Utilizing the Defenseman’s “Off” Hand: A Discussion of Theory and an Empirical Review

Abstract

This research explored whether an advantage exists in playing an ice hockey defenseman on his or her “off” hand. The study included a cross-sectional experiment with 10 hockey defensemen who were males aged 14–16 years. Success rates for several defenseman tasks were analyzed to determine if there was a significant difference in performance when the defensemen played on the off hand side rather than the traditional “on” hand, dominant side. The tasks involved were blue line puck containment, defenseman-to-defenseman (D-to-D) passes, one-timer shots in the offensive zone, and breakouts on the strong and weak sides of the ice in the defensive zone. A chi-square analysis was used to look for a significant relationship between the testing variables and success rates. Overall, no significant difference was found between playing off hand and play ing on hand in the defensive zone. However, in the offensive zone, success rates were higher for off-hand play than for on-hand play, in terms of puck containment (72% success for off-hand play) as well as D-D passes and one-timer shots (90% success for off-hand play). A significant difference was found between off-hand one-timer shots (p = .000) and puck containment (p = .001). The main conclusion drawn from this study is that there are advantages to playing defensemen on the off hand.

Utilizing the Defenseman’s “Off” Hand: A Discussion of Theory and an Empirical Review

Stagnant waters eventually cloud and precipitate, vibrant life evaporating, giving way to slow-moving swamps and finally becoming solid earth. In much the same way, the fluid movements and dynamics of hockey must continually change, or die. Anatoli Tarasov, writing in 1969, displayed a vision well beyond that of his contemporaries, when he cautioned that,

If a training period does not offer a creative atmosphere or depth in grasping a particular topic, if it does not stimulate the player to a higher level of technique, and finally, if you can feel that the players are not ready to do battle, if they show no hustle or daring, you should not expect such a team to improve its game.

Tarasov’s teams dominated others through unpredictable deviations from established norms of hockey. Like those teams, in order to remain competitive in the world theater of ice hockey, those who today coach youth ice hockey must be willing to deviate from well-established practices. This paper will explore the advantages and disadvantages to defensemen of “switching sides”; the introduction of techniques unlike those we are used to may develop players’ skills far beyond current boundaries. The operation of defensemen in both defensive and offensive zones will be discussed empirically and subjectively. Efficiency of transitioning between defense and offense during breakouts, along with puck protection, control, and offensive power, will be explored.

The Russian teams coached by Tarasov used what many thought to be strange training techniques, but the training enabled them to dominate world hockey almost as soon as they joined the competitive ranks (Tarasov, 1969). No Russian player ever seemed to maintain any one position. Movement was constantly fluid, from defense to forward and from left to right. Players were equally skilled whether playing on their strong side (forehand) or weak side (backhand). Indeed, many European training techniques challenge hockey norms. From the very beginnings of youth play to the advanced training of adult hockey, the Europeans continually incorporate weak-side training. It is this training that enables European players to move comfortably anywhere on the ice, for their mindset is that they have no weak side: As other players move from right side to left side, the European player can take advantage of that movement, with no loss of firepower.

In North America, norms for positional play in ice hockey are well established. From some of the oldest training manuals to the current ones, young players are taught to “stay in your lane” (Smith, 1996). Why is the left-handed shooter automatically placed on the left side, the right-handed shooter on the right? Perhaps there is a feeling that common sense dictates it. In some circles, positions are actually defined as strong side or weak side based on whether a right-handed shooter is playing on the right or not. By defining sides in this way, players may be placed at a psychological disadvantage before teaching even begins. I believe it is time to redefine what is called strong or weak: to turn the rink around and view it differently. By concentrating training on the so-called weak side, a point is reached when it can no longer be called weak but can instead be called an asset; by eliminating any reference to a weak side, we may become more willing to interchange left- and right-handed players. A careful look at advantages of off hand play for defensemen is one means of beginning to overcome the tendency to follow the norm. Like a southpaw boxer in the ring, off-hand defensemen’s unlooked-for attacks may be the twist that leads to victory.

