Friday, October 1, 2010

Giving the Game Back to Kids

   I was disappointed over the weekend when I heard some parents in the stands, grumbling about the official new norm for 8-and under players, USA Hockey's Red, White and Blue program (cross-ice).  Is the idea of cross-ice making you cross? Think shrinking the playing surface is going to shrink a player's potential?  Time to melt some of those myths and read on.  In my interview with ADM's Jim Hunt,  I think you'll quickly gain an appreciation for the intended goals to create a positive environment and passion for the game.  It's time.  Hunt is the American Development Model regional manager for areas that include New York, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania.  He's coached on the collegiate, junior, high school and international levels and is well respected in hockey circles.      

1. Why the push for cross ice, and what are the benefits as proscribed in USA Hockey's American Development Model?

   There are many reasons why Red-White & Blue hockey (cross ice) is better for the 8&under player than traditional full ice hockey. In a very un-scientific study we did while at the Melon Arena last spring working with the Pittsburgh Penguins we had a coach skate goal line to goal line it took him 15 strides. Then we asked an 8 year old to come out and skate boards to boards. He did it in 16 strides showing the relativity of the two distances. Take that as a back drop and add in the fact that at 7-9 years of age children are in their first optimal speed development window (the second comes at 13). This means that if we train and compete right we have a biological opportunity to effect the speed of our athletes. The proper training and competition requires multiple explosions where a player accelerates quickly to their optimal speed time after time. Having the puck in a different area code as is often the case in a traditional full ice game offers little incentive and opportunity to get the desired repetition of leg explosion. When things fail they either fail by design or by execution. This is a design problem that can easily be addressed. Now combine those facts with the number of puck touches that Red-White & Blue hockey affords a player versus the traditional style game. By reducing the size of the surface we create an environment where every player will handle the puck as much as 50% more than in a full ice game. Now add in the competitive factor that the small surface will require consistent second and third efforts on the puck due to the increase in traffic. Even the most skilled players at this age will be forced to be stronger on the puck due to the environment they are in. If you don't want those facts to get in he way of a good argument consider that currently we loose nearly 50% of our players by the time they finish squirts. Many due to the fact that they don't have fun because they don't feel involved. Paying attention to the top end of the talent pool, those players who excel at an early age at the expense of the slower developing player only feeds the sense of entitlement that tends to permeate and eventually erode our games culture.

2. What would you say to parents who are concerned that using half the surface isn't "real hockey" and it will be too crowded on the ice for their kids?

    "Real Hockey" is a relative term. We are the only major sport that does not modify the field/surface/equipment to accommodate our younger athletes. Soccer plays on smaller fields with smaller nets. Tennis plays cross court at 10 & under, baseball advances through T-ball with shorter base paths. Football has flag football for young players. For a young player in any of these sports they are playing what is "real" for their ability. Crowded is the good. The ability to make plays in traffic is what defines a good hockey player.

3. I've heard some parents complain their kids are ready for full-ice, and this program is going to set them back. Way back. Are their concerns legit?

  Our culture is to celebrate promotions and mile stones and very often we get wrapped up in wanting to see our kids succeed in terms we understand. That mentality tends to rob young players from their day in the sun if you will. A great example of this is the midget age 16 year old who, rather than stay at midget decides to go play junior hockey and rather than score 50 goals and 100 points as a great midget player he learns how to chip out chip in and survive as a role player on his junior team. Now we have lost a potential future great player and developed a marginal one in its place. The same can be said for a mite. You never set a kid back by affording him/her the opportunity to gain confidence and become proficient at the finer points of the game. In fact we hope that Red-White and Blue Hockey will help us develop those finely tuned players down the road.

4. How does learning the game on half ice make a younger player think better and play better during a game situation?

    Hockey is a read and react game. By playing on a smaller surface players are forced to make plays sooner in more confined space. This hockey sense takes years to develop and finding creative players with high hockey IQ's has become difficult. We tend to foster robotic hockey rather than creative hockey by over organizing the game. Hockey by nature is a chaotic sport. Coaches need to help direct players through and embrace the chaos rather than attempt to try and take it out of the game.

