How to Improve Hockey IQ

Hockey IQ (or Hockey Sense) separates good players from great players. But do you know what Hockey IQ is or how to develop it?

First, let’s take a look at what Hockey IQ means. Then, we will dive into the different ways you can improve it.

What is Hockey IQ?

There is no set definition, but my take on it is this:

Hockey IQ measures your ability to make optimal decisions on the ice.

Hockey IQ is nearly impossible to measure as decisions are made every second on the ice. But it’s usually easy to find players with high hockey sense.

The players with high Hockey IQ are the players who:

  • seem to get open in the offensive zone at the perfect time
  • make the right pass at critical moments
  • choose the right stickhandling move needed to beat a defender at the right moment
  • can cause turnovers by knowing where the puck is going

They can read and react to the game smartly and effortlessly, resulting in many optimal decisions.

Examples of Hockey IQ

Here’s an example sequence for a right winger off an opening faceoff to give you a further idea of when Hockey IQ is used.

The opposing team wins the faceoff back to their D-man. The player recognizes this and stays with his winger off the draw but gives some space, baiting the D-man into trying to move the puck there. When he notices the D-man look at his winger, he anticipates a pass and skates into the passing lane to intercept the pass. He scans the ice as he attacks the opposition’s blue line and reads that his centerman is driving the middle hard, pushing both d-man into retreat mode. Realizing that will open ice (space) up in the middle, he cuts into prime shooting space. Using the two defenders and his centerman as a screen, he notices the goalie standing tall, attempting to see around the players. He rips a shot five hole past the screened goalie for a goal.

This player made several great decisions that led to the goal. However, a player with lower hockey sense might have chased the puck off the draw (leaving his man), not recognized his teammate driving the center of the ice to anticipate ice opening up in the high slot he could skate into, and not realized the what the goalie was doing on the play.

The reality is this:

Even the best players don’t always make the most optimal choice. But our goal is to try and make the best decisions more frequently than not.

Does Skill Play a Role in Hockey IQ?

Having high skill levels can give you an advantage in Hockey IQ. But being skillful doesn’t mean you will automatically have good hockey sense.

Think about it:

We’ve all seen a player who looks good in practice (good technical skills) but doesn’t put up numbers in games (doesn’t read and react well).

With that said:

If you have a higher skill level, you give yourself a better opportunity to improve your Hockey IQ. For example, being able to stickhandle with your head up will allow you to scan the ice more easily and find opponent teammates or see where the defenders are. And skating effortlessly will enable you to open to the ice more often and think less about what your legs are doing.

Are Players Born with Hockey IQ?

Some people say that Hockey IQ is something you are born with and can’t be taught. But that’s absolute B.S. if you ask me.

Genetics may play a small role in Hockey IQ. However, every hockey player has the opportunity to improve upon their hockey sense at any age.

Let’s dive into it…

How Do You Improve Hockey IQ?

So, we’ve got an idea of what Hockey IQ is. But how do we improve it?

#1 – Improve Your Stickhandling

Outside of maybe Connor McDavid and Patrick Kane, all hockey players have a good amount of improvement they can make within their puck-handling skills. But how does improving your hands help your Hockey IQ?

If a player can feel more comfortable and confident with the puck, it can help in two main areas:

#1 – The player will have less anxiety with the puck on their stick, and they won’t “panic” trying to force a pass or shot when it’s not the optimal play yet.

#2 – Being comfortable with the puck will allow that player to have their head up, scan the ice with their eyes, and figure out where opponents/teammates are currently and which direction they are heading.

Here’s the thing:

When players think about improving their stickhandling, they often relate it to pulling off a nice move to beat an opponent 1-on-1. But more important is the upgrade in overall Hockey IQ that player will see from their stickhandling improvements.

*Check out my 2-Week Stickhandling Challenge if you’re looking to improve your stickhandling

#2 – Improve Your Skating

Skating is obviously extremely important in the game of hockey. But not many people relate it to Hockey IQ. However, when a player feels 100% comfortable on the ice, it opens up the game for them.

For example:

Quinn Hughes can let defenders get very close to him as he has his head up scanning for outlet passes because his slick skating skills allow him to escape from forecheckers when needed.

Sidney Crosby uses the open hip technique to open up to the ice, which gives him a full view to read the ice and allows him to make better decisions.

Players like William Nylander or Nathan MacKinnon regularly use quick punch turns to give them more space and time on the ice. And if you can afford more time and space, you can make better decisions.

A lot of your skating improvement will be done on the ice. But your player’s improvements will be capped if they don’t have the strength, power, and stability in their lower body skating muscles (ankles, quads, hips, groin, etc.). That’s why we recommend all players 12+ follow our hockey-specific dryland training programs.

