Bubble hockey was a great game a generation ago, and it’s still great today. I’m particularly fond of the move where you pass from the wing to the center and try to jam the puck in the net with one swift movement.
Let’s face it: There aren’t many other ways to score when your players are confined to one part of the ice, as determined by rods and gliders.
And let’s also face this: Real hockey, though it didn’t look exactly like bubble hockey, kind of used to resemble that same rigid positional dependence.
“The left wing controlled the left side,” said Bob Mancini, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model. “A left defenseman would never be caught leaving the left side of the front of the net.”
But as Mancini also notes: “We’ve moved on from that.”
Modern hockey at top levels is more fluid, creative and filled with interchangeable parts. As such, Mancini emphasizes that, at the 10U level, players should be learning to play multiple positions instead of being pigeonholed at an early age as forwards or defense.
“At the very least, kids should be participating in practices where the drills and small-area games and activities don’t differentiate between forwards and defensemen,” Mancini said. “But rather, allow players to switch lines, positions and responsibilities every other repetition. That is the least that should be done.”
Even goalies can get in on the act. At that age, Mancini says, there are two ways to ensure positional flexibility: Let one goalie play “out” while the other is in net; or during games, have two goalies rotate midway through each period.
The bare minimum is acceptable. But the ideal goes further.
“If we really want to push the envelope of cognitive development on the ice, including awareness and decision-making, we should be championing the cause of new positionality,” Mancini said. “Whatever position a player comes in, the next player out the door takes his or her position.”
This increases communication, creates players with higher hockey IQ and generates many other benefits.
“There’s a broad spectrum of things you can do, but more importantly we need to understand that today we are seeing the highest levels of hockey being as close to position-less hockey as we’ve ever seen,” Mancini said. “What is it we can do to help our players prepare for that level?”
As Mancini notes, the “great evolution” away from a bubble hockey mentality in higher levels is a great reason to teach it at the lower levels.
“There are lots of defensemen right now in the NHL who don’t look like what we think a defenseman traditionally looked like for years,” he said. “Kids don’t develop that kind of ability by being locked rigidly into a specific position. Switching roles and responsibilities in practice is the minimum we should expose kids to if we want them to more fully develop their skills, including their mental skills.”
Learning to see the ice in a much larger context, rather than as a limited, specific set of responsibilities, helps players develop.
“I think the biggest benefit is that we’re taking this time to train the young player’s brain to be aware and intelligent in all different areas of the ice and make proper decisions from where he or she is,” Mancini said. “With this more holistic approach, when we have the puck, we’re all on offense and filling roles, and when we don’t have the puck, we’re all on defense and filling roles. That way, everyone is learning how to play every aspect of the game and developing a wide base of skills.”
Still need buy-in
That said, getting buy-in from coaches and parents is a challenge. Here we find some of the common themes that emerge with any sort of change in a tradition-heavy sport: There are those who are used to doing it one way and don’t want to adapt, and there are others who believe short-term payoffs (10U tournament championships!) outweigh long-term development benefits.
“We’re still seeing the profiling of players at too young of an age,” Mancini said. “Unfortunately, we’re not only seeing the profiling of forwards and defense, but too often it’s actually taken a step further and the child is typecast as an ‘offensive defenseman’ or ‘defensive defenseman’ or ‘checking forward.’ I think it’s sometimes difficult for coaches and parents to accept how the skill development benefits outweigh what they see as an easier way to win games.”
The irony, Mancini says, is that trying to simplify things for players by sticking them in one spot and one position is not actually improving a team’s chances to win.
“What we think is counterintuitive to exactly what is going on,” he said. “In reality, the more difficult we make it in practice gives the players a skill set that is more transferrable to games. The game of hockey is chaotic and the better we arm our young players with the abilities to solve that chaos, the more they’re going to develop and the better chance to be successful and win.”