Actions over the whole of the ice surface need to be taken into account as the defenseman’s use of so-called strong and weak sides is evaluated. As a player moves from side to side through the defensive, neutral, and offensive zones, he transitions between positions of relative advantage and disadvantage. Maintaining puck control, either individually or through coordinated efforts (passing to teammates), is of utmost importance. to maximize these efforts, the most advantageous positions on the ice must be utilized. The defensive zone breakout is arguably the most important transition a defenseman will orchestrate. It may originate from three basic locations: puck in open ice (forward of the goal line), puck in the corner (behind the goal line, located from below the face-off dot to the outer-board radius), or puck behind the net (behind the goal line, between the face-off dots). By attacking these puck positions in the most efficient manner, the defenseman can save time, fractions of seconds that differentiate successful breakouts from turnovers (Lothian & Farrally, 1995).

In the event a defenseman defeats the inside-out fore check or is chased with an outside-in fore check, he or she has the puck on forehand while traveling behind the net, if he or she started on the off hand. In this case, the defenseman is set up to succeed. Either a hard breakout pass can be immediately sent to the winger, or momentum built on the forehand can be maintained as the defenseman heads up ice. On the other hand, the defenseman playing the same side as his or her shot will have to reposition, exposing the puck, in order to make the quick pass. Additionally, he or she will have to clear the net before passing the puck. The defenseman should obtain a better passing angle by being forced to carry the puck wider than the face-off dot, but unfortunately, that advantage may be negated by the additional reaction time afforded to the fore checkers.

Offensive-zone training for defensemen is neglected by many youth coaches. This is evident in a lack of point usage by forwards when attacking in the offensive zone. Additionally, the lack of offensive-zone training is evident in visible weaknesses among defensemen attempting to hold this critical zone, whether manifested in leaving the blue line too early during a breakout or failing to contain the puck. A defenseman needs every bit of confidence that can be mustered in order to overcome such deficiencies, many people believe, and they view it best to have defensemen play on the “on” hand while on the offensive blue line (Parise, 2004). In truth, the greater advantage lies in properly training defensemen to play the off hand in the offensive zone.

While the point is arguable, for the sake of this discussion it will be assumed that the defenseman’s primary role in the offensive zone is containing the play in the zone. Given this role, puck containment, pinching, passing, and shooting will be examined, from both the on-hand and off-hand, or strong and weak, sides. An equally important but perhaps secondary role of the defenseman on the blue line is assisting and scoring. Finally, the offensive blue line is where the defenseman begins many battles with attacking forwards, setting up and securing greatest tactical advantage to protect the middle of the ice. Body positioning on the blue line offers the defenseman an opportunity to gain the slight advantage necessary to prevail.

In order to maintain the offensive zone, a defenseman must be able to contain the puck as it is moved up the boards (Kingman & Dyson, 1997). Control of the situation is demanded, whether the puck is rimmed along the boards, carried out by an opposing player, or shot off the glass. Playing on the side opposite to his or her shot leads the defenseman to realize many benefits, as compared to playing on the strong side. It is probably the rimmed puck that leads some people to believe it best to keep defensemen playing on the strong side. However, when examined closely, the seeming commonsensical advantages of such a traditional method may not hold. The argument for strong side puck containment on a rimmed puck plays to the fact that, in this case, the defenseman’s stick blade will be along the boards for an apparent easy trap and containment of the puck (Constantine, 2004). Among very young players this may be true, but among maturing and developing players the puck is rarely moving slowly up the boards. When the stick blade is at the boards, the player’s body is forced away from the boards. This causes a few problems. First, if the puck is bouncing at all, which is often the case, the opening caused by the player’s body position provides an excellent escape route for the puck if it is mishandled.

