What Every Hockey Player Ought to Know About Hockey Sense – Part I

Ben LevesqueHockey sense48 Comments

hockey sense part 1

Hockey senseIt’s a term that gets thrown around loosely on the hockey scene. But what exactly does it mean? How do you explain it?

No one really knows, and there’s no obvious answer either.

Not only is it vaguely defined, but there’s also concern whether hockey sense is a byproduct of the nature or nurture process—being born with it versus it being a learned skill.

I’ll share my opinion on that debate in Part II, but in the first part of this two-part mini series, I want to try and define what exactly hockey sense is.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my Hockey IQ Quiz and test your knowledge of the game of hockey. Find out if your mental game needs work!

When you’re able to define a concept in meaningful words, it’s that much easier for your brain to notice it when the time comes (and improve upon it if that’s the case). In other words, a problem can’t be fixed unless you know a problem exists and you can identify it.

Let’s take a look at this mysterious concept of hockey sense that everyone says is a ‘must-have‘ for being a great hockey player and break it down into words that allow us to really understand what it all means.

By the end of this article, you’ll be able to better identify the concept of hockey sense when you see it in action as well as be able to somewhat measure your current level of hockey sense and that of your peers using the criteria presented herein.

What hockey sense is

The way I see and understand the concept of hockey sense is the following:

Hockey sense refers to a player’s level of awareness of several important factors while on the ice during a hockey game. In other words, hockey sense refers to how well a player can literally “sense” or feel himself, the puck, opponents, and other various actions taking place around him during competitive play. Furthermore, hockey sense is not only about the here and the now (the present), but what is about to unfold in the next few moments.

There are also varying levels of hockey sense. Let’s take a look at a few situations and see how players with average hockey sense and players with advanced hockey sense differ in their analysis of the game.

*On a side note, I’ll use the terms hockey sense and hockey IQ interchangeably. They both relate to how well a player sees, understands, and plays the game.

The hockey sense gap

hockey sense gap

At a basic level, a hockey player with average or near-average hockey sense knows at all times where he is on the ice.

While this may sound quite simple—and some of you may even think that this comes naturally to all players—consider that most players aren’t even at this level. Some players are so puck-focused that their placement and positioning never even crosses their mind until it’s oftentimes too late to react.

Players with average hockey sense will know they are “near the blue line”, “on the backcheck” or “in front of the net”. While this is okay—and in most leagues, just enough to get by—there’s a whole other level of hockey sense.

Players with above average or exceptional hockey sense take in a ton more information subconsciously than this.

Instead of “I’m near the blue line”, they’re thinking “I’m just inside the blue line, I have a teammate driving the net wide and I’m only a few seconds ahead of my back-checker so I have to move the puck quick before he catches me. The best play for me in this situation is a rebound shot off the far pad for my teammate at the net”.

This of course all happens on a subconscious level at remarkable speeds, and is second nature to players with a high Hockey IQ.

This is the level that the Hockey IQ greats are at—think of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Nick Lidstrom just to name a few.

These are all players who think and see the game in way more depth than others. While players at an amateur level are taking in minor information on their surroundings during a game, these players—the top in the world—are taking in an extensive amount of information, making them master decision makers with and without the puck.

Before you continue reading, I’d like for you to leave a comment below in the comments section and let me know how comfortable you are with your level of hockey sense. Do you feel like you’re a smart player who sees the game really well or do you need some work?

Go leave a comment now, and then continue reading.

Now that you’ve heard my definition of hockey sense and how I have come to understand it, here are a few more definitions from other hockey experts around the web.

Jeremy Rupke – Howtohockey.com

jeremy-rupkeHockey Sense is the ability to recognize patterns, while reading and reacting with good timing. The more you analyze and experience these situations, the more your hockey sense will improve. The better you understand the ice and the players on it, the faster you can hone your hockey sense.

Think of the game in lanes and zones, and think of the players in terms of width and depth. Then understand space, where it is, how you can create it, and where it will be opening up. Soon you will start to think the game differently, you look for width and depth with your team mates, you see them crossing lanes, entering zones, and you’re always creating, or moving into open space.

