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The vitamin in the mashed potatoes

12/20/2016, 11:00am MST
By Michael Rand - Special to USA Hockey

The way Jamie Rice describes it makes perfect sense.

Young baseball players don’t play on a Major League-sized diamond. Youth soccer players don’t use a full-sized field. The reason? Their still-growing bodies aren’t suited for playing surfaces designed for adults.

It seems obvious, but while those sports (and others) figured it out long ago, some in youth hockey left the answer to better player development hidden in plain sight.

Rice, the men’s hockey head coach at Babson (Mass.) College, has a 14U son and twin 10-year-old girls. From a number of perspectives, he is an advocate of cross-ice hockey at the younger levels.

“In terms of puck touches and opportunities, I like it because it’s the only thing at that age that will resemble the whole game,” Rice said. “A game with 8-year-olds in anything will not resemble what it does at an older age. To me, they’re actually playing hockey when they’re playing cross-ice instead of just skating on a full-sized rink.”

Stats back it up

If it’s not obvious that cross-ice hockey is a better version of the game on a smaller ice sheet for younger players, consider the numbers that back it up.

An NHL analytics team charted several facets of an 8U cross-ice game vs. an 8U full-ice game and came up with these conclusions: players had twice as many puck touches, pass attempts, changes of direction and puck battles in the cross-ice game than they did in a full-ice game. They received five times as many passes and attempted six times as many shots.

Another study, recently conducted in Alberta, quantified the skating benefits of cross-ice play, concluding that 8U player acceleration increased by 10 percent when playing cross-ice (compared to playing full-ice) and that players can and did reach top speed in 65 feet or less, meaning they reached top speed playing cross-ice hockey.

Translation: 8U players experienced more of the things that are integral to a hockey game and successful hockey development by playing on a surface more suited to their size and skill level.

“All of those things make sense, and they’re represented in the play,” Rice said.

Buying in

But even if the benefits of cross-ice hockey are clear, the progress of the movement met occasional resistance.

“I think people are resistant to change, first and foremost, in every endeavor,” Rice says. “Change is hard and as an adult, in some ways. I also think hockey is a hard sport to get into. There aren’t many newcomers. You usually have someone in your family who played or you live in an area that had it. Someone in traditional markets might have been slower to change because, ‘this is how it’s always been.’”

That said, sometimes that outdated way of thinking needs an update. Rice notes with a chuckle that, when he was born in 1967, he rode home from the hospital on his mother’s lap – and she was smoking a cigarette.

In other words, we adapt.

“I was talking about this with a baseball coach recently. Sports used to be a top-down approach, but sometimes we need to do things from the bottom up. Cross-ice is about that,” Rice said. “Maybe we get overprotective in some areas, but it’s hard for those who created a passion for the game to say ‘maybe there’s a better way to do this.’”

And while some viewed small-ice hockey as revolutionary, the reality is that it’s been a staple of coaching for decades, even going back to Anatoli Tarasov and the great Soviet teams of yore. USA Hockey, too, was an early advocate, promoting the benefits of cross-ice hockey for 8U players in coaching materials produced nearly 40 years ago.

Seeing the benefits

Seeing is believing, Rice says.

“You can visually present it to some people. And when you show them that, it’s the ‘a-ha’ moment,” Rice said. “I’ve seen it in my own kids. I’ve coached my son for 10 years. I can see it in my twin daughters who have been on the ice for six years.”

His children played cross-ice as 8U players and loved it, Rice said.

“Most kids want to smile and have fun,” Rice said. “If they get better along the way, that’s the vitamin in the mashed potatoes. You don’t need to make it more than it is. Kids just show up and think they’re playing hockey.”

Rice, in fact, would like to see cross-ice continued at ages beyond the 8U level, arguing that there isn’t something that magically changes on a player’s ninth birthday.

For now, though, he’s content trying to get it established at the younger ages so that they’ll want to keep playing as they get older.

“The greatest thing I’ve seen about cross-ice is the kids and parents have fun,” Rice says. “We have to raise the 8U players. If we don’t make it fun and exciting, we run the risk of losing them when they’re 9, 10 or 11.”

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