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Maximizing 8U development (and enjoyment)

01/25/2017, 1:30pm MST
By Michael Rand - Special to USA Hockey

Are you the kind of person who watches a college or pro sporting event featuring your favorite team and can’t help but live and die with every big moment?

(Raises hand sheepishly, yet unapologetically).

Hey, it’s OK. Sports are fun. They’re intense. They can even be stressful.

However, there is a huge difference between Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and your son or daughter’s youth hockey game. Sometimes we all need a gentle reminder of that fact. So here to help is Chris Lockrem, the 8U director for the Boulder (Colorado) Hockey Club.

Lockrem, who has been a youth hockey director for 15 years, has a series of tips that amount to something of a guide for parents as they delve into the world of 8U hockey.

Cross-ice is the present and future

One thing parents quickly learn at the Boulder Hockey Club is that the 8U players participate in cross-ice hockey – a format championed by USA Hockey as a better way to ensure players are engaged, touching the puck and efficiently developing their skills.

“I’m a huge proponent of it,” Lockrem said. “As an 8U director, I encourage all parents and coaches to understand the fact that, in cross-ice hockey, their kids are going to get more puck touches, more skill development, and they won’t get swallowed up by all the open ice that makes full-ice hockey nothing like high-level hockey for 8U players.”

For some parents, it can take some getting used to, particularly because nobody is keeping score. Lockrem emphasizes communicating about the benefits.

“I have a son who’s a second-year mite, an 8-year-old, who will be going to 10U. Over the last three years of coaching him and coaching the coaches, for the first time ever we don’t have a tournament team,” Lockrem says. “People have bought into true player development and believing in the product we’re putting on the ice. Some of these people just hear it from their friends who are saying, ‘oh you have to try this.’”

The right way to cheer

Still, there are parents who cheer the same way, whether it’s an NHL game or an 8U game. Their numbers are dwindling, according to Lockrem, but they still exist.

“There are certain clubs that you can tell educate their parents,” Lockrem says. “You see occasionally where parents get out of hand in the stands, but very rarely do we see someone who is out of control or cheering the wrong things. But that’s changed over time.”

Examples of cheering the wrong thing at 8U include rooting against an opponent as opposed to for the team for which your son or daughter plays; and barking out frustrated messages like “shoot the puck!”

“It’s not about the score. It’s about good plays and development and cheering your team instead of cheering against other teams,” Lockrem said. “We want to stick to the process and encourage hard play, fair play and encourage cheering for good plays.”

If Lockrem notices the parents of the opposing team behaving poorly, he will sometimes have a chat with an opposing coach. Encouraging good behavior at the 8U level can have a carryover effect to older age groups as kids progress.

“Bad behavior is still an issue. But the key is communicating with the parents,” he says. “Are there outliers? Of course, it’s always going to be that way. But I truly believe the masses are reasonable people, and as long as they are educated about the process, they’ll behave in a way that’s positive.”

Match skill levels

A particular challenge of youth hockey at younger levels is that the skill levels between players can be quite disparate, leaving parents wondering where their kids fit.

Lockrem advocates grouping players according to skill level and being proactive and candid with parents about the reasons.

“We do have skill nights where we have 8-year-olds who are going to play 10U next year and then we have new players who are going to fall down and we pick them back up,” Lockrem says. “But in general, make sure that, no matter what, the kids that are advanced should skate together and the kids that are earlier in the learning process should skate together.”

Education is key

The common denominator in all of this is that good communication will lead to the best possible results. When parents learn the reasons and benefits of cross-ice hockey, they become advocates. When parents understand that cheering for an 8U game is different than the cheering they might be accustomed to, they can learn and adjust.

It’s all about creating the best possible environment for player development, and ideally, a great environment for the spectators, too.

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