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What Scouts Look For: Hockey IQ Is More Than Just Instinct

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This is the second in series of articles examining in detail what hockey coaches and scouts at the NCAA, junior, AAA and prep-school levels look for when watching potential prospects. 


By Scott Lowe -

When we watch the youngest hockey players and see a kid who stands out on the ice, not because the player is the fastest or biggest, but because he or she just seems to think the game at a different level than the others, it’s common to say that the player has great “hockey instincts.” As players get older and play at higher levels against better competition, the term we use instead of instincts is “hockey IQ.”

Is there a difference between hockey instincts and hockey IQ, and is hockey IQ something that can be developed and improved over time? These are difficult questions to answer, so to help figure it out, let’s first examine how some high-level coaches define hockey IQ.

“Hockey IQ is being able to understand your position and other positions on the ice,” says Jack O’Brien, head coach at Hebron Academy in Maine. “What am I supposed do without the puck? What am I supposed to do next?”

Gonnor Gorman, also a New England prep school coach at New Hampshire’s New Hampton School, describes it as “a player’s ability to make the best possible read with or without the puck within a split second.”

Being able to read the play also is a key component of hockey IQ, according to Bryan Erikson, head coach of the Northeast Generals, a Massachusetts-based Tier 2 junior team in the North American Hockey League. But he also stresses that anticipation is another characteristic that stands out in smart players.  

“It’s the ability to read the ice and read the play, but also to anticipate and understand where you should be and where your teammates should be, Erikson says. “And to be able to do it all within a half a second. It is an innate feel for the game.”

Jay Punsky, an assistant NCAA Division III coach with Worcester State and head coach of the Islanders Hockey Club’s USPHL Premier Tier 3 junior team agrees: “It’s the ability to see the play before it happens and solve the problem accordingly.”

Another Tier 2 U.S. junior coach, Jim Henkel of the National Collegiate Development Conference’s Connecticut Jr. Rangers, provides more of a big-picture definition.

“I see it as a player’s ability to understand the game while being in the moment,” Henkel says, “and to strategize throughout the game and the season. Can a player determine the right play from the wrong play based on the time remaining and the momentum of the game? Can the player make an in-game adjustment based on a change in approach by the other team? Can a player read a play and anticipate to make himself more involved in the game?”

How about others at the NCAA college level? Do those coaches view hockey IQ any differently?

NCAA Division II Southern New Hampshire University head coach Sean Walsh is on board with the idea that high-IQ players “can see the play before it happens. They read what’s happening and can understand what’s going on. They can find open ice.”

Another college coach, Castleton University NCAA Division III assistant Anthony Matarazzo, talks about players who put themselves and their teams in preferred situations.

“I see it as cognitive awareness that allows a player or his team the ability to have an advantage with or without the puck,” he explains.

There are common threads in most – if not all – of these opinions, so let’s summarize the coaches’ thoughts to create one definition for the purpose of this article. In a nutshell, hockey IQ is a player’s mental capacity to gather all the information available to him or her during a particular game sequence and process it quickly enough to make decisions with or without the puck that give the player and the team a competitive advantage over opponents consistently.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, why is the focus of this article on hockey IQ?

Not long ago, we posted an article that discussed what high-level coaches and scouts look for when they are watching young players compete in game situations. After talking to a few respected folks in the business, we focused on four areas – skating, hockey IQ, consistency of effort/compete level and character/body language. These characteristics were pretty much universally accepted by the coaches and scouts who were contacted for that article.

With tryouts, junior drafts and selection camps rapidly approaching, we wanted to reach back out to a larger sample of coaches and scouts at the NCAA, junior, AAA and prep-school levels to see if there were additional attributes we had overlooked, determine which characteristics are considered most important and take a more in-depth look at each area that scouts prioritize. 

This is the second in a series of articles about what high-level scouts look for in young hockey players. Hockey IQ is the focus of this piece, but first let’s examine the areas coaches of elite hockey players find most important when they are at the rinks searching for prospects.

More than 50 coaches at the NCAA, junior, AAA and prep-school levels were surveyed for this series, and there was not one specific trait that was overwhelmingly chosen as the most important characteristic in a player they were scouting. But skating was cited most often.

Here is a rundown in priority order of the attributes high-level coaches and scouts look for in potential prospects:

  • Skating
  • Compete Level/Consistency of Effort
  • Hockey IQ
  • Character/Body Language
  • Skill/Shooting 

The first three areas were very close in terms of being named by almost all the coaches who responded and having average ratings of between 2.2 and 2.5. Character/body language was the clear fourth choice, getting a few first-place votes but also ranking as low as sixth. Skill/shooting was not ranked above fourth by anyone but got the next-most overall votes.

