Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos remembered his son’s very first baseball experience as a young child.
“When he was younger I very much wanted him to learn to play baseball,” Anastos said. “I took him to play baseball and he stood around the field predominantly for two hours. He had no interest – he didn’t have an interest going back. Ultimately, even though his experience got better over a period of time, it really lost his interest early on, and it never really sparked the kind of interest that I was curious to see if he would get in the sport.”
Anastos likened this to a child’s first experience on the ice.
“In hockey, we’ve got to make sure we use our time real well, for many reasons, but one in particular is to make sure the kids are really engaged and active during their time on the ice,” he said.
That’s just one of the many reasons that Anastos – a parent, coach, instructor and former college hockey commissioner – is a proponent of cross-ice hockey for 8U hockey.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Size-scaling the sport means more engagement for participants, which in the long run, will lead to players developing better skills and staying involved with hockey.
“That’s a huge factor with kids – keeping their attention spans,” Anastos said. “Whether it’s station-based drills and training, whether it’s cross-ice activities, it’s getting them more reps and more time. Those are important things.”
Anastos, who served as commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association for more than a decade before returning to his alma mater as head coach, said far too many benefits for cross-ice hockey exist for it to not be welcomed by fellow hockey parents.
“It’s just logical, if people would take a step back and really look at the skills necessary to compete in the game today,” Anastos said. “I would do very little if I was working with really young players that uses the full rink. It’s too easy for a kid who is kind of progressing in his early development to just skate around people and use all that open ice. The game’s not played in open ice. If you can’t play in traffic, in tight spaces, and if you can’t make decisions in short periods of time and make plays under pressure, then you’re not going to be able to play the game very long or at a high level. I think the earlier in the process that it can take place, where kids need to learn how to play in confined areas, the better it will be for their overall development and, ultimately, their enjoyment of the game.”
More of What's Good
The hockey parent and longtime youth hockey coach and instructor – Anastos’ daughter, Andie, plays for Boston College – said that playing cross-ice hockey helps maximize the amount of puck touches players will have, which is crucial when they’re working with limited ice time.
“[MSU] has almost unlimited ice available to us, but at the youth levels, the kids who are playing have restrictions on the amount of ice time they have available to them,” Anastos said. “Kids must learn to play by moving their feet and by having their head up and having the puck on their stick. Those skill sets are so important to have success in the game. This is a way to maximize puck touches, ice time, and the impact the ice time has on the player’s ability.”
Anastos stressed that the development of players doesn’t necessarily mean creating better NHL prospects, either. If a player develops their basic hockey skills, he or she is far more likely to enjoy their experience, and stay with the sport longer.
“When I say ‘development,’ we’re not talking about development to be college players or pro players,” Anastos said. “Although that comes into the equation ultimately, we’re just talking about the development of skills so kids can have a level of success when they play, that makes them enjoy the game more, because if they enjoy the game more by having success, they’re going to continue to play it. That’s ultimately what we want, we want more kids playing the game and continuing to play the game, because it’s a late-specialization sport. You never know what the future holds if you stick with it.”
Spartans Use Small-Area Games
Anastos sees so many benefits to cross-ice hockey that he incorporates small-area games into his own practices in East Lansing.
“Pretty much every single day we do some type of small-area game on the ice, for a couple reasons. One is that the game is a possession-based game today. The teams that are able to possess the puck for longer periods of time generally have more success. You’re spending a lot of time doing things that are really encouraging people to both be able to play and hold onto the puck, and also play off the puck to get available so the team possess it. That’s really critical.
“The other part is that you have to learn how to play in small spaces, because that’s the way the game is played today. At our level, if you can’t play in small spaces – that means protect the puck, that means making decisions quickly, that means moving the puck under pressure, that means catching passes and protecting the puck under pressure – if you can’t do that you can’t play at this level. Those are good skills and good habits to learn from the earliest ages.”
As a whole, Anastos has been pleased with the progress of USA Hockey’s American Development Model, and remains a firm believer.
“I think it’s making real significant process,” he said. “I love the focus on age-specific training. I think ultimately we’re going to continue to process more and more hockey players at all the various levels to enjoy the game, to have better skill sets at respective levels. I think it’s been a long time coming. I know there is sometimes resistance to change, but I embrace it because I think it’s been one of the most impactful initiatives in amateur hockey in my lifetime. We have to keep our focus on it, because I think ultimately, it’s a real benefit for the kids.”
Cross-ice 8U hockey provides more of what's good, including dramatic increases in skating changes of direction, puck battles, shots, passes, saves and puck touches.