Ferris State University coach Bob Daniels learned how to play the game through cross-ice hockey.
But Daniels, an NCAA Division I head coach for more than two decades, watched full-ice hockey take over the youth circuit while he was rising up the ranks in Michigan.
Now, with USA Hockey’s American Development Model being incorporated into rinks and associations across the country, Daniels is happy to see the ice being scaled appropriately again.
“As a matter of fact, I’ve been around long enough to see things come full-circle,” said Daniels, who has received multiple national coaching awards. “When I first started playing in mites, we were playing cross-ice in those days. Three games going at once, it was tremendous. Kids could score goals, you wouldn’t have to worry about offsides and icing and all the stuff you could learn later in life.
“You got to play just for the sheer fun of playing. I think that, in terms of an experience for young kids, that’s a much better experience.”
Smaller Ice Equals More Action
What’s the point of signing up to play youth sports? Keyword: Play. How can we get kids involved and active as much as possible to help them cultivate a love for the game? How can we create the best possible environment for them to improve?
Age-appropriate playing surfaces are a large part of the answer.
“You put a young child on a full-length golf course and have them play from the blues when they’re 7 years old, a lot of kids probably wouldn’t want to continue to play the game,” Daniels said. “Why would you do it in hockey, when you could do a cross-ice game? Get more kids on the ice for a specific amount of time – the kids will get more touches of the puck; goalkeepers will be more active and make more saves. On a full sheet of ice, it might be 15 minutes between shots for a poor goaltender at one end of the rink. In a small-ice game, they’re going to see much more action.”
An Emphasis on Learning the Fundamental Skills
No icing, no offside. In an ADM-approved cross-ice hockey game, referees are instructed to guide the game along, not whistle minor infractions or rules that might be difficult for youngsters to grasp.
Instead of worrying about rules and systems, Daniels likes that, in a cross-ice atmosphere, kids learn how to compete with one another while working on their skills due to more puck touches and frequent engagement in the play.
“Kids are going to work on their puck-handling skills much more in a confined area,” Daniels said. “I think it will also, in some respects, force kids to pass and move the puck more, teach them how to compete in a small area. For so many reasons cross-rink games are much better for kids than trying to play on a full sheet of ice. I’m a big proponent of that.”
The Right Time to Focus on Skill Development
Daniels stressed that, at the 8U level, ice time should be about teaching kids the right way to perform hockey skills, not wins and losses.
“My feeling is that the kids in the younger age groups, yeah, they like to compete and that sort of thing, but most of them derive their fun from skill development – from accomplishing or mastering certain tasks,” Daniels said. “They’re not specifically geared towards competition. I also think that when kids are younger, it’s a critical time period where you can teach them how to skate correctly, how to handle pucks correctly, how to shoot, how to do the fundamentals correctly and efficiently.”
By committing to small-area games and cross-ice competition, we keep the focus rightly on those fundamentals – a decision that pays major dividends in the athlete’s long-term development.