Other characteristics that were mentioned by a few of the coaches and scouts who responded were:

  • Physical Toughness/Grit
  • Mental Toughness
  • Versatility
  • Situational Hockey Awareness

Situational hockey awareness is a tricky concept, because it approaches the realm of hockey IQ, which is the focus of this article. Tony Dalessio, a AAA youth and junior coach with the Northern Cyclones in New Hampshire, sees a distinct difference in the two concepts.

“Hockey IQ is most important for me when I scout players,” Dalessio says. “I want kids who understand the game and the system they are playing in. Having a good IQ can make up for deficiencies within their game. Situational hockey should not be confused with hockey IQ. Can players read a certain situation and understand the smart play? Chip pucks in to gain zones, know when to change on the fly, go hard to the bench on a change? Do they make smart plays with the puck in odd-man situations?”

Dalessio’s thoughts on situational hockey awareness mirror some of Henkel’s bigger-picture ideas about hockey IQ as it relates to time and score situations and the momentum of a particular game – or even based on what part of the season a team is in and where it ranks in the standings.

The smart play – or the play that is considered to be the best option 90 percent of the time in a specific situation – will be made consistently by players with high hockey IQs. But if there are seven minutes left in the third period of a one-goal playoff game and the other team is pushing hard, a different approach might be preferred.

This is something that can’t always be simulated in practice and might come up in a video session once or twice a year. It’s the type of feel for the game and decision-making that separates great players from really good players and something that often takes repeated failures or near-failures to become ingrained. And for some players, it may never become ingrained, proving to be an aspect of the sport that determines at which level a player hits his or her ceiling.  

If hockey IQ is checkers or algebra for hockey players, situational hockey awareness is chess or calculus.

Situational awareness can be developed over time and often is a product of playing against bigger, stronger, faster and better players – and on teams with more knowledgeable coaches – in higher-stakes situations repeatedly. While it plays an important role in determining the level to which a player ultimately progresses, if a player is a good skater with a high hockey IQ who really competes, it can be assumed that he or she eventually will be able to adapt to the situations that arise as he or she climbs the hockey developmental ladder.

Getting back to initial question, hockey instincts also are not the same as hockey IQ. That young player who seemed to think the game on a higher level hadn’t learned that behavior, sure, it’s possible that he or she had played video games or watched enough hockey games to pick up on a few basic concepts and was imitating those, but there are some young athletes who, when the puck is dropped or the ball is rolled out, just react differently than others. They pass to open teammates and naturally gravitate to areas where the ball or puck seems to find them.

Not every young player possesses these natural instincts, but through competition and experience they can be developed. And if those basic instincts were all that scouts looked at when determining a player’s hockey IQ, there would be a lot more players getting an opportunity to play at higher levels.

“I would call it hockey sense versus hockey IQ,” Matarazzo says. “I’d place hockey IQ as the cognitive, while hockey sense is the instinct.”

There’s much more to hockey IQ than passing to open teammates and finding soft spots in the defense, although those certainly are the most basic components. And while not every player possesses those instincts or develops a high hockey IQ in their younger years, it’s imperative once they get to an age where scouts start attending games if they hope to play at higher levels.

“It’s not really instinct,” Henkel says. “I think it’s repetition in a non-sequential environment, learning to read and adjust to different situations, remembering what works and doesn’t. It’s like a stat book in your head to know that one thing will work 50 percent of the time versus 85 percent of the time and understanding when it’s the right time to be a take a little more risk if the reward is high.”

The good news is that a player’s hockey IQ evolves over time based on competitive experiences and coaching as well as trial and error. Players also can put in extra time studying the game to improve their hockey IQs.

“Watching hockey is huge,” Erickson says. “Watch it at all levels. Watch players who are better than you, players who are equal to you, NHL, college, junior, midget. Watch what they do when they don’t have the puck. This is how you can improve your game and your IQ.”

Although more hockey at more levels is available to watch today thanks to increased NHL, college and international coverage on television and the access we have to games at different levels via web streams, with so many other distractions, it seems as though young players probably take the time to watch a full game less frequently than players from previous generations. They watch all the highlights and stickhandling tricks on Instagram and Tik Tok but sitting for 2-1/2 hours and focusing on a game just doesn’t happen often.

