It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true: the best way to get better at playing the game of hockey isn’t by playing a game of hockey.
That is to say, the skills necessary for excelling when it counts – during a game – are best taught in situations that simulate the nuances of the game.
A prime example of this, particularly for young players such as 10U, is using small-area games in practice to help create the types of situations that will hone their decision-making skills.
Brett Petersen, men’s hockey head coach at Gustavus Adolphus – an NCAA Division III school in St. Peter, Minn. – is a major proponent of the benefits of working in small areas.
“I think it’s absolutely ideal for everyone, especially the young player,” Petersen said. “In simple terms, what the small area does is increase your edge work with skating and the touches you have on the puck, much more so than you do playing a full-ice game.
“If you play a full-ice game, you’re skating in a straight line up and down the ice with very few touches of the puck. Shrink that into a small area and inherently, when you’re skating in a confined area, you have to skate on edges. And by shrinking the game, it allows you opportunities to have many more touches and seconds with the puck on your stick, which is absolutely critical for any player, but especially a young player. In a confined area, you’re forced to make quicker decisions.”
Those skills are transferable, of course, to a full-ice game. And the benefits reach everybody in small-space hockey.
“Even if you’re not a great player, you can have success and puck touches in a smaller area,” Petersen said. “Whereas, in a full-ice game or drill, you might not touch the puck.”
A Growing Trend
Petersen played in the USHL with St. Paul prior to becoming a Calgary Flames draft pick. He then played at the University of Denver, graduating in 1992 after a standout career with the Pioneers that included a stint as assistant captain during his junior and senior seasons. He also represented USA Hockey at the World University Games in Japan in 1991.
In those days, small-ice games happened more naturally on ponds or other backyard rinks that had constraints of space and size. In organized practices, though, it wasn’t really taught.
But Petersen, who helps out with the youth program in St. Peter (which is combined with nearby Le Sueur), says small-ice games are becoming more prevalent at all levels.
“Each year it becomes a little more and more youth teams going to this model,” Petersen said. “We’re coming off a full month of summer camps where we’re using that model for all the kids that come through the camps.”
It’s so effective that the two-time MIAC Coach of the Year uses it for his college team as well.
“We play a ton of small stuff, and we’re dealing with 20-year-olds,” Petersen said. “I realize our game is played on full ice, but we’re practicing much more small-area stuff. Even with our college guys, I want more edge work, touches and quicker decision-making.”
Belief in the Model
Not surprisingly, Petersen is a major proponent of USA Hockey’s American Development Model – one that has also emphasized small-area games.
“The USA Hockey ADM is terrific,” he said. “By them getting on board and publicizing all the things they have done, they’re showing that you can run a very effective practice. Even with 40 skaters on the ice, you can combine two young teams and still construct a very healthy practice. I think the overall concept is right on the mark. I believe very strongly in it. It’s just a really good concept for developing hockey players at any age, but especially the young kids.”