Conversely, if the player is playing the opposite side, the best course of action for puck containment is to press the back of the body to the boards. In doing so the player creates a solid barrier from skate blade to hips, while maintaining the stick on the ice in a forehand position. If the defenseman playing the on-hand side attempts this type of containment, he or she will end up on the backhand shot. This may not provide the best option for returning the puck deep into the zone. Should the defenseman press the side of the body against the boards to prevent the backhand situation, more problems arise. First, when pressing with the side of the body, the player’s equipment may prevent a solid seal along the boards. Shin pads in particular may keep the lower leg from making full contact and leave gaps for the puck to exit through. (Pressing with the back of the leg offers softer padding that is more readily formed to the shape of the boards.) Secondly, with the stick on the board side, the player’s position is awkward, the stick jammed close to the body. This may make puck control difficult. In contrast, playing with the off-hand or weak side—even if a defenseman presses with the side of the body rather than the back¬—slight advantage is retained in terms of stick position. Because the stick remains on the forehand, the defenseman is in an excellent position to bang the puck hard off the boards, returning it to the zone. Finally, as skills strengthen, the defenseman may become able to position his or her skate in such a manner as to play the puck directly onto the stick blade, for a quick shot on net.

If the puck is being carried up the boards by an opposing player in an attempt to clear the zone, once again, the defenseman needs any advantage available. If the defenseman maintains a position at the blue line and challenges the opposing player, stick position and body position become critical. If the strong side defenseman chooses to play slightly off the boards to maintain a good forehand stick position, the opposing player may take advantage of the gap presented to flip the puck past (Leetch, 2005). Additionally, the gap may provide a lane the opponent uses or fakes to. In short, it provides options for the opposing player and uncertainty for the defenseman. If the defenseman presses against the boards in order to block the attacker, his or her stick position will be on the backhand if the attacker tries to angle the puck off the boards and out. When viewed from the other side of the ice, however, some of these disadvantages are erased. For example, the defenseman can block out the attacker along the boards and still keep the stick to the middle of the ice, in the forehand position. This stick position may enhance agility, helping the player to maintain a puck angled off the boards and put it back in the zone. In addition, “baiting” the attacker into a hip check may be slightly easier from this side, due to defenseman’s stick position and body position.

Another common method of breakout that the defenseman must be prepared to counter is the glass-out. If the opponent chooses to shoot the puck off the glass in order to bank it out of the zone, the defenseman must be able to react to the careening puck. In this case, the strong-side player may have an advantage: Because the stick will be on the board side, there may be a natural tendency to play slightly off the boards. This puts the player in a better position to handle a puck ricocheting off the glass. However, because the player is slightly off the boards, the offensive player is not as likely to choose this course of action. On the other hand, if the defenseman is against the boards, he can anticipate and once again bait the offensive player into a glass-out situation. The well-trained defense man can quickly come off the boards in order to knock down the puck. If the puck is knocked down, it will be on the forehand for a player on his or her off hand side. A strong-side player, in contrast, will either have to move to his backhand or shift his whole body an entire stick length for the shot.

During a defenseman’s pinch, many of the advantages noted earlier apply, as do a few others. For instance, when the defenseman pinches down the boards, it becomes possible to body check the offensive player and take away the passing lane if he or she is playing on the weak side (USA Hockey, 2005). The stick position in this situation is superior to an opposite-handed colleague’s stick position. The body check is more likely to be a good, clean check, because the blade of the stick will be away from the opponent and less likely to become tangled up with the opponent. If the offensive player attempts a quick pass to a teammate, the defenseman’s stick is already in the passing lane and positioned to block the pass or retrieve the puck if the body check is successful. If the defenseman is playing on his or her strong side, however, it is more difficult to make a good shoulder check, because, with the stick on the board side, the defenseman must take the opponent head-on in order to prevent any gap along the boards.