“They all watch high-level hockey, but they watch the highlights – the best of the best scoring goals and making ridiculous plays,” Henkel says. "They don’t get to see the game in its entirety, which will allow them to see the subtle plays, the communication that happens, the reading off other players.”

Erikson believes there is more to it than just getting young players to watch games.

“First, we have to teach them how to watch hockey for personal improvement,” he says. “If you are a center, find a center that you think plays a similar style and just watch him or her on the ice at all times – with the puck, away from the puck, body language. Everything.”

O’Brien agrees with that approach.

“They should be watching the players in the same position that they play,” he says. “Understand what they do with and without the puck, where they are in relation to the space available on the rink and how they make plays in certain situations.”

Watching themselves play on video is another way players can improve their hockey IQ. While this has become much easier to do thanks to 21st-century technology and should be something that hockey programs at the AA and AAA levels offer once players reach a certain age, unfortunately it often becomes an issue of available time. Volunteer and part-time coaches may not have enough free time to break down game video given their work and family commitments, and it may be hard to find time to go over the video when teams only meet for a few hours a week.

“For me, it’s 100 percent a time thing,” Gorman says. “I am a full-time teacher, dorm parent, freshman advisor and coach lacrosse in the spring. However, we do film as a team one or two times a week here, and each video session is about 20-25 minutes. I also do my best to bring players by my classroom daily during my free block to show them video either of themselves, a college player or a pro player. Sometimes it’s literally a two-minute thing, but even that can be effective.

Unfortunately, even though many AA, AAA and junior programs sell video sessions as part of the package they charge so much money for, time spent reviewing video often seems to shrink as a season progresses.

“Players should ask to watch video with their coaches, or if their coaches are watching a different game just ask if they can watch along with them,” Erikson says. “It’s a tough situation for some kids to approach, but that’s what we are there for.”

Of course, players with a thirst to get better and improve their hockey IQ always can watch video of themselves playing on their own, especially if they know the areas they want to improve in and how to get the most out of their solo video sessions.

“They should determine at what point they gave up on plays,” Matarazzo says. “There’s a point on every player’s film where they gave up on a play, whether it’s a backcheck on a goal against or an icing where the D stops skating and just drifts. It happens to every player. I think if a player wants to really determine what type of player he is and where he needs to improve, it’s important to watch for where he lets up.”

Henkel and other coaches talk about asking players who watch film on their own to analyze situations where quick decisions are necessary and how they were handled.

“I would have them look at their time-frame in moving pucks and what options were available,” Henkel says. “Then they can see the repetitive nature of the placement in terms of their location on the ice, proximity to their opponent and the time and score of the game. Did the play work, and if not, why? Was that the best option? It’s not all about the goals, assists, hits and saves. Look for the breakdowns and evaluate the process and what they can do in similar situations in the future. I call this brain muscle-memory work.”

Players looking to improve their hockey IQs always will be limited by available ice time, coach availability and their own available free time as they learn to manage everything they try to juggle each day. That makes it even more important for coaches to make the best use of the time they do get to spend with their teams to ensure they are doing everything possible to develop their players and help them achieve their goals.  

Sometimes too much time is spent emphasizing wins and losses and coaching aspects of the game that can help younger teams win instead of focusing on the best method to help each player reach his or her potential and continue climbing the hockey developmental ladder. If hockey IQ is an important to higher-level scouts, coaches of teams with a number of players who have aspirations of playing at the junior or college level should look to incorporate a plan to develop hockey IQ whenever the team is together.

“Hockey IQ can be improved shift to shift if the coach is engaged and coaching his players,” Punsky says. “It can also be improved through game-like drills in practice and in the video room.” 

Henkel takes the approach of creating game-like situations in practice.

“Small-area games are a huge part of the success in improving hockey IQ,” he says. “Be sure to explain the drill and relate it to game situations. Set up players in different areas that require different plays or decisions in different situations and see how they react. Ask them why they did certain things. Continue to evolve the games and make them think more as you go along. Play them often and put values on certain aspects such as turnovers, goals for and goals against. And have them compete until there is a winner to make it more like a game.” 

Erikson has a simpler message for coaches.

“Stop yelling at them every time they make a mistake,” he says. “This is when kids start becoming afraid to fail. Let them read situations and make mistakes, but also remind players who struggle with decision-making to keep it simple, take your first option and then build from there.” 

That’s probably the most important consideration in developing all aspects of a young hockey player’s game. No matter the level, it's a game and should be fun. If it’s not fun or something the players look forward to, they aren’t going to be willing to put in the work necessary in any area to impress scouts or achieve their long-term goals.

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