Playing more games doesn’t make you a better player. In fact, it could inhibit development, especially at the youth levels. Just ask Don Lucia, head men’s ice hockey coach at the University of Minnesota. Lucia recalls watching his son grow up playing youth hockey, current Notre Dame standout Mario Lucia.
The lack of puck touches and opportunities for 12U players didn't make sense to Lucia, who is now in his 27th season coaching NCAA Division I hockey. This age group is still in a critical skill-development stage, and that's what should take priority.
Maintaining a 3:1 practice-to-game ratio is the best course for player development.
Where’s the Development?
There’s very little skill development happening during games. At the youth levels – especially 8U, 10U and 12U – players should be constantly skating, passing, stickhandling, shooting, etc., to improve their skill base.
“All of those things you can do in the course of a practice as opposed to having the puck for 30 seconds during a game,” says Lucia, who ranks fourth all-time in wins among active college coaches.
“For me, the biggest reason is touching the puck. You’re hardly going to have the puck on your stick in a game.”
More Bang for Your Buck
Some parents might think more scheduled games takes their dollar further. At this age, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Players and coaches still need to focus on the overall development process instead of outcomes on the scoreboard or season stats.
Ice time is valuable. Players at this age should focus on repetition and puck touches, which are maximized through station-based practices and small-area games.
“I think parents like games,” says Lucia. “I think that’s a part of it, but the reality is that practicing small-area games is the most critical component.”
Make Practices Fun
Sure, games are fun. Kids most likely daydream about scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal for their hometown team instead of going to practice. But that doesn’t mean coaches can’t make practices enjoyable. It’s easy to get kids excited about coming back to the rink.
Make it fun. Make it engaging.
“That’s a big part of it,” says Lucia. “The more fun you can make your drills, the better. The more participants in the drill, the better. Then there’s less standing around. Divide the ice into different groupings and incorporate cross-ice games. The more touches, and to be able to play the game in tight areas, really becomes critical as you get older.”
Competition is Still Encouraged
It’s not that USA Hockey doesn’t want your kids to play games and compete, but it shouldn’t be the main emphasis at this stage of development.
In time, games and competition will become more and more important.
“The amount of practices is so much more important than the games,” says Lucia. “The games are just rewards for the players. But at this point, it’s not ‘win at all costs.’ Play your players equally because it’s all about improvement at this age.”
Even the Gophers Do It
The University of Minnesota is consistently a top college team in the nation and the Gophers practice more than they play and incorporate small-area game into nearly every practice.
“They become competitive,” says Lucia. “There’s a winner and a loser and there’s consequences when you play the small games. The guys have fun with it. That’s an important component to our practices.”
Even the Gophers, at one of the game’s top levels, maintain a minimum 2:1 practice-to-game ratio. That reinforces the fact that youth hockey players – at their most critical stages of development – need even more practices than games.