5. How will this model help the game become the teacher?

    Red-White & Blue Hockey gives the game back to the kids. With little or no officiating whistles, a running clock, no scoreboard, no face-offs all the "organized" minutia is eliminated and the athletes get to simply play. And when they are allowed to just play the game is allowed to just teach.

6. What about learning off-sides? How will our mite players develop the knowledge/skill needed for the squirt level?

  Offsides is a rule that can be learned in a matter of weeks and those weeks pale in comparison to the physiological advantages that are gained by playing Red-White & Blue Hockey.

7. Some parents believe this is just a way for rinks to make more money by packing more kids onto the ice. Is money a motivator here?

   . Money is the motivator but from the stand point of costing a family significantly less to play Red-White & Blue Hockey than it does to play traditional hockey. By putting more kids on the ice, rinks and associations should be charging less. There are no officiating costs to speak of which affords a savings as well.

    Thanks Jim and I love this quote..." Full potential is easier to reach when you don't have to skate as far to find it."


  1. Great interview. I just hope that the parents of these young children starting out embrace it and realize how good this will be for their young players. My son is a bantam now, and this was introduced at our rink when he was a squirt. It wasn't received well at first, but it eventually caught on. The mentality of instant gratification has to take a back seat to the proper development of the players. Parents have to realize that a hockey player should reach his full potential in his mid to late teens, if they are serious about pusuing this sport. They have plenty of time to score goals, let them have the opportunity to learn the game and develop the skills necessary to succeed.

  2. I am not so sure. As a parent of two mite players I have been a part of the ADM and will not talk bad about it for those that are new to the sport. However, my two mites (ages 8 & 6) have been skating since they were 2 years old and the ADM did not challenge them enough so they grew bored last season. This year they are both travel mites and are having the time of their lives. I really was unsure I was making the right decision but now am convinced I did. As a teacher and former varsity football coach I can see the value of small games and practicing needed skills, but I also believe in allowing the students that are excellerated to move forward from their level too. The ADM is great but let's not forget about the ones who work hard to be better and love the sport already by eliminating travel teams.

  3. I have been coaching the mite level for the last 8 years and have to admit that I am scared to death of this program. Although I firmly believe in most of its tenants, and have been coaching this way for years (as most travel coaches have), this style is not adequate for those that have started to play at ages as early as 4 or even 3 years of age. I believe that the training aspect is right on, but eliminating the actual game is not the answer.

    We are in competition with many sports. Although I keep seeing that we are being compared to T-Ball, this is not the reality. The reality is that most sports have actually moved to increased competition and intensity. They even make a video game of little league kids baseball for the Wi and Xbox.

    Just to clarify, I have coached both travel and house league for the last 8 years. Almost every kid in our hockey program is involved in multiple sports. The thing that everyone seems to leave out is that our nation's lifestyle has changed. When I was a kid I would play outside with my friends unsupervised everyday. That luxury is a thing of the past. We do not let our kids outside to play anymore for fear of the consequences. Instead, parents sign their kids up for every supervised sport and activity that we can find. We do not make our kids play hockey. Our kids love hockey and we supply them with the means to do what they love as often as humanly possible. We are not burning them out, we are lighting the pilot that will be available to them for the rest of their lives.

    My son is on an elite squirt travel team. He has been skating since the age of four. He has played on baseball, basketball, tennis, swimming, diving, gymnastics, and soccer teams as well. As many parents will attest too, hockey has always been his favorite. In fact, the speed and intensity of the game has ruined my son's interest in other sports. This love of hockey happened when he was about six. I can not imagine my son playing cross ice hockey against the same group of kids constantly from the age of 4 to the age of nine. Sounds pretty boring to me and extremely boring to him!

  4. You raise valid points! Let's keep this discussion going.

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  6. Those that mention "elite" kids have a point. this has the potential to be boring for them, especially if they've had a taste of a higher level of competition...but what they need to recognize is that MOST kids are not elite.