Once the offensive zone is gained and under control, the defenseman can focus on offense. In order to become an offensive threat, the defenseman must capitalize on every possible advantage. There are several advantages to working on the weak side in passing. For example, if looking to pass back to the same-side forward, the defenseman playing the off-hand side has some options. First, if the lane is open, the pass can be sent right through the circle to an advancing forward in give-and-go fashion. However, if the defender is taking the passing lane away, this defenseman’s stick is in an excellent position to send a banked pass off the boards and down to the teammate. A defenseman with stick on the board side must send the give-and-go with an angled pass, and it is at a much steeper angle for sending a banked pass. Either of these situations may hinder the success of the pass. In another situation, the defenseman might hope to make a pass across the slot to a forward at the back door of the net. In this case, even though the defenseman playing the off-hand side must give a more steeply angled pass, less ice must be covered with that pass; since the stick is toward the middle of the ice, the pass should reach his or her teammate a fraction of a second sooner than would a pass from the defenseman playing on the strong side. Additionally, the defenseman may need to make a D-to-D pass at the blue line in order to open up shooting lanes (USA Hockey, 2003). If the defensemen are playing on the same side that they shoot, several potential problems may arise. First, as the defensemen face each other for the pass, their sticks are in the zone toward the defenders. This positioning offers the least amount of puck protection and provides better opportunities for poke checking from the defenders. Additionally, even though the puck is deeper in the zone when on the defensemen’s sticks in this circumstance, the potential for losing the zone may be higher if they pass D to D. This is because on the follow-through for the pass, the defenseman making the pass may actually angle the puck toward the blue line. This situation may be exacerbated by the fact that the defensive players may be playing relatively close to the blue line, since their sticks will remain in the zone even when they are standing on the blue line. If the defensemen are put on the sides opposite their shots, these problems diminish. For instance, because their sticks will be toward the blue line, the defensemen will have to play deeper in the zone; their body position affords good puck protection. During a D-to-D pass in this situation, the follow-though from the passing defenseman is in toward the offensive zone. This allows for a greater margin of error on the pass. Finally, during the D-to-D pass while playing on opposite hands, both defensemen are set up for one-timer shots.

The transition to the breakout begins with puck retrieval. Many times, puck retrieval will be initiated by a transition from backward skating to forward skating, as the defenseman turns away from his or her offensive zone and retreats in toward his or her net. In the case of a loose puck in the corner, the defenseman should transition toward the outer boards and travel the shortest distance to the puck (Gendron, 2003). In this situation, there are several advantages to the defender playing the off-hand side.

For example, if a right-handed defenseman is playing on the left side, in the attack on the puck as described above, he or she immediately puts the puck under protection. If the fore checking team’s course of action is an attempt at an inside-out fore check meant to force the puck back up the same side board, the off-handed defender has several advantages. By virtue of stick position, the defenseman will pick the puck up on his or her forehand, body between the puck and the attacker. In contrast, a defensemen playing on the strong side will retrieve the puck on the backhand, exposing it to the fore check. Additionally, because the off-handed defenseman has puck control on the forehand (along with superior puck protection), he or she should be able to accelerate more quickly, improving the opportunity to defeat the fore check (Marino et al., 1987). Even if the initial fore check is successful, the cut back by the defenseman will be tighter, quicker, and easier when on his or her backhand rather than forehand, and the situation once again provides excellent body position for puck protection. Upon recovery from a backhand cut back, the off-handed defenseman maintains the advantage over an opposite-handed colleague, because the stick position of the off-hander naturally lessens the angle of the breakout pass to the winger. Even if the winger is breaking off the boards, such stick position offers an angle that makes receiving the pass easier (Montgomery et al., 2004).

Methods

This one-time, controlled experiment with 10 hockey defensemen who were males aged 14–16 involved observation during an ice rink’s 2-hr open “puck-n-stick” session. Observational data was collected by 3 observers tracking 10 players playing on-handed and off-handed in the defensive and offensive zones. Each player performed 6 iterations of each of several tasks: blue line puck containment, defenseman-to-defenseman passes, one-timer shots in the offensive zone, and breakouts on the strong and weak sides of the ice in the defensive zone. A total of 540 observations were made, 360 in the offensive zone and 180 in the defensive zone. Data were coded as 1=success and 0=failure and were analyzed using SPSS; the mode and rates of success or failure were generated as descriptive statistics. Because the data were categorical and the purpose of the study was to determine the combined effects of the study variables, a non-parametric analysis was pursued (Hayes, 1991). Additionally, a chi-square analysis was used to assess the significance of relationships between variables in the offensive and defensive zones separately.

