To open practice Monday afternoon, player development coach Steve Shields skated onto the ice at Yost Arena dragging two figures by the arms as he skated onto the ice. It was the second time in two weeks Shields was tasked with setting up this surprise drill for the players.
He struggled, but eventually managed to bring the objects out from behind the bench all the way to the block M at center ice.
And the effort was worth it because Shields loves this type of drill. Standing on the ice next to Shields were two blue tackling dummies — the latest addition to the Wolverines’ team.
While all the players were in the locker room getting dressed for practice, Shields was preparing the ice. When he was finished, it resembled something you’d be more likely to see at a Michigan football practice.
At each end of the ice, 20 feet in front of the net, he positioned the dummies in the center of the zone. Their purpose was twofold — provide a screen for the goaltender and block the direct zone entry for the offensive player.
When the Wolverines took the ice, Shields and other coaches took their positions behind the tackling dummies. As a skater brought the puck into the zone, a coach pushed the dummy in its direction, forcing the player to change directions.
“We did that last year,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “We’ve done it a couple times this year. It’s just to help in our shooting drills, you can’t just come straight down the ice and not have to think. This way you have to get your head up and make a move. Just change your angle a little bit and not come straight in on the goalie while he stands there just shot after shot.”
For the team, the dummies offer a nice change of pace. Rather than just skating with the puck and firing a shot from the top of the faceoff circle, the players have to think of their feet. The drill forces quick shots from less than perfect angles.
Senior forward Nick Pastujov enjoys how the tackling dummies create small, awkward spaces and force creativity to move the puck around the obstacle and to the net.
“It gets you going,” Pastujov said. “Gets you thinking a little quicker. It’s nice on Monday when we’re doing a little less team stuff (and more individual). Get your hands going. It’s nice to get you working on some skills that you don’t normally do.”
Beyond requiring Michigan to be creative offensively and play with more speed and urgency, the tackling dummies make practice conditions more like what the players experience in games.
Mimicking game scenarios is something Pearson has strongly pushed for in the midst of the offensive slump his team has experienced. The Wolverines have to learn how to take what they do in practice and use it in the game. They have to bring that same level of energy and creativity they’ve exhibited with the tackling dummies.
“In a game you’re not just going to walk into the slot and shot it,” said senior forward Will Lockwood. “There’s going to be a body in front of you. It definitely makes it more game-like, and for those situations to occur in practice so in the games it doesn’t surprise us as much.”
Last weekend against New Hampshire, Michigan exhibited some of the exact skills that working with the tackling dummies pushes it to use. On the power play, there was more creativity. The passes were purposeful. The shots were quick and from off center angles.
And it paid off — for the first time in seven games, the Wolverines won.
But even with last weekend’s success, Pearson still wishes he’d thought to use the tackling dummies earlier in the season, before Michigan fell to last place in the Big Ten and hit an offensive slump.
There are still two weeks remaining in the first half of the season, plenty of time for the Wolverines to continue implementing the skills acquired from their new drill. The biggest question is whether they’ll remember what they’ve learned in practice come game time.