Observations From the Rink: Poor Practice Habits Continue to Kill Player Development

Flow Drills: A Coaches Ally or the Teams Dark Enemy

Are you sick of watching flow drills? 

Are flow drills killing the game of hockey and player development?

Every coach wants “good flow” and I’m not talking about hockey hair. Every coach wants “good flow” to their practices, but at what cost?  

How does one create a well balance practice that works on every aspect of the game?  With the cost of ice time on the rise, coaches have pressure to create a well run practice every time out!   

You got to keep them moving, right? 

Flow drills can be your worst enemy, I know that this goes against conventional wisdom and if some coaches read this they will probably take a shit fit.” 

2011-2012 Pee Wee AA

The benefits of  flow drills” are endless, but when I was associated with teams as an assistant coach in the past some coaches were just content running continuous “flow drills” during every practice. 

I couldn’t believe it. 

It wasn’t my place to say anything, but I really couldn’t believe it. 

Running flow drills like that, just leads to lack of execution and “bad hockey habits like not stopping on pucks and lack of focus during the drill especially when each drill is done without resistance.    

I still remember that season, players got caught up into the flow and focused to much attention making cross ice passes and the perfect play rather then focusing on going hard to the net and taking quality shot opportunities.  

Whatever happened to you practice like you play? 

Oh that’s cliché, I think not. 

1991 Hostess Cup Champions Pee Wee AAA Atlantic Champions

To many flow or continuous drills can also cause complacent play especially if they are not performed against resistance as I’ve already mentioned. 

 From previous articles everyone is well aware of my philosophy of “defence first”, so when I see teams running flow drills for over half their practice I just don’t understand and usually walk out of the rink.  

Don’t get me wrong flow drills definitely have purpose, but one aspect that could make flow drills more effective is adding variations to hook the interest of the players.  

 The drill should be “short and sweet” and of course change the side or flow of the drill 3 or 4 mins in and never do one “flow drill” for more than 6 mins.

 To limit the length of the drill will also increase the teams intensity and execution.  Whether you think “flow drills” are your ally, be careful because the enemy is lurking. 

1995 Moncton High School
Dale passed away 5 years ago and I miss him dearly

The misconception that teams with good flow during their practices will be “tough to play against” is slightly exaggerated and often times overrated.

Far too many coaches look to textbooks for the answer to solve their team’s weaknesses.  

Be innovative and create your own personal drills that focus on the aspect of the game that your team needs to work on.  Whether they are your ally or your enemy, flow drills can be critical in a teams success, but coaches please change up your practice plans and differentiate your drills, just imagine if they are boring to watch, how would you feel being on the ice.  

The Julien Era in Boston Changed My Approach as A Coach

“Practice, you talking bout Practice” 

The famous quote by one Allen Iverson, which will never be utter by a professional hockey player or coach. 

In my opinion, practice is the single most important aspect of a coach’s role and is the main reason why the game of hockey is struggling. 

March 2008 after Bruins Practice

I have written tons of articles about drills and the importance of practice in establishing discipline, individual skill set and team concepts over the years, but   

with the inappropriate cost of ice time on the rise, the value of practice is finally gaining traction in the hockey world.  

“Practice with a purpose, practice like you play, perfect practice is the key.”

 All those sayings are important, but quite frankly are not worth a “tinkers damn” if you don’t execute in practice.  

Execution is the key in any practice scenario, whether it is individual skill set or team systems. Coaches have to emphasize the importance of execution in every aspect in every drill in every practice.   

2015 Hockey Canada Gala
Aaron Johnson, Claude Julien and Brad Marchand

I can honestly say that I became a better practice coach every year that I coached because I held players accountable by making them execute in practice.  

I take an enormous amount of pride in that even today.

To excel as a practice coach you don’t need flow drills or drills that make your team look good, you need to simply work on aspects that your team struggles with and try to implement structure and routine within your practice around a framework derived out of execution.  

My strategy to become a better practice coach was simple, watch and dissect upper level practices and always be observant in and around the rink.  I learned so much during my playing days from one of the best practices coaches ever in Dale Turner. 

Being a student of the game came easy to me because of Dale’s philosophies, but also becoming a “practice junky” didn’t hurt either.  

I took full advantage of the opportunity to watch the New York Islanders conduct their Training Camp here in Moncton in 2008-2009.

I substantially grew as a practice coach around that time period. 

Over the years I have also been fortunate enough to watch my beloved Bruins practice several times and have been equally fascinated by observing NHL players and coaches apply their trade.  

Watching true professionals conduct their business is fascinating and very intriguing. By studying and watching NHL practices very closely I observed how players and coaches interact.  I also gained an appreciation on how these coaches explained each drill and how they emphasized the teaching points that accompanied each drill.  I watched the players and how they conducted themselves in practice in all areas, before, during and after the drill.

Probably the most important aspect that I learned from watching NHL teams practice is the coach’s awareness and timing when to stop a drill.  

This is one the most critical skills a coach can possess.  The knowledge and experience to know when the drill has reached its climax on all levels with regards to skill development and team systems is vital to any coach.   

To manage your practice and cover all those skills and team systems is very difficult, but for NHL coaches the transition appeared naturally seamless.   

