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."