    I grew up playing for a small association and have been coaching for an even smaller one for 5 years. The tendency I've noticed is that the parents who do the most work for the association are the ones who view their kids as top-tier players and will settle for nothing less than having their young player skate for the highest level team possible.

    They become tone-deaf to the notion that if (just for the sake of argument) 20% of the kids that are 8 and under are "elite" that means that in order to support a travel/competitive team, the association must attract upwards of 50 kids _or_ put kids on the full-ice team that shouldn't be there.

    For the past 4 years I helped enable order to field our team for the 3-5 kids that can really play we back filled with 6-8 kids that can barely skate (and scared away several others when they learned they had to spend 3 ours in the car for a U8 hockey game!). Then we pretended we had a hockey team when in reality we have 3-5 kids that could skate and the rest had a really great view of the game by watching it from the ice.

    This year we finally put an end to that. We created a cross-ice league for 5-12 year-olds, attracted about 40 kids and the only "travel" mites we have were the 8 returning skaters plus 3 more we promoted out of our mini-mite program. We only put kids on the squirt team that could skate with the experienced players. Next year we will do away with our travel mite team all together and use cross-ice to develop both mite and squirt players. I intend to work with the mite coaches to create a mite age tournament select team out of the cross-ice league. That way those "top" players get the skill development, ice time and puck touches out of the cross-ice but also will get to experience full-ice "real" hockey.

    If parents put aside the very short sighted "what's good for my kid" and instead do what's best for growing hockey from the bottom up, in no time you end up with enough players to support both and in the long run you end up with a higher level of skill in your own back yard, removing the need for traveling to far away associations to find skilled competition and team-mates.

  7. As a mite coach, I completely believe in this new cross ice system. Some of the full ice "elite" players are finding out that they are really not that elite after all. The true "real" game of hockey is played on a small area of ice, and that small area moves over the surface of the whole arena. Those that were elite were skaters that could just move the puck away a bit faster then the other skaters. Now being made to play in a tighter area, they are finding that they really dont possess better stickhandeling skills and need to also react faster to the play. Cross ice will teach these players these skills naturally, something repetitve drills can't teach.

    We have been hard core into the program for 6 months now, and its the best thing to happen for mite level. I have seen two year players who were stagnent in skill progression really increase in abilities simply by playing in this new tighter ice space.

    I cant wait to see these mite players abilites show up even more when they do progress to the squirt level.

    On a side note, I grew up playing on an ice rink that was 2/3 regulation size. When we would travel to full size rinks, our quicker reaction to plays and being able to use our skills developed by simply playing in tighter quarters excelled with "more elbow room" to play on. I relate this fact, and the benefits happening since moving to the cross ice Red White and Blue hockey program with our mite program, that I will teach it, coach it, and stand behind it 100%.

    Coach Wayne

  8. I think some coaches and parents may be mixing up two concepts in this discussion. One concept is the use of the small area, cross-ice format. A very different, but important issue, is mixing players of varying skill levels.

    From what I have seen, the cross-ice format works great even for elite level players when they are playing against other players with the same skill level. You see all the advantages the program advertises: more touches, more acceleration, handling the puck in a crowd, etc. What does not work well, on any size surface, is having an eight-year old who has been playing since he was 5 going agains a six-year old rookie. Who wouldn't get bored with that match up?

    When we set up the games, the coaches plan out shifts so that the skill levels are well matched. That way, everyone has fun.

  9. My son is a 2001 Squirt. His league is following ADM for the first time. I like the concept and I really like the practices. The coach is well-organized and runs great practices, but there is very little emphasis on teamwork. In fact, the coach has said that he will let every player except goalie play each position throughout the season. Does ADM say to do that at the Squirt level? Also, is it within the ADM philosophy to not pull the goalie when behind by one point with one minute left? Just trying to understand. Thanks

  10. John,

    Playing every position at Mite and Squirt level is a great idea. Even a stint at playing goalie is beneficial. The best way to understand how a position on the ice works is to play it. If a forward plays defense for awhile, he can understand some of the weak areas and how to get around them as a forward, and same for all positions, even goal.

