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Coach Cunniff Talks Shooting: Part 1

Speaking with coach Cunniff on shooting reminded me of taking advanced biochemistry in my doctor of chiropractic program.  He is so detailed and dialed into small details of this particular subject that we spoke for almost 2 hours on the topic.

The first thing that was abundantly clear in our conversation is getting the puck on net is the most important thing.  The shot can be hard or soft, but it must be on target. The trending increase of speed in the game has had an impact on what makes a great shooter.  

We both agreed that shooting the puck in hockey is a skill that we can look to other sports for some ideas.  Think of baseball and some of the best overall hitters in the game. They are generally very athletic and can transfer force through the wrist quickly with a LOT of power.  Golf and tennis are other sports where we can look for parallels. The skill of developing tension at the point of impact, whether that be with baseball, golf ball, tennis ball, hockey puck or other, is something that can be practiced, and the mechanics can be taught or improved upon.

With the speed of the game there is not enough time to shoot with your body weight as the main power generator into the stick.  One solution to this problem has been to use a more flexible stick so that explosiveness through the forearms and wrists will generate a quicker and harder shot.  When coach Cunniff defines #hockeystrong he immediately lists a few key areas: hips, legs, wrists, hands. We agree that grip strength is a characteristic that has value in assessing the strength of a hockey player. Stick battles happen all over the ice. Having an increased ability to grip the stick and truly compete in these battles is a key element to a player’s success.  Smaller players are especially concerned with their ability to win stick battles, as they may lack the size to compete for the puck if total physical strength is required. How does this relate to shooting the puck?

Having a “strong stick” makes you very deceptive player.  When the puck is on your stick you want the ability to pass or shoot from similar positions.  I love this line but coach calls this the “triple threat” position. Players who can keep the puck in a position that allows them to pass in any direction or quickly move into a shooting position are very difficult to defend against both as a player and a goaltender.  

Want to get better at shooting? Practicing shooting seems simple, right?  Fortunately, and unfortunately this is an area where good habits are built or destroyed. 

In general, most players who practice their shot are on their feet with the puck on some kind of artificial shooting surface.  They dump a pile of pucks out and start to practice shooting. Here is the routine:

  1. Pull a puck from the pile with the toe of the stick
  2. Keep pulling that puck into the most comfortable shooting position (wheelhouse) and let it rip


  1. Pull a puck from the pile with the toe of the stick
  2. Stick handle the puck a few times 
  3. Finally shoot the puck on net

In the first example, the main problem is the pre-shot habit.  We do not want to continually shoot by pulling the puck into the body.  This creates a shot preference that is from the middle of the blade toward the toe.  While pulling the puck with the toe of the blade is absolutely a skill that is required to be a great shooter and goal scorer it neglects the most fundamental of shooting techniques.  Cunniff likes to teach his players to shoot from the heel of the blade to the middle of the blade first. This is a big first step in the direction of becoming the elusive “triple threat” player.

The second example also has a similar pre-shot routine flaw.  Over handling the puck is a bad habit of many players even at the highest level.  There should be no reason to stick handle the puck into shooting position every time a shot is taken.  Yes this is also a skill that needs to be developed. We want all of our players to be able to handle bad passes or be ready to make a move on a goalie or defenseman to get into a better shooting position.

How do you start some more intentional shooting practice?

To start developing the skill of shooting in a static position, for example, while standing in the garage dreaming of winning the Stanley Cup.  Start by passing the puck into the net. Yes, passing into the net. 

Start the puck on the heel of the stick and release it by the middle portion of the blade.  Let’s be very clear that this is not a big windup common on the version of the wrist shot taught in most young shooting clinics.  We are not looking to roll the wrist, cup the stick over the top of puck, reach way behind the body, and roll the puck from the heel of the blade to the toe.  

It is a quick short release pass into the net. Once you get the hang of the release try to improve the accuracy by pointing the heel of the stick to the part of the net you want the puck to go.  If your stick is too short, it will make this more challenging. Don’t be afraid to look at an equipment solution for a technical challenge. 

This simple advice is generally in direct opposition to how most young players are taught to improve their shot.  The days of the big windup are long gone. We are talking deception right now.  

How can you develop a shooting skill that makes you tougher to play against, not a player who has a hard shot in practice or if the puck is perfectly teed up in a game? 

To build velocity on the type of shot Cunniff is talking about requires explosiveness through the wrists.  This type of explosiveness comes from power generated through a strong mid-section, shoulder and arms. Developing these muscle chains off the ice should always be a main concern with training programs.  When these areas are solid, small explosive movements from the hips and knees can be turned into big power through the arms.  

Again when we reference the speed of the game, one of the key elements to being a great shooter is to keep the feet moving.  When a player can keep their feet moving, the level of deception on the ice is increased two-fold.  

  1. First and most importantly opposing players have no idea if you plan to shoot or pass the puck.  
  2. Secondly and maybe just as important, your position on the ice is constantly changing so that there are new shooting or passing lanes opening up at all times.  

This truth reinforces that the speed of the game limits your opportunities to have a long wind up, over stick handle, or always pull the puck into your body to shoot.  Having the strength, power, and endurance in the legs to stay athletic in your skating stance will also improve your chances of a quick release on the ice.

“You want to show up with multiple clubs in your bag.” Cunniff describes as he builds a shooting program for his players. 

The first objective is to develop the appropriate skills.  One key assessment he uses is to see if a player could throw a saucer pass.  He will have the player stand in front of the net and start to throw soft saucer passes into the goal.  

Key performance indicators he is looking for are: 

  1. Can the player keep the blade 90 degrees to the ice and in full contact with the puck?
  2. Is a player in the habit of rolling the wrist and cupping the puck?

If this is the case, they start to loose contact between the stick and the puck reducing full contact to only the upper edges of the puck and stick.  A key prerequisite for this skill is grip strength — plain and simple.  

Once this blade position skill has been mastered, he starts to add velocity to the shot.  When asked to add velocity most players will return to old habits and start to pull the puck into the body or increase their windup.  This will take practice to break old habits but must be perfected before moving onto the next stages of training.

Stay tuned for part two of our conversation — after mechanics have been ironed out — with David Cunniff on shooting.

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