Last Friday night I somehow managed to stay awake (and on my feet!) long enough to drive out to Oaks, PA with Al for his first practice with his new team, the Philadelphia Galaxy, at 10:15pm. He'd been pretty paranoid about being placed in the wrong level and not being able to keep up, but the league officials really did seem to know what they were doing at the evaluation skate a couple weeks ago, and the Galaxy look like a good fit. (They reminded me of the Gang Green squad we played with last summer.) The Galaxy shared the ice time with a team several levels up called the Cobras, I think.
After about 15-20 minutes of warmup, during which the skaters from the Galaxy got their ice legs and practiced their shots, the captain called the team over to the bench and outlined their first team drill: a standard horseshoe. Not very interesting, but it gave everyone a chance to skate, pass and receive passes, and shoot on the goalie. In short, it served as a warmup for the remaining drills, which were more interesting—and more complicated.
I think the next drill involved two skaters going from opposite sides of the horseshoe at one time, taking a pass, passing to each other as they entered the zone, and then hopefully passing once more before taking a shot on goal. After a few runs, a third line, made up of defensemen, was added, with the defenseman passing to one of the wingers, who then skated in on him as before. This drill seemed even more valuable as a learning-about-your-teammates tool than as a learning-the-game tool. I imagine the wingers observed, as I did, which direction people tended to skate, whether they were slow or fast, whether they skated with their heads up, whether they gave any indication that they were ready and waiting for a pass, etc. (I imagine the defensemen noticed these signals, too, as they became more effective at breaking up plays as the drill went on.)
Last among the drills was the one (well, two—one was a variation on the other) I found most fascinating. It started with two lines of players up at the blue line, and one guy back behind the goal line, to one side of the net. One of the mid-ice players passed to the guy behind the goal line as a player from the opposite side of the blueline skated in. The guy behind the goal line took the puck and skated with it behind the net as the other player set up in the slot. The behind-the-net guy then passed to the slot guy, who took a shot. After taking a shot, the guy who skated in would become the guy behind the goal line, and the drill would repeat. (I'm realizing just now that I didn't get any photos of this drill, probably because I was so aborbed in watching it.)
I noticed that in general, the passing was terrible—more panicked than planned. (The captain noticed it too, because he stopped the drill at one point to remind everyone to "aim for the stick, NOT THE MAN!") Before I mention the other two things I noticed, I should say right now to anyone from the Galaxy who might be reading: I can't say I would have done anything differently or better myself, given my skill level, or that I'm an expert in any way. I just had the benefit of being able to watch from the sidelines and notice patterns. OK, with that caveat... I was kinda shocked by how many of the guys charged with crashing the net followed the puck carrier as he skated behind it. In other words, both players ended up on the same side of the net, with only a couple feet between them. That limited the momentum as well as the skating and passing options of the behind-the-net guy, who would often look up from the puck to find his teammate right in front of him.
Many of the players who didn't follow the puck carrier still limited his options by coming in too close, camping out at the edge of the crease instead of at the faceoff hash marks. (I made this mistake myself for several seasons in a row, until one of my more-experienced teammates told me I'd be more effective if I backed up a little—I'd be a better passing target and remain more mobile, thus giving myself and the puck carrier more options.) The captain noticed this, too, and reminded those skating in to stay up at the hash marks. Al turned out to be pretty good at this from the get-go; he stopped at the hash marks each time with his stick on the ice (if anything, he probably wasn't mobile enough). He was also fairly accurate with his passes (not surprising, since we've worked on passing every time we've been on the ice together for like two years).
I think some of the panicked passing happened because the drill was done mostly at game speed, and the guys behind the net felt some pressure to get rid of the puck. Running it at game speed was exactly the right thing to do, however, since IMHO it's exactly the kind of situation that's likely to come up in games. I hope they have a chance to practice it some more. I won't describe the variation of this drill—which involved adding a defenseman, if I remember correctly—because it went much like the original, only with an added component of chaos.
Following the drills was a rather lengthy (to me, anyway—I was getting really tired) scrimmage against the Cobras. As expected, given the disparity in levels, it wasn't exactly competitive, but it was probably useful as practice. Well, maybe more for the wingers than the D, who I imagine were more likely to be demoralized by the experience; the Cobras D tended to give the Galaxy O some space in which to work, but the Cobras O showed little or no mercy on the Galaxy D. The following four photos in this post feature three of the best offensive skaters for the Cobras; the guy in the red socks could have played Jason Figone (from East West Hockey in San Carlos, CA) in the movie, his skating style was so similar. The last two photos are particularly telling, I think; they show basically the entire Galaxy team watching as the Galaxy captain tries to single-handedly defend against a guy who obviously played in college, and the result. Little help, guys?
One thing that popped into my head as I watched the scrimmage (aside from "my feet hurt, and I want to go home!") was "aim for the stick, not the man." I realized that this advice applies as much to defending as it does to passing when I saw how easily the Cobras defended against the Galaxy players simply by lifting or covering their sticks. In the Galaxy zone, on the other hand, defensemen often took the bodies of the Cobras skaters, leaving their sticks wide open. Playing the body is probably a totally appropriate strategy against players of similar skill level, but as I found when I tried to defend against Eva once in a women's league game, stronger players can take passes, make passes, and shoot around you if you don't tie up their sticks. (Eva, who's two inches taller, about 30 pounds heavier, and about 20 times better than I am, actually scored despite the fact that I had her entire body covered.)