The do’s and don’ts of skating with NHL players in summer hockey

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In the fall of 2020, while awaiting the NHL's return, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews practising together in Arizona became a must-watch spectacle.

At around 19 or 20 years old, I found myself invited to skate in a summer shinny game that was packed full of pros, mostly by luck (I had a personal relationship with one of the players unrelated to hockey). I first started skating there around 2002, which in Kelowna at the time meant young Canadian Olympians were well represented there, with Duncan Keith and Shea Weber and Dany Heatley and — on the very rare occasion — Jarome Iginla and Carey Price.

The years all blend together, as I’d skate there many years after, but needless to say the best 20 skaters between the two teams would’ve assembled a formidable NHL team at the time.

I was a measly junior A hockey player — a pretty OK one, I should note — but I started in that game as a junior player nonetheless. That meant being A) quite bad in that game, and B) being sadly short on the etiquette that comes with participating in those skates. I’ve written about those years before, but this time I thought I’d break it down into five simple do’s and don’ts just in case you, too, should find yourself in that situation. Cause I assure you, it’s not as simple as “Do your best.”

Oh god, don’t do your best.

That would not go over well.

What you should do is…

DO try, DO compete.

You cannot be the “This is summer hockey, it doesn’t matter, so I’m not even gonna try” guy. You can’t. Hockey doesn’t function that way, or it ends up looking like the NFL pro bowl. Not trying results in a meaningless show of going through the motions, miming hockey-like conditions, rather than giving everyone the chance to improve. So yes backcheck a bit, yes defend that one-on-one with some vigor, yes pass it hard and shoot it to score.

DON’T try too hard there, Hustles.

There’s a fine line between working hard to keep the integrity of the game going, and going in after loose pucks with the intent of winning them at all costs.

Nobody wants an honest attempt at a net-front box-out from a D-man in these games, as those involve cross-checks and anger and in turn, pain. If you’re driving a D-man wide on a one-on-one and cutting in hard, forcing that D-man to either hit you or push you into the goalie, you’re using effort as a means of showing others up, because you put them in a position where they have to let you go (or risk injury to you and the goalie). You’re saying “You be the bigger person to keep us all safe, cause I’m not willing to do that.”

So it’s a reasonable ask. Nobody needs an injury in summer hockey. Relax, Turbo.

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DO try to score.

Goalies don’t wear less equipment in summer hockey than they do in-season. So as long as the one you’re shooting on is at your ability level or higher, let it buck. Now, you have to be considerate, too. Goalies aren’t trying to get hit in the head in the summer. But, in general, you can’t play ice hockey goaltender with a “no shooting for the top corner” rule, so yeah man. Be smart — keep it away from high and mid-net — but fire away.

DON’T try to score through traffic.

There are always a couple players who are professionals purely because they have all the raw tools: they’re almost certainly big, they can bomb it, maybe they skate great. But, a lot of those people can post a higher number with their slapshot on a radar gun than they could on a standardized IQ test. What that means is the way they score in-season is they way they try to score in-shinny, which is Not Bright.

Shooting through screens is a great way to score in hockey, but that’s not an option in summer shinny until about September, when players are truly ramping it up for camp. When you wind up from distance with legs in the way, again, you’re forcing the defenders to get out of the way to protect themselves because you’re not courteous enough to do it for them. It’s hockey, and it’s a high-risk game, but that doesn’t mean those risks need to be taken by ankles in August two hours before a tee time.

DO enjoy some off-season playing-style luxuries.

To make it, many players have to play heavily coached hockey, and that’s not a brand of hockey anyone actually set out to play as a kid. Some guys get paid to dump it in and forecheck and hit and get off the rink quickly. Some players make millions playing 10 minutes a night. So sure, with no coach on the bench, everyone can play a little more pond hockey, where you try to score and stay on the ice for chances both ways. But come on now,

DON’T exceed a courteous shift length.

If you’re on the rink with pro hockey players in the summer, chances are you’re pretty good yourself. And at that level, everyone is in good shape, or close to it. So yes, everyone could stay out on the ice for five minutes shifts if they wisely conserved their energy and skated in bursts.

But for the love of god does the quality of play deteriorate quickly when players play “burst and conserve” hockey, and when they take long shifts because they’ve just spent 17 minutes on the bench waiting to get back on the rink. Go play for 90 seconds, it’s a treat! But don’t stay out until you’re in-season-level tired.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

DO dish it and go east-west.

As I said, this is everyone’s chance to play a more fun version of the game, which isn’t “drive wide and fire one low off the pads for a rebound, for the good of the team”-style hockey. Part of the fun of playing with other great players is the brand of hockey. This is usually the biggest takeaway for new players in these skates.

There may be three crisp, hard passes that create an open look, and excitement builds, then the guy passes it backdoor! Oh that was exciting. …But then that player touches it back to the slot, then it goes back to the original guy, and 11 seconds later the goalie is angrily dragged off to some room with padded walls and the puck’s in the back of the net.

DON’T re-imagine yourself as Pavel Dastsyuk.

Do you think the above leads to some over-passing, just maybe a little? Summer shinny is obviously different than in-season hockey, but there’s a couple things to consider.

One is that you don’t want to develop habits so bad you get off to a bad start in the real season. Like if the Islanders’ “Identity Line” comes out in September and starts looking tic-tac-toe rather than crash-bang-boom, Barry Trotz is going to have a chat with them after the first glimpses of that. You wouldn’t mess around with your golf grip at the driving range for a couple months and expect things to feel the same on the course. So you have to strike a balance there.

The other is just that goalies are a thing, too, and they generally hate skating in shinny at all, because of all the things mentioned above. It’s a lot of “don’t shoot until it’s almost a sure goal,” so they’re constantly pushing laterally and facing very few shots. They deserve better. At some points, obvious shooting positions should result in shots.

And finally,

DO enjoy seeing the skill of great players.

You get to see everyone unchecked from hooking and holding and coaches, and skill is never on more pure display. But…

DON’T believe what your eyes tells you about players in the summer.

Players train with different focuses at different times, and come back to the ice in a wide array of game shape. I usually skated all summer long, so when the NHLers came back in August, I looked pretty good by comparison.

Spoiler alert: I was not.

Some players are better suited for shinny than real hockey (also a strength of mine). But in these settings, fighters score goals, talented players toe pick on breakaways, and so until the action you’ve seen has come from real games with referees and coaches and effort, maybe relax on extrapolating what you see in the off-season to the real one. Summer shinny leads to all sorts of “wait until you see the season this guy has” hopes and dreams that are crushed by November.

Those off-season pro skates are an animal unto themselves, where the key is to find the right mix of trying without being a try-hard, making skilled plays without trying to be something you’re not, and trying to get better without getting hurt. It’s a delicate balance, yes, but one thousands of pros around the world are working at striking during these dog days of summer.

And, if you find yourself out there, you should try your best to do the same.

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