Results

In the offensive zone, defensive players playing on the off-hand side as opposed to the on-hand side experienced a higher success rate for puck containment, D-to-D pass, and one-timer shots (see Table 1). A significant relationship (p=.000) was found between players playing off-handed and success on one-timer shots. Data analysis also indicated that a significant relationship (p=.001) exists between puck-containment success and players playing off-handed in the offensive zone. No significant difference was found, however, between success rates for on-hand D-to-D passes in the offensive zone and success rates for off-hand D-to-D passes in the offensive zone.

Table 1

Percentage of Offensive-Zone Tasks Accomplished Successfully Using “On” Hand vs. Using “Off” Hand

With On Hand Success Rate
With Off Hand
Puck Containment 68% 72%
D-to-D Pass 82% 90%
One-Timer Shot 58% 90%

Table 2

Chi-Square Results for Tasks in Offensive Zone

chi-square df Sig.
Puck Containment Using On Hand 8.067* 1 .005
Puck Containment Using Off Hand 11.267* 1 .001
D-to-D Pass Using On Hand 24.067* 1 .000
D-to-D Pass Using Off Hand 38.400* 1 .000
One-Timer Shot Using On Hand 1.667 1 .197
One-Timer Shot Using Off Hand 38.400* 1 .000

*p< .01 ** p

In the defensive zone, there does not appear to be a significant difference between playing with the on hand vs. playing with the off hand, in terms of puck retrieval control and pass success. Although in this experiment players had more success at puck retrieval control when playing the on-handed strong side (78%) than playing the off-handed strong side (67%), there does not appear to be a significant relationship for playing off-handed defensively (p = .248). Differences in success rates are most likely due to spurious environmental factors, in that, during this part of our experiment, the ice became increasingly crowded as players began puck containment drills in the defensive zone (the final set of drills for this portion of the experiment).

Table 3

Percentage of Defensive-Zone Tasks Accomplished Successfully Using “On” Hand vs. Using “Off” Hand

Success Rate With On Hand Success Rate With Off Hand
Puck Control Strong Side 78% 67%
Puck Control Weak Side 83% 83%
Pass Success Strong Side 94% 92%
Pass Success Weak Side 92% 92%

Table 4

Chi-Square Results for Tasks in Defensive Zone

chi-square df Sig.
Puck Control Strong Side 22.007 1 .194
Puck Control Weak Side 33.237 1 .248
Pass Success Strong Side 24.067 1 .340
Pass Success Weak Side 29.000 1 .250

*p< .01 ** p

The validity of these results may be somewhat vulnerable to the repeated execution of tasks by the players, in that rates of success increased through the iterations. Because repeating tasks simulates the normal process—with its underpinnings in theory—of practicing tasks to perfect them, it was not deemed necessary to adjust the raw data. These results may not be generalized to levels of hockey beyond the youth level and should be construed specifically in the context of USA hockey development.

Conclusion

There are several practical applications for the findings of this study. First, the finding that no overall difference exists supports a paradigm shift within hockey training. Playing on one’s backhand (i.e., playing off hand) is generally recognized as being more difficult, yet by increasing off-hand training and playing opportunities it can be expected that a change would begin to be seen: the off hand would begin to be the favored play. Coaches should consider playing defensemen off-handed, to gain significant advantage in the offensive zone; the advantage of the off-handed one-timer is already widely acknowledged and exploited in many power plays (USA Hockey, 2003). However, the significant difference with off-handed blue line puck containment was an unanticipated outcome.

The study’s results should strongly urge coaches to play defensemen off-handed, even when a team lacks numerical advantage in terms of players on the ice. The inconclusive data for the defensive zone may, however, engender a certain reluctance to play defensemen on their opposite hands; in such cases, coaches should consider having defensemen switch sides as they move up the ice, in order to maximize the offensive attack. Overall, the data support the idea of changing the training regimes youth hockey participants in the United States pursue, in favor of off-handed defensive play improving not only individual skills but offensive power. An interesting follow-on study would be an analysis of players with predominately off-hand play experience during their careers, or of players trained according to other paradigms (i.e., European players).

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Authors Note: Correspondence for this article should be addressed to: Vickie McCarthy, Assitant Professor, Department of Professional Studies, Austin Peay University, Building 604, Bastogne & Air Assault, (931) 221-1407, mccarthy@apsu.edu.

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