“Why can’t they do the basic things properly? Where have the fundamentals gone? They can’t even pass!”
Bob Mancini, regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, has heard some of those comments from the stands. And he’s here to set the record straight: If there are issues with the fundamentals of youth hockey players, particularly when it comes to passing at the 12U level, don’t blame the players.
Instead, let’s examine what they’re being taught and how they’re being taught in order to make everyone better.
Still start basic
Mancini emphasizes that, while he’s a proponent of changing some of the methods being used to develop young players’ passing skills, it is still important to have a good base.
“The ages of 10U and 12U are the Golden Age of Skill Development,” Mancini said, “and that’s when we really have to learn the best techniques of passing.”
There are golden rules that apply to anyone, from beginners to NHL players.
“Getting your hands away from your body, cupping the puck when you receive it, pushing the pass instead of slapping it, following through, transferring the weight,” Mancini said. “All those things are very important.”
Move on quickly
Mancini doesn’t mind if a coach spends a short amount of time working on those skills in a stationary setting. But he is a fierce opponent of stationary passing as a skill-builder.
“I’m not saying you don’t stand still to teach the technique of passing the first or second or third time,” Mancini said. “But the idea that it’s indicative of whether kids are good or not good at passing, or that stationary passing should be a staple of what we’re doing, that’s worn and outdated.”
Mancini’s gripe with stationary passing is practical: When, in a game, do two players stand completely still and pass to one another? It’s pretty rare. So why is it taught that way?
“I’ve never seen a stationary pass in the NHL. I’ve never seen it because it’s a ridiculous concept,” Mancini said. “Part of the problem why some kids don’t have good fundamentals is that they’ve been instructed in practice to make tape-to-tape passes while standing still. There’s not a 12-year-old in the world who wants to stand and do that. It’s boring and not engaging. It’s not indicative of how to learn that skill.”
Make a game of it
There are simple things, though, that can make learning how to pass more engaging and interactive.
“What we’re missing with a lot of coaches is something as simple as skating with the puck and then passing to someone stationary, then doing the opposite with the other player skating and completing the pass,” Mancini said. “Just that alone gets kids engaged.”
Better yet, he says, make a game of it.
“For example, there’s a big difference between having a line of kids stationary passing to another line of kids as compared to playing a game where there is a line of kids across the goal line and a line across the blue and in the middle are rings or balls or gloves,” Mancini said. “Now each side of kids are trying to pass the puck and hit the ring across the other kid’s line. If you want to get them engaged, that’s it. We have to re-examine how we’re teaching those skills. We need to adjust the coaching.”
Mancini says coaches sometimes get locked into doing drills based on both past experience – “this is the way it’s always been done” – or because they think of skill-building in terms of how an adult would learn versus how a youth player would learn.
“You could get two 30-year-olds to practice passing 15 feet apart, but kids want to be moving and active,” he said.
As an example, he references an experiment he and other coaches conducted with 16-year-olds at a national festival. They were doing a shuttle pass drill in the neutral zone and going through the motions. Then a coach changed things up and made it a game, splitting the group into two teams with one puck each, and the first one to make 15 tape-to-tape passes won.
“Oh my gosh, the engagement level and attention to detail rose to a new level because we found a way to engage the kids,” he said.
Take it to dry land
Players should also spend time off the ice to improve their passing skills. Here are some drills kids can try:
Go ahead and experiment
If the complaint from the stands is that players are trying too many advanced passes before mastering the basics, Mancini wants to shut that down as well.
If they’re trying to emulate their NHL heroes and be creative, that’s a good thing, he says.
“Why do they have to walk before they run when it comes to passing?” asked Mancini. “That’s not an issue. That’s just kids being kids if they’re trying saucer passes and other things. They’re watching NHL clips and I think it’s a wonderful thing. I think our kids learn just as much about the technical aspects of hockey watching highlights and clips as they do from practice.”