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Small-Area Games Fueling USA Hockey’s Golden Age

04/17/2024, 10:15am MDT
By Michael Rand

The Winning Recipe for 6U/8U

Guy Gosselin, a player development manager for USA Hockey, was having a conversation recently with his old Minnesota Duluth college teammate Norm Maciver.

The subject: situational awareness and how to keep young hockey players engaged during practice. You can imagine things were quite different when both men were starting out in their youth careers a half-century ago.

Both were good enough to make it to the NHL, including a 500-game career for Maciver. Both see the way things are being done now and couldn’t be more on board with the process.

Count them among the growing number of long-ago players who can help dispel myths about the modern game – particularly at the youngest levels of 6U and 8U.

A recent chat with Gosselin helped define the myths – and bust them.

Myth 1: Small-ice hockey isn’t real hockey.

That was a persistent grumble when USA Hockey’s American Development Model recommended cross-ice and half-ice games for 6U and 8U players more than a decade ago.

But two things about it: One, it’s age-appropriate because smaller legs and bodies shouldn’t be tasked with skating up and down a full sheet of ice.

“When you see what it actually looks like on a bigger sheet of ice with low numbers of players, it’s boring,” Gosselin says.

Second, small-ice games are standard not just for the youngest players. They’re often utilized by the very best of the best.

“Go to any NHL practice and you’re going to see small-area games because they’re practicing with a purpose,” Gosselin says.

Most people would agree that the NHL is real hockey.

Myth 2: Practice shouldn’t be so fun and positive.

Back in the day, which is a dangerous way to start any sentence, things were different. Coaches ordered kids around, and there was an expectation that those orders would be followed. Discipline was paramount.

“Especially at those young ages, the environment is key. We want to keep those players around. We want them engaged and we want them to have fun,” Gosselin says. “Kids don’t sign up for sports unless they’re engaged in activity when they’re out there.”

Watching a modern practice might look silly to some, especially if young players are engaged in seemingly wacky on-ice games. But those games have a dual purpose: teaching and retaining.

“We’re preparing them for the next step in their development. That’s why we practice small-area games with certain themes,” Gosselin says. “This is a good way to get humans moving, and this is at any level. It’s not like after 6U and 8U it should be serious. It should be fun all the way through. Fun and challenging.”

Myth 3: Players aren’t learning the right way.

This would be an easier argument to make if nobody was allowed to look at the results. 

“Our youth team just won the Youth Olympics. Our junior team and U-18 women just won gold,” Gosselin says of two of many tangible recent results that came from a solid process. “Skill sets are incredible in all of the games today. It’s really fun to watch. I think we’re creating a really healthy atmosphere for these kids in an environment they can excel.”

USA Hockey is also retaining a high number of players, setting the stage for sustainable success.

“The retention numbers are good, and that’s good. We’re keeping numbers because they’re having fun,” Gosselin says. “I’ve personally been doing national camps for 25 years. This is the way hockey development looks today. … This has been evolving for a long time. We’re in a good spot, and you can tell.”

Myth 4: A lot of people feel the same way the doubters do.

At the outset of the ADM, Gosselin heard far more complaints about some of the changes USA Hockey was making to its recommendations.

That’s not the norm these days.

“I think we’re getting away from the grumbling,” he says. “I’ve had a chance to really observe a lot of practices this year. I think the best age-appropriate practices that I’ve seen are 6U and 8U. Coaches really are starting to understand it’s the environment you create, getting them moving with a positive atmosphere. It’s fun.”

It’s not to say everything is perfect, particularly as players feel pressure to train harder as they get older. But the “that’s not hockey” days do seem to be numbered.

“There were extremes. People got caught up in how things were 30 years ago,” Gosselin says. “Look at the game and how it has evolved. I grew up a North Stars fan, a Montreal fan. Look at the style of play back then compared to style today, my goodness. It was tough dealing with people that were set in their ways. Change is always hard. But we know now that we made changes for the better.”

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