Sam Gagner and I first met when he was loaned to the Toronto Marlies from the Vancouver Canucks in the fall of 2018.
But we had been living in parallel long before that.
As fellow 1989-born players, we embodied the extremes that can exist in the world of hockey.
Sam is the son of a former pro (Dave Gagner) who skated in 946 NHL games. I am the son of a computer engineer who’s skated six times in his entire life.
Sam was among the best ‘89s in every age category he’s competed in, from mites all the way up to the NHL. Back in 1998 I might’ve been the single worst ‘89-born player on the planet when I was relegated to Verdun’s Novice C team after playing Novice B the year prior.
Recently Sam and I were talking about minor hockey development; how young players could follow in his footsteps rather than mine:
When training alone, lots of young players are taught to set up obstacle courses and stickhandle around them. While this can help your skills I think it creates some problems with awareness when you get back into a game situation.
My advice for a young player looking to improve: pick your favorite player and just watch their games over and over. Figure out what makes this player successful and replicate it the best you can in your basement or on an outdoor rink.
I had previously written about the downsides of using a lot of on-ice accessories in skills development. (Read More: Minimalism in Hockey Coaching)
Our Signature Skill series is a great starting point for players looking to start studying elite NHLers. (Read More: Signature Skill - Matthews’ Goal-Scoring)
Sam then suggested an even simpler way for young players to improve:
My old man was a Guy Lafleur fan. He told me about how Lafleur would skate for hours by himself, handling the puck around imaginary defenders.
Not only did he do that as a kid, but he would show up to the Montreal Forum hours hours before an evening game with the Canadiens and weave up and down the ice by himself.
He did that pretty much from when he was young until he retired as an NHLer.
Shadow boxing is a widely-accepted way for fighters to improve, yet shadow hockey doesn’t enjoy the same popularity.
I recall reading about Lafleur’s unusual training routine as a grade-schooler, but I never gave myself a chance to adopt it.
I simply couldn’t visualize the shape and movement of imaginary opponents vividly enough when I was skating, and it felt like a silly thing even to attempt. In the end I preferred working on my hands by skating figure-eights with the puck and on my shot by taking hundreds of reps alone on an outdoor rink.
My game did improve over time. But when I made high school varsity I was just as unable to get around real-life defensemen as I was unable to imagine them years prior.
I’m worried that all of this individual skill development in minor hockey due to COVID is going to be a detriment to some players.
They’re forced to skate and train by themselves and, while they may improve their stickhandling skills in isolation, they don’t necessarily develop their ability to imagine the game and to see what’s possible.
I remember as a kid I would watch Peter Forsberg and see him do something I couldn’t do and I would go in my backyard and try it over and over. It’s way more fun that way. You have a hero you’re trying to replicate.
That’s what makes the game great in my opinion.
Photo: Toronto Sun & Getty Images
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