Just as we must walk before we can run in life, we also must skate before we do just about anything else in hockey.
That fundamental movement, foreign in just about every other facet of life, informs so much of the game that Dan Jablonic, a player development manager for USA Hockey, starts any discussion of stick skills at the youngest levels with a conversation about skating.
“Once the kids start progressing you really want to get back to agility, balance and coordination,” Jablonic says. “We always talk about that, but it's so true. If you have a base within that, then you can go to the next step, so to speak.”
As 6U and 8U players get steadier and more confident on their skates, the fundamentals of stick work come into play. Jablonic has ideas on how to get there one stride at a time.
A staple of advice from Jablonic for helping young hockey players improve in all facets is to make sure the process is fun.
“The more we can create an environment where it's a fun game for those kids, where they're comfortable on their skates by just starting out playing tag, the better,” he says. “And then all of a sudden you add some competition to it where maybe they're playing tag and each player has a puck. You want them comfortable on skates and in a one-on-one battle, which develops stick skills.”
In competitive but fun games, as Jablonic notes, young skaters get naturally into hockey positions even if they don’t have sticks. Coaches can point out fundamentals of stick positioning without having to over-correct.
“Instead of always saying, ‘hey, get your stick on the ice,’ the more that you can do in fun games, I think they're going to succeed and progress at their own rate,” Jablonic says. “Obviously there's so much to learn in this game. But if we can focus in on those fundamentals, get them comfortable on their skates with the puck on their stick and then trying to win that puck, I think the kids are going to benefit long term.”
One obstacle at all levels, but particularly at the youngest ones, is that the skill level of players can vary widely. Some might be ready for more advanced stick techniques, while others are at more of a novice level.
“It’s really observing the group in front of you,” he says. “How do you challenge those players that may be a little bit more advanced?”
Jablonic suggests adding things to practice stations like ringettes to increase the battle level.
“Say they understand stability a little bit more, like when they're battling, they actually can work some more stick skills that way,” Jablonic says.
Other players will get there, and you don’t want to create a larger gap between those who might be more advanced and those who are still learning.
“We know that in our game confidence is king,” Jablonic says. “The more that you can look at what your players need, it is going to set them up for success.”
Along those lines, Jablonic made a great point when saying it is important for young players to be both comfortable and uncomfortable on the ice: comfortable in their environment to learn and have fun but put in positions at times that make them temporarily uncomfortable so they can expand their skill sets.
“Hey, our game has a whole multidirectional awareness component that goes into it,” Jablonic says, explaining the rationale. “The more we can set them up in those kinds of chaotic environments is huge.”
To emphasize stick skills, it might be creating an obstacle course around which to skate and maneuver the puck. Making decisions with barriers instead of in straight lines – eschewing the temptation to merely skate to a cone, around it and back – helps foster development.
“The key for players even at the youngest ages is to make decisions and use those techniques,” Jablonic says. “We're really having a focus on what's good for the players that's not only going to set them up for being good at 6U and 8U. And with the sticks, it comes down to getting comfortable in all settings, right?”
For coaches, maximizing this development time means understanding how all the parts fit together.
“Maybe I'm going to have an area (in practice) where there will be no pucks, but it's more focused on skating and stability,” Jablonic says. “On the other side you’re allowing those kids to feel the puck and understand that now that I'm developing my skating skills, I’ve got to carry the puck with me.”
Not all the work, of course, comes on the ice or under a watchful eye. A lot of improving stick techniques at all ages comes from having a stick in hand and just getting creative.
“Off the ice, even stick-handling with a tennis ball, you get to understand that hey, you know why you are moving your hands and how you need to push them away from your body a little,” Jablonic says. “I'm learning that there’s a heel and a toe of my blade and experimenting with those kinds of things. That will translate on the ice.”