There are many ways to watch hockey.
You can follow the game emotionally and hope for excitement like a fan. You can watch and analyse a team like a coach. You can watch and analyse specific players like a scout. Or you can soak up what your favourite players do and attempt to emulate them on the ice—like a rec-league player.
If you are a coach or a scout, you watch the game a certain way and know exactly what you're trying to achieve. If you are a fan who's trying to get better at hockey, however, things can quickly get complicated.
A game is 60 minutes (plus overtime) and a lot happens in that time. But how many of those things can be applied to recreational play? Does it make sense to watch my favourite player and try to do exactly what they do the next time I have a practice or game with my beer-league team?
The answer is no.
So after analysing three things you should do, here are three you should not copy from NHLers.
(Disclaimer: If you are an advanced beer-league player and play on an advanced team, you might be able to do all of these successfully. If you are an average beer-leaguer, however, please carry on.)
1. Dirty Dangling
Who doesn't like a highlight-reel goal by the likes of Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid? Speedy, skilled players who can split the defence and dangle around the goaltender are one of the most exciting parts of hockey. Naturally, we want to do what they do.
It looks so easy and casual when Auston does it.
And when Connor does it against NHL defencemen, we are quickly convinced we can do the same against guys at our level.
If you just want to have some fun, then sure, go ahead and practice fancy moves and puck-juggling. But if you actually want to get better at hockey (and trust me, age doesn't matter, anyone can get better), then stop doing this and start practicing things that actually help you.
Stickhandling is obviously extremely important, but try handling the puck in simple ways first. Move it back and forth in front of your body, beside your body, behind your body. Use obstacles. But Matthews' warm-up dangles or McDavid's between-the-legs shot won't help you on the ice. Keep practicing fun, but don't focus on unnecessary skills, especially given the little amount of on-ice practice you get.
(Unless you are DirtyDangler69 and need to run your Instagram account.)
2. “Look, mom, with my eyes closed!”
Another great example for highlight-reel goals is this:
No-look passes are a thing of beauty, and they put the NHL's greatest hockey minds on full display. Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane, for example, is a no-look-pass master:
I also see this a lot in rec-league play, but it usually isn't proof of anyone's hockey sense. Rather, players are too focused on the puck to look up, and eventually just try to toss it in the rough direction of the net or to wherever they last saw a teammate. Spoiler alert: not a good idea.
This one is difficult, no doubt, and it goes hand in hand with the first point. Do everything you can to learn how to move the puck along with your feet—without looking down. But even if you aren't great at that yet, try to look up before you play a pass. Just before passing, you can stop moving your feet and hands for just a second. Look up, find a teammate, play a pass. Your chances of success will be about a thousand times higher than looking down or away.
But since it's a treat to watch when NHLers do it, here's another one (this time by ex-Edmonton Oilers winger Jordan Eberle). He also combines points one and two, which is pretty cool.
3. Chasing plays
Playing defence is one of the hardest things in hockey. Especially for beginners who've never been taught to play, knowing where to be in the defensive zone is extremely difficult. And what do you do when you don't know how to do something? Right, you go watch someone who knows what they're doing and try to do exactly what they do.
So let's look at an example.
Once you're done appreciating Willie Nylander's beauty, take a look at the defensive play above. The New Jersey Devils play a man coverage. Take your time and watch this gif multiple times, focusing on each of the defenders one at a time. You will see that there is a ton of adjustment and passing on coverage going on.
Unless you are on an advanced beer-league team that can skate well and plays actual systems hockey, this kind of defence is extremely difficult to execute. There is a lot going on at once, and unless you know exactly what your responsibilities are, it will probably go wrong.
What many rec-league players do, however, is chasing the puck-carrier like the Devils defender does with Nylander. It seems like a logical thing to do, and it's what the pros do a lot, but we must always remember that we do not have the same skill level as the pros.
Before showing an example for what you and your team should be doing, here's another example for a play you certainly should not copy:
In this sequence of the same game, the Leafs play what looks like a zone coverage with the tendency to collapse tightly around the net. At one point, Nylander is the only player above the goal line, and even he retreats all the way to the hashmarks and then below. That leaves New Jersey's defencemen uncovered at the blue line, but puts a lot of pressure on the puck-carrier and the forwards around the net.
My general piece of advice for beer-leaguers, on the other hand, is this: stay above the goal line.
No matter how well you skate, you can quickly be drawn way out of position if you chase the puck. And since your team probably doesn't have the experience or system to make up for it like the Devils do in the sequence above, your goalie will thank you if you play it safe instead.
Here's an easy example you could (or rather should) follow instead:
Unlike the Leafs and Devils, the Ottawa Senators show a more conservative style in the clip above. It's extremely simple and therefore easy to implement for beer-league teams, yet it's effective enough to play in the NHL.
Essentially, the defensive zone is split into even quarters. The left defender is responsible for anything happening from in front of the net to the left boards and up to the face-off dot. The left winger covers everything from the left face-off dot to the blue line and to the middle of the ice. The right D-man and right winger do the same on the other side, while the centre tries to clog passing lanes and cover for the pressuring defender.
There's no chasing plays, no passing on responsibilities, and nothing else remotely complicated. It's a simple play that's easy to execute.
Keep it simple. We are amateurs, not pros. So we shouldn't try to copy everything the pros do.