When anyone starts playing hockey, backchecking and forechecking can feel like confusing topics to wrap your head around. But they’re not that difficult to learn.
So, what is backchecking and forechecking in hockey?
Backchecking and forechecking involve putting pressure on the opposing team to regain possession of the puck. Backchecking is racing back to your defensive zone to stop the other team from scoring. Forechecking is pressuring the other team to regain control of the puck in your offensive zone.
Let’s unpack some more of the crucial nuances of backchecking and forechecking.
Backchecking and Forechecking in Hockey
Both skills are crucial as they help force puck turnovers, prevent the other team from scoring and keep your team on the offensive. Without backchecking and forechecking, hockey just wouldn’t be the same fast-paced game we know and love.
While both are about working to move the momentum of the game in your favor and regaining possession of the puck, these two skills are different. Here’s how:
Backchecking is a defensive power move. In a backcheck, offensive players skate like animals back to their team’s defensive zone to put pressure on their opponents.
The goal is to force a turnover and help your team get back to trying to score. Players might check their opponents, intercept passes or force an ill-timed shot.
Forechecking is offensive. Here, a player or several players move into the neutral or offensive zone to pressure the opposing team’s defense into losing possession of the puck. It’s key in helping your team stay on the offensive and score.
Why Is Backchecking Important?
Backchecking is the backbone of a strong defense. If the other team dumps the puck into your defensive zone or if the other team’s offensive player has a breakaway, backchecking gives your team a far better chance of protecting the net.
Without backchecking, defensive players are left unsupported and the other team has a better chance of scoring. Getting more bodies into the defensive zone helps your defensemen in several ways.
First, more players–even just one more player–in the defensive zone forces the other team to move around, pass more and may even pressure them to take riskier, poorly timed shots. This buys the goalie more time and increases your team’s odds of forcing a turnover or intercepting a pass.
To help your team improve their backchecking, incorporate regular backchecking drills into practice. This will help them react based on good training and instinct, and help them from panicking during a game.
Here are some tips to help you coach backchecking:
- Build effective communication. Help your team communicate effectively. This will help the defensive players and backcheckers work together on the ice and make sure the opposing team is covered like tape covers a hockey stick.
- Hone basic skills. Help your team understand how to get their sticks and bodies on the hands of the opposite team to take away their ability to maneuver the puck. Make sure they understand how to do this without holding, hooking, slashing and incurring a penalty.
- Stay net-side. Teach your players to stay on the defensive side–the net side–of their opponent. This will help to keep them from scoring, as they’ll have to take shots from unfavorable angles.
- Know their role. Each player needs to understand their role in a backcheck, relative to their position on the ice.
By improving your team’s backchecking, you also help your players build communication skills, fitness, comfort with game rules and encourage hustle. This will translate to better offense, better forechecking, and improved all-around fitness and hustle.
Fitness, hustle, and communication skills are essential in defending against odd-man rushes.
How to Defend Against Odd Man Rushes
Defending against an odd-man rush–or when the other team’s offense overwhelms your defense–is a crucial skill. It’s especially critical when your team has a man in the penalty box.
When you’re defending against an odd-man rush, the goal is to make it hard for the other team to get a good shot rather than immediately reclaim the puck. To do this, you have to be able to commit to defending against a particular player on the opposite team so your goalie knows what’s going on. This also buys the rest of your team time as they race to backcheck.
In odd-man rush situations, you want to be able to get the other team members down the ice as quickly as possible and right where they need to be. The player or players already on defense also need to act quickly to prevent the other team from scoring.
There are three key elements to defending against an odd-man rush, no matter what level a player or team is at. These are communication, positioning and awareness.
Communication breaks down into communicating before the game, communicating as a team, and communicating with your goaltender.
Communication before the game doesn’t just happen in the locker room on the day. It also happens during each practice and drill, which helps you build an intuitive bond with your team. That’s why each player needs to show up, focus and put the work in for each grueling practice day–not just game day.
Communicating as a team on the ice is also crucial. Players need to be able to communicate with the goaltender both before and during a game. What does the goaltender prefer to happen in a 3-on-1 or 3-on-2 situation? The other team members need to know.
Players also need to be able to communicate with each other on the ice and know what they need from each other. This leads to the second principle of defending against odd-man rushes: positioning. To defend against odd-man rushes successfully, players need to know where to go to make the most of the situation.
Awareness is the final but perhaps one of the most important factors in defending against an odd-man rush. Awareness allows the player to communicate more efficiently, understand positioning and commit to their defensive strategy.
Why Is Forechecking Important?
Forechecking plays a critical role in a variety of situations. If a player dumps the puck into the offensive zone, offensive players may need to hustle to pressure the opposing team’s defense and gain possession of the puck.
A good forecheck makes it almost impossible for the opposing team to change out players. This tires out the opposing team and makes them more likely to make mistakes.
Additionally, forechecking can help your team reclaim the puck after a turnover while the puck is still in the offensive zone. In each situation, forechecking helps you keep your puck in the offensive zone and increase your chances of scoring.
Here are a few more drills to help your team both execute and defend against forechecking:
- The continuous 1-on-1 drill. Here, have two players partner up and continuously practice powering from one offensive zone to the other, trading defensive roles and trying to keep the other from scoring.
This builds endurance and basic forechecking skills. These skills transfer to more complex drills.
- The continuous 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 (or odd-man rush). This involves one (or two) defenders and two (or three) forwards.
Each defender stays in his defensive zone while the forwards alternate backchecking/forechecking for an effective odd-man rush drill that builds endurance and communication.
In an odd-man rush situation, the defensive player(s) should focus on the opponent(s) without the puck. As a result, the goalie can focus on the player with the puck and slide quickly to make a save if necessary.
Defenders can also practice laying out in 2-1 so offensive players can’t pass the puck on the ice.
- Stretch pass drills. A stretch pass occurs when a defenseman is moving backward with his head up and makes a pass to a forward on the far blue line.
The forward then takes the puck into the offensive zone. Drill multiple stretch pass defensive scenarios to help your team understand how to both execute and defend against stretch passes.
These drills don’t just help with backchecking and forechecking. They can also help your team improve their fitness foundation, communication, and general awareness on the ice. This prepares your team to keep the puck in the offensive zone.
Keeping the Puck in the Offensive Zone
The goal of both backchecking and forechecking is ultimately to get and keep the puck in the offensive zone.
Because this increases your chance of scoring and decreases the other team’s chance of scoring. Keeping the puck in the offensive zone helps you win the game.
The best defense–and, logically, the best backchecking–forces quick turnovers and gets the team back on the offensive as quickly as possible.
As the last decade has shown with the Pittsburgh Penguins, an ability to go on the offensive and stay on the offensive is critical. Sometimes they pull that off. Other times, they could completely lacked the ability to play defense and have lost pivotal games, despite their ability to score.
Even if you can score, the other team has to score less than you do. Keeping the puck out of your defensive zone is a surefire way to keep the other team from scoring. Of course, it’s easier said than done.
This is where the drills described above come into play. It’s critical to instill good instincts into each player on your team and make them aware of their role on the ice.
Backchecking and forechecking are essential skills that each player and team need to master. And they’re not skills that can be mastered in a single practice: they should be continually reviewed and honed as long as someone plays hockey.
Whether you’re coaching kids, all-star teens or professional athletes, these skills can make or break the game.