As mentioned previously, my belief in execution was evident in NHL practices.  I will never forget watching a Bruins practice and hearing Claude Julien lose it on the team right after practice in 2009. 

 His feedback was direct, honest and intense.   

It was clear that he didn’t like the execution and tempo of the practice.

This knowledgeable B’s fan and then amateur coach stole three drills that practice and used every drill for the next several years. 

Julien’s practice routine and intensity is really the stuff of legend around the NHL.   It has become such a given that Julien works on battle type drills every practice that reporters always comment and add pictures of those drills on social media.  

The battle drills of the Boston Bruins under Julien’s regime gave the team an identity and persona that matches the legendary status of the Big Bad Bruins.

By watching and studying  “a Julien run” practice, I learned  a lot, he didn’t accept mediocrity, and always and I mean always held players accountable for their role in the practice.  By holding his players accountable he automatically demanded execution. I truly believe a coach that doesn’t stop a drill and correct the most minuscule detail or teaching point is failing their team.  

That’s a really a bold statement, but it’s so true to so many amateur coaches.  It just seems that this generation of athletes and coaches have accepted mediocrity in our practices. 

I was actually criticized by parents early on in my practices for teaching/talking to much while explaining a drill or concept.  It was so rewarding at the time to actually see the parents looking puzzled and confused at my willingness to stop a drill instantly and hold players accountable for their lack of execution.  

By holding them accountable in practice, the parents and other onlookers didn’t realize that the players wouldn’t make those costly mistakes trying to execute in games.

I have learned a lot through countless years of coaching,  but an emphasis on execution in practice creates accountability amongst players which in turn strengthens your hockey club.  So you can say all the clinches you want about practice until your blue in the face, however it is still the single most important aspect of coaching, it’s just too bad more coaches don’t realize it.

The Game Has Changed, but Has Practice? 

The goal of any team in the new era of the game is “transition.”

Playing fast, but what type of player are we producing?

Are coaches too focused on skill development or systems?

Sometimes playing fast means playing reckless. 

Some teams that say they play fast, don’t keep their stats very well because they are turning pucks over like crazy. 

As a scout it’s one of the first aspects I look for during a first viewing of any team really is how they transition the puck. 

When you have a team that always hits the open man and moves the puck “east to west” then attack, it’s really beautiful to watch.   

Where did this concept of a regroup” come from?  

What team used it first?  

What other sports use the “Regroup” as a weapon? 

Do players in today’s game really understand the principle of the regroup? 

2012 Pee Wee AA Provincial Champs

To be honest I don’t think they do, they just throw it indirectly and hope for the best. 

Obviously, the first team to create the “regroup” or moving backwards to initialize forward movement was in fact the Russians.

They would constantly send the puck back in a very discipline way creating havoc for their opposition and with one pass transition into a offensive threat and usually score.   They stole this concept from Soccer believe it or not by using the “weak side” to gain easy access in order to attack. In Soccer the term is to “switch” and usually creates a massive shift in the field.   However, in hockey terms do we use the “regroup” effectively?  

Whether it’s one pass to “weak side winger” or “D to D”  there has to be constant movement and an effort to come back to the puck.   

That’s right coming back to the puck. 

If there’s anything I hate about the game now is the stretch dump, having a guy camped out at the red line and the d quick ups the puck for a dump in. Cripes that’s just turning pucks over. 

Sure use it for a line change and to alleviate pressure, but I’ve some teams use it non stop.  

When teams struggle in the NHL, they are not supporting the puck hence not coming back to it thus creating  gaps in their transition game.  

In 2011 during the B’s Stanley Cup run, they supported the puck very well with short accurate passes throughout the neutral zone and even using the center of the ice on “Breakouts” to create flow on their attack.    

Obviously team’s emphasis on the transition game has gained popularity since the game opened up and the “red line” was taken away.   In my opinion coaches are still not using or promoting the” D to D” pass enough in effort to attack.   The “cross ice” pass that is open is almost never taken into consideration now due to the fact coaches don’t want to turn the puck over, so this promotes no real organization or attack.  Transition is so important, but if you can’t work as one unit you will never get there, that’s why the Russians were so good at the neutral zone “regroup” they would all come back to the puck and supported the puck carrier all the way up the ice.    

So how did I teach the “regroup” well that’s my little secret, but I will tell you that watching the afore mentioned Boston Bruins practices over the years, I gained valuable experience and knowledge.   I strongly believe that you can’t practice this skill enough and you won’t believe the puck movement created by one simple transition from a “Regroup.” 

Does your son or daughter’s team work on breakouts and regroups every practice? 

Does your son or daughter’s team work on supporting the puck execute transition drills with resistance? 

Are you sick of just watching flow drills? Are you sick of watching poor practices?

Don’t worry you’re not alone, just talk to anyone around the game they will tell you the same thing! 

Check out the Quick Shift Podcast: Practice


  1. So the lack of resistance in a generic flow drill, combined with a set pattern, combined with group movement at the speed of the slowest cog… it looks pretty when executed, but I’m skeptical about how effective they are in terms of real-game use and max ice utilization. Not to mention they aren’t that fun.
    You did not mention the endless benefits of flow drills. What are they for you?
    Thanks for the article.


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