#3 – Off Ice Learning

The most significant point is next at #4. But I had to include this category in this post as hockey players can improve their on-ice decision-making away from the rink in a few different ways.

As players get older, they can learn through watching film (both of themselves and players at higher levels). Seeing the game from a bird’s eye will give you a different perspective and open your eyes to different strategies you can employ while playing.


Learning your team’s system can improve your Hockey IQ, as a player’s optimal decision on the ice is always connected to teammates. In one system, it might be the right choice for a defenceman to pinch down, while in another, that might be the wrong choice.

Lastly (an outside the box view):

Participating in other invasion sports (soccer, basketball, handball, lacrosse, etc.) can help a player indirectly improve their Hockey IQ. Many great NHL players credit playing multiple sports growing up, and it’s not only due to the physical qualities you get from playing other sports.

But the real secret:

#4 – More Play

The most significant factor for improving Hockey IQ is the environment in which the hockey player practices and develops.

Detroit Red Wings Director of Hockey Development, Adam Nicholas, had a good quote in a podcast that I wrote down:

“Imagine if we taught humans how to drive on an open airplane runway, and all we did was have them go around cones. That’s essentially what skill development has done over the past 20 years. They (coaches) put a bunch of things on the ice, made players go around it, and then, hey, your season’s starting. Good luck to you.”

Adam Nicholas, Detroit Red Wings via The Hockey IQ Podcast

A player can become an excellent skater and great at handling the puck going around cones on the ice. But that won’t help them learn how to read other players, communicate with teammates, figure out spacing, or learn deception.

This is based on the Ecological Dynamics approach to motor learning in sports that is starting to (rightfully so) gain some ground in hockey.

Essentially, the key is this:

The more a hockey player is in an environment that represents game situations, the more they will naturally develop all of the qualities that lead them to have the ability to make optimal decisions on the ice (aka high Hockey IQ).

Brian Slugocki, who works out of Arizona and has trained players like Auston Matthews, had a great quote:

“To transfer skills and hockey sense from practices to games, you have to train in environments that are contextually similar to the game.”

Brian Slugocki, NHL Skills Trainer

In simple terms:

If you want to get better at hockey, play more hockey.

Your hockey sense isn’t learned skating around cones or dangling through training aids. Hockey IQ is developed through playing games, pickup hockey, or 3v3 on the pond or ODR.

Don’t get me wrong: 

I think unopposed skating and stickhandling drills (in which you don’t have an opposing player(s) forcing you to make decisions) have a spot in hockey training. I just think there’s too much of it currently.

Here’s why:

Skating, stickhandling, shooting, and passing can all be developed by playing the game (or game-like drills) while developing your hockey IQ simultaneously.

Hear me out:

Suppose you were to look at your average minor hockey player’s ice sessions throughout the year. They are likely playing hockey 50% of the time and doing unopposed drills the other 50%. That means half of the time they are on the ice, they aren’t developing their Hockey IQ. In my opinion, players would be much better off if that number was around 80/20 in favor of games or game situation-type drills. In that situation, players would develop their hockey sense 80% of the time while improving their technical skills simultaneously (yes, to a lesser extent, but they would still have that 20% to dedicate to technique training). 

To add:

95% of stickhandling and shooting training can be done at home. I have improved exponentially with my puck handling by doing my at-home follow along sessions and nearly zero on-ice work (other than playing games).

This is how I would break things down for on-ice training:

80% games (or game-like drills)

15% skating/edge work/coordination

5% stickhandling and shooting

Think about it:

Your stickhandling and shooting work can be done at home, and although it won’t be a direct transfer to the ice, they will be worked on a ton during the games. You should need little time outside of this on your stickhandling and shooting.

Skating will also get a ton of work during the games. But because you can’t work on your edges at home, you should spend more time pushing your limits with your edge work outside of games.

The truth is this:

If ice rinks were available like basketball courts are, kids could become pretty good just by playing the game. Hockey IQ is built by letting players play the game more, so we must stop getting in the way.

Here’s how I can help:

  1. If you’re in London, Ontario or area, shoot me an email, as I want to start up some Hockey IQ on-ice sessions.
  2. Start doing your stickhandling work at home using my Hockey Training TV follow-along video sessions to free up your valuable time on the ice.
  3. Improve your lower body strength, power, and stability using our hockey-specific workouts so you can spend less time and money on skating lessons
  4. Find more ways to play hockey games (pickup, outdoor rinks, stress-free environment for a change!)
  5. This one is for you to help me. If you found this helpful, I’d appreciate it if you shared it with another hockey player, parent, or coach. Thank you so much!
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