Maria Mountain – HockeyTrainingPro.com

maria-mountain“Hockey sense is having that broad focus to see how the play is developing and predict the next best step while executing tasks skillfully.

Players with great hockey sense are always thinking ahead to the next best step.”

Kevin McClelland – HockeyTraining.com
kevin-hockey-training“To me, hockey sense is having a feel for where the play is going and understanding your responsibilities.  In the offensive zone, this could be knowing where to go and what to do with the puck given the opposition’s set up.
In the defensive zone it could be getting a read on where the play is going and setting yourself up to properly defend or create a turnover.”

The importance of hockey sense

I’m a firm believer that it’s essential for hockey players to excel in all three of the following categories in order to be successful:

  • Physical ability
  • Technical ability
  •  Mental ability

Physical ability refers to a player’s size, strength, conditioning, agility, explosiveness, etc.

Technical ability refers to a player’s skills—shooting, skating, passing, hitting etc.

The mental part—which is often times neglected and pushed to the side—refers to a player’s mind. His attitude, character, confidence, discipline, toughness, and overall hockey knowledge.

The mental part is what makes the difference between a good player and a great player.

At the NHL level, everyone is good.

To be great, you need a mental edge. Players that are strong mentally and develop their hockey minds are the ones that dominate the game.

No matter what level of hockey you play, having a mental edge over opponents is your best bet at dominating the game. The guys that have high hockey IQs are the ones that have the successful seasons.

It’s easy to hit the gym.

It’s easy to work on your shot.

But how easy is it to work on your ‘hockey mind‘ ?

It’s not so obvious. Can it be done, and if so, how?

I’ll get to that later, but first, let’s look at whether or not hockey sense is a limiting factor in player development so we can further understand its importance.

Hockey sense: A limiting factor?

hockey sense a limiting factor

It’s easy to see that a player’s level of hockey sense plays a big role. But how big of a role does it play?

I think it’s safe to say that every player in the NHL has a high hockey IQ—if that weren’t the case, they most probably wouldn’t be there.

But is hockey sense a limiting factor? Can a player’s level of hockey sense actually limit his development and success?

The importance of high hockey IQ becomes apparent when you begin to look at the difference in hockey sense between the best 1st line players and the best 4th line players.

A case can obviously be made about the fact that these players have different roles. First liners are there to produce points, while fourth liners are there to play checking and energy roles.

Can a fourth line player play on a first line without looking out of place? Yes.

Can a first line player play on a fourth line without looking out of place? Yes.

Now, is a fourth line player on the fourth line because he lacks some hockey IQ that his first line counterparts have plenty of?

The answer in my opinion is, “Yes, but it’s complicated.”

Players tend to gravitate towards roles that they can fill. Fourth liners that don’t have the hockey sense needed to make difficult passes and score highlight-reel goals instead work on other things—positioning, forechecking, body checking, and driving the net.

Over time, they leave the main “production” role so to speak to the others with the higher, more developed hockey IQ. Instead, they perfect a part of their game and look to be the best at that specific task.

Of course, there are as always exceptions to the rule. Some first liners have pure skill and skill alone which amounts for much of their success. Some fourth liners have tremendous hockey IQ but just lack in the skill department.

For the most part however, I think it’s safe to say that the highest hockey IQ guys are playing on the top lines while the lower hockey IQ guys are playing on the third and fourth lines.

This is not to say that the 3rd and 4th line players aren’t good—they’ve just adapted their hockey sense to fit their role.

A different style of Hockey IQ, if you must.

For example, a 4th liner more often than not does a better job at grinding, hitting, and playing a high-energy game than does a 1st liner. The opposite is also true—a 1st liner more often than not does a better job at making plays, creating chances, and scoring goals than a 4th liner.

Why do I say this? Because I’ve filled both roles. And my play-style adapted to fill those roles.

And I’ve seen others do the same.

So what does it all mean?

In the end, it’s evident that hockey sense is an extremely important aspect of the game. In fact, hockey sense is probably THE most important aspect of the game.

