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8U: Cultivating Hockey Sense, Skills & Passion

09/29/2020, 10:15am MDT
By Michael Rand

What does it really mean to be age-appropriate at 8U?

The return to ice this season might look different depending on what state you live in as COVID-19 and its necessary safety protocols continue.

What will remain very much the same, though, is this: USA Hockey’s dedication to adhering to age-appropriate guidelines as part of its American Development Model.

It starts with 8U for a variety of reasons, but none bigger than this: If you don’t start at the youngest levels, the reckoning will continue to be felt at every subsequent level up.

What does it really mean to be age-appropriate at 8U? For a refresher course, USA Hockey Youth Hockey Director Kenny Rausch has several tips.

Love of the Game

Since 8U is an introduction for a lot of players to a more organized type of hockey, one of the biggest keys is to make sure kids are having fun on the ice, Rausch says.

“First off, you have to foster the love of the game,” Rausch said.

That’s not only a key to making the 8U experience a great one but also for keeping kids coming back year after year – and eventually for a lifetime.

“If kids don’t love the game, and if they don’t fall in love with it at 8U, they aren’t going to love it when they’re 20 or 25 years old,” Rausch said.

Key Off- and On-Ice Components

In terms of athletic components, having players work off the ice to become well-rounded athletes is just as important as the work they do on the ice.

USA Hockey has a comprehensive list of age-appropriate dryland training games and exercises here

“The off-ice piece of the fundamentals has to do with agility, balance and coordination in order to get them to be athletes first and not just hockey players,” Rausch said.

On the ice, the basic skills of skating and passing are stressed – as is the idea of body contact confidence. While Rausch is quick to remind that there is no checking at 8U, there is angling and other forms of contact with which players need to get comfortable.

“It’s about the basic fundamentals of hockey and playing in small areas so they don’t feel overwhelmed,” Rausch said.

Small Spaces, Big Gains

On the subject of small spaces, 8U puts a premium on cross-ice hockey. Instead of using a full sheet, work is done with the width of the surface instead of the length.

You know, because 8-year-olds come with various skills and sizes – and certainly aren’t as big and fast as NHL players.

“If you took a bunch of 8-year-olds and put them on a playground and told them to play a game, very few if any would map out a 200 x 85 foot space to play in. They would self-regulate and play in an area that was appropriate for them,” Rausch said. “I lived on a lake as a 10-year-old and when I shoveled off an area, I never shoveled off 200 x 85. It was usually a 50 x 25 foot spot to play in.”

Emphasizing work in small spaces at 8U helps eliminate what Rausch calls “breakaway hockey,” in which games are dominated by the fastest skaters.

“The biggest, strongest, fastest early maturing-kids would just get the puck and go. You’d have a 150-foot breakaway, and we know that’s not typical of what real hockey looks like,” Rausch said, adding: “I think (those players) would only be frustrated playing in smaller spaces if they were taught that by an adult. If an adult was telling them ‘hey, if you had more open ice you’d be able to dominate.’”


Instead, a goal of 8U is to teach spatial awareness and create players with a keen hockey sense.

“If we continually let one player dominate and figure things out, there are zero decisions being made by any of the players on the ice,” Rausch said. “By putting them in those small spaces they have to develop spatial awareness and hockey sense and solve those problems. We all know that in order to keep advancing to those next levels you need that hockey IQ.”

Playing hockey that isn’t age-appropriate at 8U is like trying to win a race to the puck after losing an edge.

“If you cut corners on the fundamentals it’s going to start showing up as early as 10U or 12U hockey,” Rausch said. “If they can’t make plays in small areas at 8U, they aren’t going to at 10U, 12U and 14U. Cutting corners at 8U will vastly affect you moving forward.”

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Tag(s): ADM Features