You see it sometimes when you’re watching your favorite professional or college team on television. A color commentator rewinds the tape to show a perfectly executed play that the coaching staff drew up on the whiteboard. Or you see the color guy circling the defenseman who missed his coverage and was responsible for the game-deciding goal.
But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that those Xs and Os should be applied to your own 8U child’s game. In fact, at the 8U level, ideas of Xs and Os shouldn’t even exist.
Maximize Practice Time
Babson College head coach Jamie Rice knows how precious ice time is for young hockey players, and he wants to make sure kids get a chance to capitalize on their practice windows.
“What can we do to make them excited and engaged, wanting to be there…how do we hide the vitamins in the mashed potatoes?” said Rice, who has twin daughters playing 10U and a bantam-aged son. “When you talk about skill development, you talk about skating and touching pucks at that age. They can’t do enough of it, because it’s such a short window of time. If you’re really going to grow their base, which at 8U hockey is what we’re trying to do – grow their base of skating, skating with speed, the ability to change direction, the ability to go forwards and backwards, to handle a puck with some competency – those are the skills that they need.”
Keep an Open Mind
Rice wants the focus at the 8U level to be about developing hockey players, not power-play specialists or role-defined wingers.
“I was at a rink last year and I heard two parents talking and one said to the other, ‘They’ve got my kid playing wing but he’s really a center,’” Rice said. “I looked out there and the kids were 6 and 7 years old. How the heck do you know? There are so many variables that, when you get to our level at college, to be able to be a center or a winger or a defenseman or a goalie, and those skills are so far away from being developed. I look at the guys on my own team, at Babson College, and we talk all the time about them being interchangeable. If the center, outside of the face-off, if he’s not standing where it says he’s supposed to be on the whiteboard, well then someone has to do the job that was assigned to the center. Someone has to be able to do those things.
“The more skills the kids have, the more versatile they are, ultimately, the more valuable they become. If a forward understands how a defenseman plays, then that’s going to make him a better forward, and vice versa.”
Skills, Not Strategy
Whether you’re a forward at the 8U level or a defenseman playing in the NHL, the same set of skills apply. A player needs to be able to skate, shoot and pass, and they need to know how to gain possession of the puck from their opposition. Those are the skills they need to hone at early ages, not strategy.
“If your opponent has the puck, you’re trying to get it back, and if you or your teammate has the puck, you’re trying to hold onto it and make a play,” Rice said. “If the other team has it, whether you’re a forward or a defenseman, the ability or technique to get it back is fairly similar. You have to be able to angle, you have to play with your stick to the puck, and you have to be able to play on the defensive side of the puck. If you can do those things, then you’re going to be successful. It’s relatively similar how it’s done. You can’t tell the difference if a defenseman goes in and takes the puck from a forward or a forward goes in and takes the puck from a defenseman.”
Creating a Fun Environment
Rice wants parents and coaches to focus on creating a fun environment for 8U players that allows them to compete with their peers in a positive fashion.
“You know, kids like to compete,” Rice said. “If they go to the playground, they have a race. They do that on their own, without coaches or teachers. I’ll race you to the jungle gym or who can throw the ball the farthest. I think those are types of things we want to encourage and nurture in our practices, and that has nothing to do with a system.”
And as a fellow hockey parent, he reminds everyone to sit back and enjoy the experience – not fret over the Xs and Os.
“Enjoy the ride,” said Rice. “I say that honestly, because my son, his youth hockey days are winding down. All the time that we thought we had six years ago for him, they’re gone. It goes really quickly. You want to be able to enjoy it, because time is precious and you’re going to miss it on the other end.”