Hockey Alberta announced there will be changes to Novice hockey for the upcoming season. Most of us don’t like change, but studies in hockey have proven half ice practices and games for young seven and eight year old players is beneficial. Starting this season all games and practices will be half ice. Here is an outline of the changes from Hockey Edmonton. Other associations, specifically rural ones with smaller groups, will have some flexibility to ensure they can ice teams. Some teams might comprise of both seven and eight year olds, but in bigger centres, you will see seven year olds play with seven year olds (novice minor) and eight year olds play against eight year olds (novice major). Keep in mind, hockey associations east of Manitoba have had one-year age groups for decades. Your son or daughter will not have their development stunted by playing against children their own age.
I’ve long wondered why hockey has little kids playing on the same dimensions as adults. This doesn’t happen in other sports at a young age, and in Europe and the United States they have been using half ice games and practices for young kids for a while.
Many have trepidation about the change, which is natural. No system is perfect, but I think if you give it time you will realize this is a smart move for Hockey Alberta.
The change to half ice will increase ice time for kids. Teams, when possible, will be comprised of 18-20 skaters. When team A plays team B, half of team A and team B will be on one half of the ice while the second half of teams will be on the other half. Shifts will be 90 seconds. Kids will be on the ice much more than before, they will touch the puck more, and should become more comfortable playing in smaller spaces, which is how much of the game, as players grow, is played.
In 2013, I had the pleasure of speaking with George Kingston about hockey development. Kingston has long been considered one of Canada’s best developmental coaches.
Below is part of an article from 2013 with his views on half ice practices and games.
George Kingston started his coaching career going on 50 years ago — in 1968 at the University of Calgary — but the man considered one of Canada’s best developmental coaches still keeps giving back to hockey at age 74.
One thing the hockey man with the long resume and career is is a proponent of on the ice is keeping things short — particularly with developing and coaching young hockey players.
“When I went over to Europe to study the game, I noticed right away that the Europeans were developing much more skill into their players simply because they practice more,” said Kingston, who was part of Hockey Canada for more than a decade and had different roles with the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1994 Olympic teams.
“But their practices were more like small period games, and mini games and mini challenges, competitions to get faster, to be better with the puck, to be able to shoot faster, to be more accurate, all of those things were done in practice. They spent no time on systems.
“Their practice ratio for kids was up to five practices with no games, and maybe an occasional game. They didn’t really need games because what they did in practice emulated a game, in fact it was much better because the kids touched the puck more often.”
I’ve always wondered why should kids between the ages of 5-10 be playing and practicing on the same sized ice surface as pro hockey players. If we want our kids to improve their skills they need to practice more often. According to Kingston, Canada is starting to realize this.
“In 1971, Canada’s model was basically that there would be three games for every practice,” said Kingston, the San Jose Sharks’ first head coach and a former assistant coach with the Minnesota North Stars and the Calgary Flames. “Hockey Canada now recommends, thankfully, through the long term development plan, basically one game to every one practice.
“We’re still behind the Europeans in the sense that they do a lot of shrinking the game, changing the game to a lot of small area games to help kids develop their skills quicker. We have to meet kids on their terms and their development level much more readily than we have in the past.”
One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about half-ice practices is that they will hamper a young player’s skating abilities. Once again, Kingston was quick to shoot down that theory.
“When you do skate competitions you are really most interested in acceleration and agility skating,” he said. “The flat-out use of maximum skating in the game of hockey, it simply doesn’t happen very often. What does happen is that you have to be adjusting, changing, going forward, backward, lateral, always turning and moving toward the puck; that’s agility skating … Practices and games in smaller areas generate more stops, starts, turns and, most importantly, more puck touches.”
The most important aspects of hockey are skating and puck control. Kingston outlined how practicing and playing games on a smaller surface will improve young player’s skating, but also their puck-handling skills.
It is crazy how infrequently kids actually touch the puck in a game, Kingston informed me.
“In the late 1970s, while at the U of C, we did a study on entry-level players all the way up to the Calgary Cowboys (the former WHA team),” Kingston said. “The average time that a Cowboys player had procession of the puck to stick handle, to pass, to shoot, or even touching the puck when they were trying to get procession was only 47 seconds a game.
“For kids eight years of age and younger, who played on the full-sized rink, they had between 15.3 to 20.7 seconds of actual contact with the puck or puck possessions.”
That means the average player would need to play 60 games just to handle the puck for twenty minutes.
Hockey Edmonton made a great decision implementing half-ice practices. Kids will touch the puck more often, and their skating, stops, starts and turns should improve, if coaches implement proper drills.
According to Kingston, the best drill coaches can use is a simple one: keep-away.
“Play keep-away for 20-30 seconds,” he said. “Blow the whistle and let the other player start with the puck. It is the basics of hockey. You have the puck, or I have the puck.”
I think this will be a good change. Although I’m not in agreement with everything about the change, mainly Hockey Edmonton’s decision not to keep score. Kids are smart. They will know what is going on, but not keeping score might calm down some of the overzealous parents in the crowd, so we’ll see how it goes. Ultimately, I’m nitpicking by not liking that change, but I strongly agree with the change to half ice.
I do love the fact Hockey Edmonton won’t be handing out participation medals anymore. I don’t believe it sends the right message. Why get a medal just for showing up? There is nothing wrong with earning it, and if your child doesn’t get one from a tournament the kids will be fine. I find it is often the parents who are more worried how their child will handle not getting a medal, than it is the child being upset.
I find it a bit odd, however, that they don’t want participation medals, which is good, yet they eliminate keeping score. But I digress.
The main focus of these changes in Novice is moving to half ice, and I think once people get over the initial shock, they will see this was the right move. Here is a study Hockey Alberta did on how smaller ice surfaces will benefit your child’s skating, not hinder it.
I realize some rural teams will have a challenge icing teams of only seven and eight year olds, but they will have the flexibility to move kids up or down to ensure they ice a team. You can ask your association about it, or talk to Hockey Alberta. The one important aspect parents should watch for is to ensure the coach of your novice team, or any team for that matter, is incorporating the proper practice plans/drills, which are available online, to ensure all young kids are getting quality coaching. That is crucial at a young age. As a parent, take the time to look at the drills available.
If you are coaching, ensure you take the time and be prepared at practice. Your players will enjoy practices much more, as will you, and there are many great drills you can access on line.