An NHL rink measures 200 feet long by 85 feet wide, which in theory is a lot of space for 10 skaters and two goalies.
However, the odds of seeing those dozen uniformed players spread out neatly like plastic characters in bubble hockey are slim. A lot of the action takes place with virtually all the bodies cramming into one small area near the puck.
So why would we teach our youngest players in vast expanses of open ice? Short answer: If we want to teach them the right way, we wouldn’t – and we don’t.
A good practice for an 8U player should resemble an NHL game, says Kristen Wright, a regional manager for female hockey with USA Hockey’s American Development Model. That means a lot of tight spaces, a lot of movement and chances to make quick decisions.
The benefits of such an approach are varied.
The biggest benefit to running station-based practices in small areas is that it keeps young players engaged. There’s not much time standing around, which means there’s more time to get better and have fun.
“It provides a really fun and engaging environment,” Wright said, “which is the whole point of ice hockey especially at that age – being active, being with your friends.”
When there are more repetitions and better use of ice space, it leads to more puck touches.
“Ice utilization is big,” Wright said. “There are more coaches interacting with kids.”
The net result is a lot of small simulations that, added up, are components of one big game and acquiring those skills will help at higher levels.
“The game requires the ability to win a battle and make a play in a small space,” Wright said. “As the game progresses from 6U to the NHL and women’s professional level, you will see all 10 players and one goalie in one sixth of the ice. They will move to one zone, and then another zone. They are in small spaces.”
If you don’t put stress on a player in practice or take away his or her open ice, they won’t be able to adjust to those situations in games.
“We say that the practice needs to translate to a game – that a learning environment needs to look like the competition environment,” Wright said. “If you don’t set it up like that you won’t help them learn. The two things go hand in hand because the competition environment in hockey looks different than in other sports.
“Station-based practices translate to all levels for us,” she said. “In NHL practices they’re doing things in stations, development appropriate work. We’ll use stations even at the national level. We just manipulate the space.”
Data supports the move toward small spaces, but the eye test might be even more important.
“Anecdotally, on the girls’ side, we see an improved skill set of players every year, more advanced sets coming in at the 15U level as we see kids coming in from station-based practices, developmentally appropriate practices,” Wright said. “These kids are getting better. Their decision-making ability is getting better and their creativeness is getting better because they’re in situations not scripted in practice.”
It shows up in the speed of players and overall growth as well.
“The whole game has elevated itself as a product of the ADM and our sport is growing on the girls’ side,” Wright said.
Wright says that coaches and parents at 8U have a high level of buy-in with cross-ice hockey and small-area work because they’ve seen the results – and perhaps because the concepts aren’t brand new.
There’s even been a movement at 10U on the West Coast toward half-ice hockey, Wright says, something that could spread if momentum continues.
“I think (parents and coaches) see it’s happening in our sport and has been happening in other sports like basketball and baseball that use age-appropriate sizes and spaces,” Wright said. “I think they see our retention numbers have increased. We don’t hear as much pushback. Going forward we want to look at how to keep getting even better.”
Tag(s): ADM Features