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Picking Up Hockey Tips from the Pros

The best way to pick up any sport, and to get better, is to listen to the professionals and learn what they do. Here's what two of the best have to say on the subjects of passing and face-offs.

Wayne Gretzky on passing

"There are two primary kinds of passes," the Great One explains. "One is solid and hard, and the other is known as the feather. If the player you are passing to is standing still, use the firm pass. And if he's going at a good rate of speed, use the feather, and make sure you get it out ahead of him so he can skate into it."

"I think it's important to practice the backhand pass as much as the forehand one," Gretzky continues. "And you want to do that as much as possible at a young age so you grow up feeling comfortable with it, especially if you want to be a centerman. Some youngsters ignore the backhand and don't feel relaxed with it as a result."

Number 99 was famous for skating behind the net with the puck in his offensive zone and looking for teammates to get open in front of the net. (He camped out there so often, in fact, that commentators referred to that part of the ice as Gretzky's office.) "When I got back there, I preferred to use a backhand pass to get the puck out front," he says. "I liked to use the net as a sort of screen, to buy time from the opposing defensemen who may have been trying to get me, and to buy some time back there. I tried to keep the puck away from them as long as possible so I would hopefully make a play."

One final tip: Use plenty of tape on the blade of your stick. "It gives you more control on your passes and shots, and it enables you to pass the puck flatter [meaning not lifting it] when you have a decent amount of tape on your blade," Wayne says. "I tried doing it like Bobby Orr, with only a couple of pieces on the blade, but I couldn't do it."

Mark Messier on face-offs

"A centerman should always watch the linesman's hands when the puck is about to be dropped [on any face-off]," says the perennial All-Star. "Forget about the other player, but keep your eyes on the linesman because he's the one who actually has the puck. In the defensive zone, the best thing to do is try and adjust to what your opponent is doing. Read him. Look at his eyes, where his stick is facing, how his body is turned, how he's holding the stick, and where he's telling his teammates to line up. All that should give you some idea of what he is going to do with the puck, whether he's going to shoot off the draw, pass the puck to one of his defensemen behind him, or over to one of his wingers. And then you should react accordingly.

"Probably the best thing you can do with the puck [in a face-off] in your defensive zone is bring it back behind you so one of your defensemen can pick it up and try to get it outside the zone. To do that, turn the hand you put on the lower part of the stick into a backwards position [palm over the top of the stick], which will give you more power as you bring the stick back when the puck is dropped.

"We work on set plays off the face-off all the time in practice," Messier says. "And we also practice things that we might do when time is running out and there may be only a minute or so left in the game. It's sort of like the two-minute drill in football, and we have a little bit different way of doing things then. Also, many times in practice, a coach will take a dozen pucks or so and drop them for two centermen so they can work on their face-offs. Your best position for that is having your legs spread for balance and your stick down, so you are set up almost like a tripod.

"Remember, in a power play situation especially, the centerman is the quarterback, and he should know where every player on the ice is," Mark continues. "It is his job to set everybody up and know what he will do with the puck when the linesman drops it. And he should also be aware of the tendencies of the opposing centermen he will face on a particular night and watch them closely from the bench to see what they are doing with the puck after a draw [another name for face-off]. That way, he will be better prepared when he steps onto the ice."

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