    Teamwork should always be emphasised. Hockey is a team sport, without teamwork you might as well go play golf. A lack of passing drills in a practice negates teamwork, and an abundance of them creates it. Another fun exercise is to have a players versus coach's exercise to bond the players to work together and "get" the coach's.

    Playing the game and having fun is the main philosophy for younger age kids. Winning and hard competition should come later as it put too much pressure on the younger skaters. Pulling the goalie in your description is a way to attempt to tie the game, but also if the opposing team has agressive forwards and your team is a little weak on defense, its also a sure way to guarentee an additional empty net goal against you. Sometimes a very tough call to make.

    If your squirt is coming off the ice having had a good time, and cant wait until the next practice or game, thats all you need to focus on at this age. Skill development and love of the game will make them a great competitive player in the years to come.

  11. What I keep coming back to is this - NHL players play on full ice. Why would we expect our 6, 7, and 8-year-olds to play on that same ice? The rules of the game are something that the kids can pick up with just a little bit of work. The potential skill that they can develop given a smaller area in which to play, in my opinion, is well worth it. I have found myself wondering why the drop from full ice to cross ice, as opposed to half ice? But, in the end, for each and every one of our kids, the important thing is for them to be having fun. Once the fun stops, there is no point to the many, many, MANY hours that we spend bringing our kiddos to the rink and standing there in the icy cold, with numb fingers and toes. Each of us is going to feel our own way - happy, frustrated, or indifferent. But, what is really important is whether or not we can get our younger children hot chocolate and a donut during those 7am games.

  12. Play all positions! Brian Gionta played a little goalie even into squirts!

  13. Jim makes several excellent points and the ADM is the real deal and is the best thing that could of happen for hockey in the US. The problem is some parents and coaches unfortunately, already know it all and are not following the key principles as associations implement the model and claim it doesn't work, especially for the elite player. I have to chuckle about the 8/9 year old "elite" hockey player. My son started playing at 4, and is now 8. Last year he played travel so I guess that qualifies him as an "elite" player and is now in his final year of mites. This year we went ADM eliminated travel and no full-ice games and guess what happened? We still have a month in the season and it has been his biggest year of growth, period.(the previous 2 and 1/2 seasons were full-ice) His skating, puck handling, shooting and game sense have improved tremendously. I've seen him as well as the other 40 mites in our ADM make plays and moves consistently and with increased skill that I rarely saw my son or others make last year at the "elite" level with 30+ travel full-ice games. And probably the most important thing, these kids love it! In their first game, every kid on my son's team scored a goal. 4/5 of those kids wouldn't even had a gotten a shot on goal in full-ice game.

    I have been coaching kids from the top end high school player to beginner level for almost 15 years. I was fortunate to learn about small area games/drills from my collegiate coaches and some of the top junior coaches in the nation. I incorporated them immediately into my practices at all levels so for me the ADM is a no-brainer. This program works and the sooner parents and coaches recognize what is right for hockey the better the game and our kids will become.

    Drop the puck and the kids will learn the game, bottom line. If you really want your kid to be an "elite" player, embrace the ADM, otherwise it will be you holding your kid back, not the ADM.

    Coach Eric

  14. Knock down the trees in your back yard put up a rink. No one there to put rules on your ice. No hockey government to make your kid do what they don't want because of his age and not his skill.I'm a mother of an 8 year old who was in tears and wanted to quit hockey because of cross ice. If we have to build our own rink to make him happy thats what we'll do.

  15. Interesting points of view. Last season the kids played full ice. There was one child who was faster and took off with the puck and could get 1-2 shots in before everyone else caught up. Because of this he scored more and is viewed as an exceptional player. But this summer in practice they played cross ice things are more even and he is not scoring nearly as much an does not have as much time with the puck. He struggles because he has to be able to handle the puck better and not rely on his speed. He does not have the ability to keep the puck in a crowd or even one-on-one and never passes because he never needed to on full ice. His father is really upset about him playing cross ice because he does not stand out as much and views cross ice as not as challenging. The father was really pissed when one practice game his son lost the puck everytime he got it because he could not rely on his speed.