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The Importance of Learning to Play Along the Boards

By Enio Sacilotto

What area of the ice do you think the puck spends the most time in a hockey game?  Watch the first video!


“In an NHL hockey game, eighty Percent of puck time is within 3 feet from the wall.”

Dallas Eakins, NHL Coach

If 80% of the time the puck is three feet from the boards, then it is essential to learn to play along the boards and be a good “wall player.”  A good wall player in the offensive zone wins puck battles and can get the puck to the good ice, inside the dots and into the prime scoring area, either by passing or carrying the puck and attacking the net.

In breakout situations, defensemen need to have good one-on-one skills to gain possession of the puck, either to skate the puck or make the first pass to the winger on the boards or the centre in the middle.  Many teams in hockey today like to pinch their D on the boards to keep the puck alive in the offensive zone.  The break-out forward on the wall has to protect the puck, get off the wall (if he can), make a short pass to the supporting forward, and chip it past the defending defensemen or back to his defensemen.

No matter the situation, if you do not have the puck, you must work to get it back.  If you have the puck, you must get it to your opponent’s net to score goals.

Here are some essential skills that will improve your play along the boards or your wall play:

Keeping your eyes up (looking) – You cannot play hockey without keeping your head up.  You must constantly have a “swivel” head and survey the situation on the ice to know what is happening around you. With your eyes up, you can make the appropriate decisions.

Shoulder checking – Shoulder checking when going after a loose puck allows you to “look” and see if there is pressure from an opponent, where the pressure is coming from, and where your supporting teammates are.

Sprinting – Hockey is a fast and intense game.  To effectively win board battles, you need to get there first.  To get there, first, you need to sprint.  Sprinting away from your opponent would be best when you win the puck along the walls.  The team that sprints the fastest wins the game.  So practise quick starts and short five-foot sprints.

Getting inside position – Body positioning is the primary key to winning a puck race.  First, sprint; then, you want to get your shoulder in front of the opponent’s shoulder.  With this body positioning, you will get to the puck first.  Then, you can use the stick lift check, or you can get your stick on the puck by jabbing at it with the blade of your stick.

Posture – To be strong on your skates, you need good posture, a broad base, feet apart and a deep knee bend, with your shoulders back and head up.  This posture lets you keep your centre of gravity over your support base.   This is called the hockey stance and will help you be strong on the puck.

Having a good stick – When you do not have the puck, you must recover it.  Keeping your stick on the ice with one hand allows you to have a long stick and use your stick blade to jab at the puck so you can strip the opponent of the puck.  Always lead with your stick.  If you cannot get your stick on the puck, you must follow through on your opponent’s body.

Communicating – Be your teammate’s eyes, always talk on the ice, and let each other know what is happening around you.  If your team has this communication mentality, you will help each other win all the puck battles along the boards.

Puck protection – When you gain possession of the puck, you want to keep it.  When you are along the boards, the best way to keep it is to protect it.  With a good hockey stance (posture), you want to create a wall between you and your opponent.   Use your butt, legs and arms to fight off your opponent.  Do not expose the puck.  Exposing the puck will allow your opponent to get stick on the puck and strip you of possession.

Punch turns – Another effective way to keep the puck along the boards is to use punch turns or a turnback move.  Punch turns are very sharp turns that are lead with the outside edge of your turning foot.  For example, if you have an opponent on your back, you want to turn away from him. If you are doing a punch, turn to your left, punch or jam the ice with your left outside edge, then turn sharply to your left.  You will evade the checker, get off the wall and take the puck to the net—body position offensively to get off the wall. After the punch turn, you have half a step on the defender; you want to get your shoulder inside your opponent’s shoulder to protect the puck and your space/lane to net or good ice.

Deception – When going after a loose puck with a defender slightly behind you, you can use deception before you pick up the puck.  A simple body fake or stick fake to your left, then a turn to your right may be enough deception to throw your checker off.   If you have the puck and have just done an effective punch turn and are on your way to the net, you may face another opponent trying to strip you of the puck.  In this case, as former NHLer Mike Santorelli has taught me, you have to make moves within moves. So, you may have to do an inside edge fake to win your next one-on-one battle.

Passing skills – You need to keep your head up, communicate and use proper passing techniques to get a short pass to your teammate.  I like to use the term “look-push-point.”   When passing, 1) before passing, look to where you are passing too; 2) push or sweep the puck, don’t slap it; 3) roll your wrists so the tip of your blade points to the target you are passing to.   This will give the puck a controlled spin. That is where the passing accuracy comes from.

Compete – Be a gritty player that is hard to play against.  Have a determined mindset and never give up; own the puck and keep your battle level high!  Like coach Eakin says, “Don’t try to win the puck board battles, but be committed to getting the puck back.”

Practise – Be mindful and practise all these skills often!  Repetition is the mother of learning.  Mike Santorelli spent hours perfecting his punch turns and then his move within the move.  He is working on skills over and over again.  All the dedication and hard work got Mike into the NHL. Coaches, incorporate wall battles into all your drills and make them as game-like as possible.

Enio Sacilotto is President of International Hockey Camps and operates the Mental Edge High-Performance Training.  Enio has 39 years of coaching experience (professional hockey in Europe and the Victoria Royals (WHL)).  Currently, he coaches at the Burnaby Winter Club Hockey Academy.  If you have questions or are interested in his services, contact Enio at or call 604 255 4747.  Website: