The poke check, the unsung hero of defense!
When you think of a hockey check you often envision a highlight clip of a towering defenseman stepping up and delivering a bone-crunching hit on an unsuspecting forward who got caught with their head down.
There’s a reason why the big hits make the sports highlight reel, they are surprisingly rare in a game.
Often, the much subtler poke check is used to effectively disrupt an offensive play.
What is a Poke Check?
By definition, a check in hockey is any physical action which is used to separate a puck-carrier from the puck.
These actions include traditional body checks as described above, but they also extend to include various type of stick-checking techniques, including the poke check.
A poke check is when a defensive player uses his stick in a poking fashion to knock the puck away from an offensive player.
Poke checks are the most commonly used of all the stick check techniques and can be used by any player in any zone of the ice.
Poke Check Technique
At it’s basic level, the poke check is pretty simple. You poke the blade of your stick towards the puck carrier’s stick or the puck itself to try and cause them to lose possession.
While they physical mechanics of a poke check are not overly complicated, there are many different variables to consider when executing the play correctly.
One of the most common examples of an effective poke check occurs when a defensive player uses the technique to disrupt a 1-on-1 situation.
In this example both players are moving in the same direction, but the puck carrier is skating forward, while the defensive player is skating backwards. Because the defensive player in this situation is in a more vulnerable position, their body positioning and technique is critical.
At all times during this technique, the defensive player should maintain good skating posture, while keeping their head up and weight distributed evenly over the balls of their feet. Since the attacking puck-carrier will often dictate the action of the defender, the defensive player needs to stay up on their edges and be prepared to make sudden changes in direction.
To effectively set up this technique the defensive player should maintain control of their stick with their top hand, while keeping their other hand free for balance and extended range of motion.
Since the goal is to draw the puck-carrier as close to your stick zone (the area of ice that is within reach of your stick) as possible, defensive players should keep the elbow of their top stick-hand bent and pulled in tight to their body (this will give the puck-carrier the illusion that they have more space to maneuver than they do).
Once the puck has entered the defensive player’s stick-zone, the defender should use a short and controlled poking motion to try to “jab” the puck off the offensive player’s stick. This motion should be executed by extending the elbow forward rather than leaning with the shoulder, or else the defensive player jeopardizes their balance and limits overall mobility.
It is important that the defensive player keep their head up at all times during this technique so that they can evaluate changes in the situation and survey the ice.
Depending on the outcome of the poke check, the defensive player may need to quickly change direction to retrieve the loose puck, or use their proximity to transition from the poke check into an open-ice body check.
The technique of a forward skating poke check is very much like a poke check when skating backwards. In this situation, instead of moving in the same direction as the puck-carrier, the defensive player is taking a forward angle while moving toward the puck-carrier.
This play could develop while a player is forechecking the puck in the offensive or neutral zone, or even when a defenseman is skating forward to challenge an offensive player around their net.
Since the two players in these situations are moving toward each other, the play can develop very quickly, and it is important that the defensive player keep their head up and keep good balance on their skates. In this instance, the defensive player will want to take an angle toward the puck carrier that will limit the offensive player’s ability to stickhandle around the poke check (skating directly at an oncoming puck carrier increases their options for escaping the check).
If the play is taking place along the boards, the defensive player may choose to use a poke-check at the same time as a more traditional body-check. In this example, the defensive player can use their body and free hand (being sure not to get a holding penalty) to hit and pin the puckcarrier along the wall, while using their stick to effectively poke check the puck off the player’s stick.
As with the previous examples, it is important for the defensive player to keep their head up in this situation so that they can effective analyze their options when poking the puck free.
Sliding Poke Check
In certain situations, it may be necessary for a defensive player to leave their feet and slide onto their stomach to poke check a puck that is otherwise out of reach.
The advantage of this play is that the defensive player can quickly reach a puck-carrier who is not within their stickzone (this may be necessary when the offensive player is on a breakaway or in a high-scoring area).
The disadvantage of this technique is that the sliding player cannot easily regain position if the poke check is unsuccessful. Additionally, stick positioning on a sliding poke check is often difficult to control which may render the check unsuccessful and can even lead to a penalty if the puck carrier becomes tripped up by the sliding poke check.
In short, sliding poke checks are a high-risk/high-reward maneuver which should only be utilized as a last resort.
Don’t take this technique for granted just because it seems so simple.
The timing of your poke check can make the difference between disrupting the offensive play or putting yourself out of position and letting the puck carrier create a better offensive play.
The best way to practice this is with one on one drills. Each player should learn to do this going forwards and backwards. Make it into a competition at practice. See who can carry the puck the furthest without losing it or have them carry it to a predetermined spot to keep the drill moving quickly.
Do you have any questions about implementing the poke check effectively?
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