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12U: Incentivizing Intelligence and Adaptability

04/29/2022, 8:30am MDT
By Michael Rand

Long before Ken Martel became Technical Director of USA Hockey’s American Development Model, he was a defenseman for Lake Superior State.

It was in that role that he got a big lesson in how to develop skill adaptive players. Constraints shape player behavior, and players will adapt to the environment that the coach creates.

“My coach (Frank Anzalone) told us as defensemen that we aren’t allowed to rim the puck around the boards. It had to be a direct pass. That was the rule,” Martel recalls. “We adapted and found creative ways to break out. The basic lesson was that when you hold players to a higher standard, they will make plays.”

Lake Superior State made enough plays that it won the first NCAA title in program history in 1988.

That sort of thinking was at the core of a recent USA Hockey decision to extend a rule that had existed at youth levels to all levels aside from high school and adult: Short-handed teams are not allowed to ice the puck freely. If they do – contrary to the existing rule in the NHL and college hockey – it results in a faceoff in their own zone.

The goal? Teach players to skate the puck out of the zone, move the puck efficiently and perhaps even turn a shorthanded situation into offense.

“USA Hockey doesn’t want to encourage throwing the puck away when they get the puck,” Martel says. “They can still chip it out, they can still do that. We’re incentivizing them to do it more intelligently.”

12U Core Values

The no-icing rule on the penalty kill gets to the heart of several of the core tenets of what should be taught to 12U players. Major pieces of that puzzle are increased awareness and decision-making skills.

As players get bigger, the time and space on the ice continues to shrink. Technical skills are important, but teaching players to be adaptive and make good decisions quickly is just as critical. Getting players to scan the ice, to understand the relationship between their teammates, the opponent and the puck are key to successful play. Players need to problem-solve both with the puck and most importantly away from the puck. What this rule emphasizes is players off the puck moving to areas of support; to work as a unit to move the puck up ice. 

“The difference between good players and great players is the ability to make good reads and make plays consistently,” Martel says. “We feel this adds an additional layer to that process while in conflict.”

Change Behaviors

Just as Martel experienced at Lake Superior State 30-plus years ago, changing the environment for players “will incentivize certain behaviors.” That happens across many levels of hockey in many different situations. Perhaps it seems jarring to have it applied to games, but it’s effective.

“When you add constraints – different rules – they shape behaviors. That’s what this is. When you look at our sport, the necessary abilities to play at a high level, it comes to can you play in traffic, make a play under pressure, read and adjust?” Martel says. “We do a lot of these things in practice with small area games. Those are changing constraints, playing with size and shape of the rink to change behaviors and learning. This is sort of the same thing but on a larger scale within the game itself.”

It’s another step in the evolution of making thinkers out of players instead of just having them perform tasks.

“It's really easy to just grab the puck and hammer it into the other team’s end. You don’t have to think,” Martel says. “Can you still ice the puck? Yeah, you can. But there’s a price. The good coaches look at it as a chance to improve – and go on offense or at least develop tactical awareness. You can still chip it out and chip it down the ice. But the playing environment is incentivizing them to do it with more intention and feel.”

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Tag(s): ADM Features