When you break the game of hockey down, you notice that literally every decision, every move and every play made out on the ice stems from a player’s hockey sense.

Not because of his hard shot. Not because of his speed. Not because of his size.

Because of his mind and his hockey sense.

And no matter what league or skill level you play at, there will always be a hockey sense gap between you, your teammates, and your opponents. That gap, more often than not, will be the difference-maker when you check the score sheet at the end of the game.

With that alarming statement, a few questions come to mind.

Can hockey sense be taught? 

Can a player improve his hockey IQ?

If so, can a grinder become a goal scorer or a goal scorer become a grinder?

Learn the answers in Part II of the series!

PS – I’ve made some pretty bold statements in this post. Leave me a comment below with your opinion whether you agree or not. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Also, take my quiz and share your score in the comments below.

hockey sense handbook

About the author

Ben Levesque

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Ben has been playing hockey for 20+ years and has learned a ton from playing with the world's best coaches & players. Among his accomplishments are a National Championship, a President's Cup, a Semi-Final finish at the Memorial Cup, several Queen's Cups and a helmet in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

48 Comments on “What Every Hockey Player Ought to Know About Hockey Sense – Part I”

  1. Pingback: What Every Hockey Player Ought to Know About Hockey Sense - Part II

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    1. Ben Levesque

      Hey Scott, thanks for the comment! I have to say I wasn’t sure how the quiz would go over with the community as everyone plays at different levels of hockey. I hope you found it useful! And not to worry, your son still doesn’t have old man strength–you can’t teach that 😉

      I appreciate your support!

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  6. Larisa Hagen

    My 9 year old was asked to take this, he got 6 points. He definitely has some learning to do….having the answers and rationale are great.

    1. Ben Levesque

      Hey Larisa, thanks for the kind words! That’s kind of what I was going for. It’s hard to describe game situations in words, but I think I did an alright job to get the message across. Glad you found the answers useful!

  7. Tyler

    Took the quiz, got 19/25. I am 14. People have always told me I have a good hockey iq. I am mainly a defenseman and definitely learned some things to improve skills at my part time job of forward. Great quiz Ben!

  8. steve

    My son and I both scored 15. My wife on the other hand needs to pay more attention at his games, score of 9. Definitely a reality check. Thanks!

  9. RedNed

    Hi, great site. Your writing is great. Responding here to how I feel re my hockey sense (I play bottom grade house league down under and came to game later in life). I am generally aware of where I am on the ice and general nature of play around the puck. Keep forgetting to have head on swivel so am often not able to see ahead. I did play one game (inline) where me and team were ‘in sync’ and I found myself sensing lanes opening and closing, space appearing and disappearing, before it occurred – it was almost mystical at one point! Having had that experience I am no longer happy with my general awareness level, I want to sense the game flow at that deep level all the time 🙂

  10. Mark

    18/25 – as expected I guess for a 55+ whose just started playing organized huffnpuff hockey after decades of pickup. I definitely learned a few things which will allow me to react with confidence versus thinking too much during play and getting frustrated when bad choices don’t work and I don’t know why. good stuff – thanks Ben

  11. Benjamin

    20/25, not bad for an Englishman that didn’t play till he was 14. Very good quiz Ben, super good and challenging questions. Definitely want to continue to work on this side of my game more

  12. andy

    I am 35 yrs old, still a beginner in my beer league but i am realizing i am a fan of the game and not just my fave team. i want to learn more and be a life-long learner and maybe one day teach kids. It turns out i don’t know much and have a long way to go…

    1. Ben Levesque

      Hey Andy! Thanks for the comment! Learning the game is the fun part, and I don’t think it ever stops, nor should it! I know I’m still learning! Cheers.

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  14. Coach Ricky

    20/25

    Great Quiz Ben- I loved your site as well and will read articles and everything your site entails and will come back for more articles. I Played at the minor league professional level (AA) and now am commencing a career in coaching for junior A and its very safe to say this quiz, along with everything else will help me along the way as a coach.

    Thank you so much and keep up the good work!!!!!

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