Jeff Jackson is the head coach of the highly ranked Notre Dame men’s hockey team and has coached at various other levels, including with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.
No matter what level he has coached at, though, Jackson has found the old cliché to be true: The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.
To that end, Jackson is a firm believer that the most important component when it comes to skill development is a heavy dose of practice. That’s just as true in college hockey as it is at the 12U level, where it’s still important to maintain a 3-to-1 practice-to-game ratio.
Practice makes perfect
Practice time is important, but more important is what coaches are doing with their players during that time, Jackson says. Hockey is all about creating in small spaces and making quick decisions. The more a practice can hone those skills, the better.
“Obviously the most important thing is the skill and skating ability, but once they get to their mid-teens, one of the things we emphasized with the NTDP was to really get kids to understand the importance of time and space,” Jackson said. “At each level there is less time and less space to use skating ability. That was a focal point with the NTDP, and it’s been a focal point ever since. Make decisions under pressure with their skills and with the puck.”
Jackson praises USA Hockey’s American Development Model because of its emphasis on competitive play in small spaces.
“That’s why so many people are into small games and the ADM and what they’re doing with half-ice and cross-ice – it’s good,” he said. “Trying to create less time and space, whether it’s small games or small-area skills and doing things with less space or less time by putting constraints on kids. It’s good to have some kind of pressure to make a decision with the puck.”
Praise for more skill development opportunities
Jackson has had major success recruiting Minnesota high school hockey players to South Bend for college, and he has a theory why he finds Minnesota players to be advanced compared to some of their peers when it comes to skill development: They can practice more.
It’s not always an official practice, of course, but the widespread availability of both outdoor and indoor ice can give players from northern states like Minnesota an advantage.
“It’s been said many times over that, in many cases, the kids from Minnesota seem to have a better understanding of how to utilize skills, and the youth hockey system there and high school level there has good coaches and an emphasis on skill development,” Jackson said.
Anders Lee, a former standout at Edina High School in Minnesota before starring at Notre Dame and now with the NHL’s New York Islanders, is a good example of a classic Jackson recruit from Minnesota. Lee was also an excellent football player, which played into the work ethic he displayed in practice.
“Too many people force kids to be single-sport players, and I don’t think that’s good for the athlete,” Jackson said. “Anders was a tremendous athlete. He overcame some deficiencies in his skating because he was so well-defined in his other athletic skills. He made himself a much better skater. And you can’t underestimate the character development that comes from playing other sports.”
Good enough for college
If you’re still not convinced that a heavy dose of practice is a good idea at the 12U level, consider that even in college there’s more than a 2-to-1 ratio of practice to games. Notre Dame has four high-tempo practices a week from Monday-Thursday before typically playing Friday and Saturday. Before games, the Irish have pregame skates. And there’s also time spent off ice in strength and conditioning.
“In practice, I try to put our guys in situations where they’re always forced to make decisions and forced to make a play under duress,” Jackson added. “Skill drills that are uncontested are OK, but once kids get close to mastering a skill at some level, they need to be able to do it under pressure. That’s the game.”
Good enough for the Great One
And if you’re still not convinced about practice, Jackson will invoke the name of a famous player who knew how valuable it was.
“The greatest emphasis goes back to Wayne Gretzky, who talked about how much time he actually had his stick on the puck in a game,” Jackson said, noting that it wasn’t very much. “In practice, kids have the opportunity to have more puck touches, and more reps with every skill, and there has to be that emphasis. In a game, there’s just one puck.”