Q: When hockey players are developing basic puck-handling skills, is it better to use a heavier or lighter puck?
A: Pucks have been used in ice hockey since the late 1800s. Throughout that time, there have been countless variants on the basic concept. If you walk into a hockey shop today, you can find many types of training balls and various plastic and rubber pucks for sale. The three most common pucks on ice are a lighter four-ounce blue puck, the six-ounce black puck, and a weighted 10-ounce orange puck.
USA Hockey uses lightweight blue pucks at the 8U level in order to allow these younger players to develop proper technique in passing, shooting and stickhandling. The blue puck is ideal for younger players to improve their coordination, quickness and speed. The idea of using a heavier puck at 8U to strengthen players should not be a focus of development, as children do not reach their strength window of trainability until after puberty. At younger ages, teaching proper technique in passing, stickhandling and shooting through the use of age-appropriate equipment is critical to skill development. Lighter weight blue pucks, along with the correct stick, help players build confidence and avoid frustration by being able to lift the puck, score goals, complete firm tape-to-tape passes, etc.
Similar to how 8U soccer and basketball use a lighter ball, USA Hockey uses a blue puck during 8U games as a standard rule of play. The rule was enacted because of the importance of patiently developing proper techniques at this age. When adults attempt to rush a young athlete’s development, they impair the development of foundational skills, which leads to future coaches having to backtrack the athlete’s skill development to accommodate technical deficiencies created when they were younger.
Development takes time and patience. We shouldn’t fast-track our young athletes’ playing careers. Rather, we should nurture their age-appropriate development. Doing so creates a higher ceiling of skill and ability. It’s critical to allow these players to become technically proficient and successful while teaching a saucer pass, snap shot, backhand shot, etc. They will be 9 years old soon enough, and the 3-5 years they spent with a blue puck will significantly improve their technique. I even recommend at 10U and 12U filling your practice bucket with 50-percent blue pucks and 50-percent black pucks. It’s important to remember that, at these younger ages, the training goal is not strength; it’s proper muscle memory. Creating good habits and proper muscle memory during the golden years of skill development will pay big dividends down the line.
My colleagues and I travel the country working with tens of thousands of players every year and the unfortunate truth is that most kids don’t pass, handle the puck or shoot with proper technique whether they’re under the age of 8 or playing 14U hockey. Many 14U and more advanced coaches invest a significant amount of time re-teaching proper puck-handling skills that should have been taught in mites and squirts.
A look outside the United States adds some perspective. In Europe, they use the blue puck to develop their young players. In Finland, they use blue pucks until age 11, producing some outstanding talent.
It’s also instructive to look outside of hockey. Soccer, football, tennis, basketball, etc., utilize age-appropriate equipment with their athletes.
In soccer, from age 12 to the professional level, a Size 5 ball is used. The circumference measures 28 inches. But 8U players use a Size 3 ball with a circumference measuring 23–24 inches. They even offer a Size 4 ball with a circumference of 25-26 inches for the 8U-12U player.
USA Tennis started a 10U program years ago that supplies young athletes with smaller racquets and tennis balls with three levels of bounce – balls that bounce and play to their ability. Tennis players don’t use regulation tennis balls until age 11. In a recent USA Tennis video, Martina Navratilova plays Mary Jo Fernandez using oversized courts, nets, racquets and balls simulating what it’s like for a kid playing tennis with adult equipment. It’s very frustrating, which isn’t the emotion we want our children experiencing when they embrace a sport.
Consider this: in terms of applied force, an 8U player using a black puck would be similar to an adult using a 12-ounce puck.
So the short answer is that you should never use an orange puck with younger players. An orange puck is made for athletes in a post-puberty strength-gain mode. It’s designed to improve muscle strength (by building forearms), quickness and power. You should only encourage the use of an orange puck with 14U and older players, and then only if they have sound technical puck-handling (stickhandling, passing, shooting) skills.
Think of the blue puck as running an under-speed drill versus over-speed. If a player can’t pivot around cones using proper edge work, then a coach should not ask the player to perform the drill at full speed. It will only reinforce poor technique habits.
If you give young players a black puck too soon, it will slow their development and potentially develop bad technical habits. The player must learn and perfect the technique before adding a level of advanced development. In skills like puck-handling, passing and shooting – which are very technical for an 8U player – we should provide equipment that is age-appropriate so they can learn optimal muscle memory and have tons of success. We need to adapt the game to the kid and not the kid to the game.
The author, Michele Amidon, was a four-year letter-winner at St. Lawrence University and an ECAC MVP. Later, as a coach, she guided Bowdoin to a pair of national tournaments en route to being named NCAA Division III Women’s Hockey Coach of the Year.