If this argument that a winger or defensive player’s shot side should always correlate with his or her side on the ice were true, then wouldn’t professional teams want to only sign right-sticks to play right defense, and vice versa?  By my last count (and yes, I did actually count), over 65% of skaters in the NHL are left shots.  So does this mean that the league is imbalanced with left wingers and left defense?  No!  It means that some left shots are playing on the right side!  It IS possible!

Beginner players should play all positions to get a better perspective on the game and to improve overall.  They should try playing right and left positions and see which they prefer.  I also have a lot of trouble understanding players who insist on playing only left or right side.  I don’t know why they would want to place such a strict limitation on their versatility.  From my own experience as a right shot, I’ve found that the vast majority of the goals I score are scored from the left side of the ice.  I only discovered this by playing both right and left.  

Long story made short—if you’re more comfortable sleeping on the right side of your bed, sleep on the right side of your bed.  

_______

Remember that when you first start playing hockey, you will be given an unfathomable amount of wisdom from those around you who have been playing longer than you.  Some of that advice will come from people who’ve never actually played but feel authorized to give you advice because they have watched hockey for a long time.  It’s easy to take everything you are told as gospel hockey truth when you are uncertain and admittedly a novice.  Some of the things you are told are actually based on others’ preferences—other topics we didn’t even get into here such as appropriate stick length, skate sharpening hollow measurements, and even some preferences on positioning on the ice are just that—individual preferences.  Don’t be afraid to try out suggestions you are given, and, just as importantly, don’t be afraid to disregard those suggestions if they don’t work for you.  And some of the things you will hear are myths, as discussed here.  Use that brain that you protect so diligently with your helmet to logically discern fact from myth.

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