Thoughts from a first year Novice Half Ice coach

The novice hockey season is about to wrap up and it was the first year with two half-ice games going on at the same time on the same sheet of ice for Novice-aged players (7). If you aren’t aware of some of details with the changes made from Hockey Canada from full-ice games at the first year Novice level, here are the highlights. These changes will be for all Novice-aged players across the country starting next winter season.

4 v 4. Each team sends half its players to each end. Plays against another team that does the same.
90 secs shifts
No face-offs
Penalties are called but no stoppage in play. Offending player sits out a shift after a line change.
No scoring stats are kept.
No standings are kept.
Rosters of around 18
No full-time goalies.

The goal of sharing my thoughts is not to change your mind if you don’t like the new way Novice is being played. By sharing my thoughts I simply want to prepare those who are going into the program next winter and help those who are currently in it. It was new for everyone this year and I wish I knew now what I didn’t know or understand in September.

I was the head coach of one team and the assistant with another for first year Novice. We were lucky to have a lot of committed parents who became coaches, managers and volunteers. That makes a huge difference! If your child is involved in any sport and you are not volunteering, take a second to see if you can help out in some way. When it falls on one person or a group it can burn them out and make them rethink their commitment.

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So where to start with the first year of half-ice novice hockey as a coach/parent? The format of playing half-ice games actually makes it really easy to figure out. There were no winners and losers in the games. Did the kids and parents keep score in their heads? Sure. But there was no website that said which team was winning or losing.

With no winners or losers, I think this actually should have changed the year-long plan for the coaches. In the past, with full ice games at Novice it was understood that spending time on a breakout or forecheck was needed so there was some order to a game. Learning icing and offside was very important as those rules were called and enforced. Teaching a 7-year-old these concepts could be tricky and very time consuming. Without the need to address those areas coaches could change their priorities.

The coaches could now focus 100% on player development, though still slowly introducing the kids to all of the different hockey penalties.

This concept of working on skill sets took the pressure of winning away from the coaches and it freed them up to really go after developing players, which is where I believe the focus should be at this age. Now the coach shouldn’t wonder if he is doing the right things for his team to win. He can focus solely on if he is doing the right things to make the players improve. Then the games become the stage for the players to show off their improving skill sets.

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So where to start with a half-ice practice plan?

We had more practices than games. I love that ratio. As a coach, I believe the practices are for the coach and the games are for the players. If we can have organized and well thought out practice plans the players will have success in games. Not the other way around.

I believe there should be a practice template. As coaches, we don’t need to re-invent the wheel from practice to practice and come up with new drills all the time. First off, coming up with all new drills for all 30 practices would be impossible. The group of coaches would spend a lot of time teaching the drills. That wasted time means less time to actually do the drills for the players. The players also need to figure out the drill before they can actually work on the skill the drill is attempting to improve.

To start the season all the drills and practice plans will be new to your team. After a while, everyone will get comfortable will the drills and they will get to understand how you want to run the practice. Coaches, don’t feel guilty about using the same practice plan for back to back practices. The players will get a lot more out of the second skate knowing what to expect and the coaches can now spend more time coaching the skills involved in your drills rather than coaching the drill. As your team gets used to your drills you can mix in some previous drills in each practice so the players can work on their basic skills. Then introduce new drills with new skills required one or two at a time to keep challenging your players.

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There should be a structure to the practice that the kids come to expect. I believe the players like the structure and thrive under it. Ask a teacher — they are the ones who clued me in. Here is an example of what each practice can look like. The drills can vary from practice to practices but the template stays the same.

10 mins…small area game
10 mins…skating drills
8 mins…passing drills

Break into four stations. Each station is 7 mins:
a- skating station
b- stick-handling station
c- passing station
d- puck race station

Any remaining time becomes a puck pirate game.

At this Novice level, I would concentrate on skating and passing. I know, I don’t have shooting in there. I didn’t spend any time teaching shooting once this season. The kids shoot a ton of pucks when they get on the ice. It is the one skill you don’t need to ask them to do. Have you ever seen a kid jump on the ice with pucks around and decide to instead work on their tight turns or Mohawk turns?

I believe if a player can skate and the coaches put a strong emphasis on coaching the skill of passing and preaching for players to pass in games, they will get their chance to shoot on net. If you spend a lot of time teaching shooting and not enough on skating and passing they will never get to use that shot. Every drill I come up with finishes with a shot on goal. That gets the kids excited. I don’t care about the shot. I care about the four tight turns and two passes they do before they get to take the shot. They work on the skills you want and they still get their shot. Everyone wins!

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Coaching skills are a big part of the role coaches have, but there is also the need to work with the players to be coachable. When the season ends, have you passed on better hockey players and better people? I am talking about getting the kids to listen to the coach and each other.

Respect. This is an area I think we need to address more as a coach and quite frankly it is the harder part.

When a coach blows the whistle does everyone come in to see the coach? When the coach is talking on ice, is everyone on a knee and looking at the coach? When there is a line change do the kids push and shove to be right at the door? Do the kids support each other or do they tear each other down when a play goes sideways?

These skills of being a good teammate is something that extends into their everyday life/school/family. It is a lot of responsibility for a coach, but we should pass the kids from our team off to next year’s coach knowing we had a positive impact on them as people.

I loved the ice time for the game. With a roster of 18 players, the kids were on the ice every other shift. Each team dresses two goalies. Each team puts eight skaters on each side of the rink. That means four players on the ice and four players on the bench rotating every 90 seconds. I found the kids tired out as the game went on. There was no complaining about ice time because they knew they were right back out there.

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The puck touches were great on the half-ice. Shots are frequent and passing is needed. It is difficult to really grab the puck and go through a whole team on half-ice. Players are always around you and able to close the space on you faster than on full-ice. This allows the coaches a great opportunity to preach passing. It isn’t easy, but when you see four passes in a row, it’s so beautiful you almost start to cry!

At the end of the day, hockey is about having fun. That is why kids play it and we coach it. We can’t forget about that. Every coach can have their own way to create fun. You need to find yours. I do believe players have fun when they know they are improving and touching the puck in games. Focus on those skills and the smiles will come.

I welcome any feedback or questions. You can send me an email at [email protected].

Good luck next year with the half ice!


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  • Hey Jason, we may be looking for a coach next year and I think you have the right stuff. Those practice plans are gold! Can’t believe Todd wasn’t using those plays!! I’ll let our future GM Keith know about this article and I’m sure he’ll be giving you a call!

    • vetinari

      Read the room fake Nicholson… this is a nice piece about Strud’s experiences with Novice hockey for other parents out there and not every article needs a smart-arse remark.

  • Boom76

    What a great article. As a former teacher, I couldn’t agree more with your practice plan point. But most importantly, your points about developing coachable and respectful young humans are of paramount importance in this day and age… and as a hockey dad, I’m seeing a major need for this… And it starts with the parents having open eyes and ears and courage to prepare their kids on what that really means before practices and games. Thanks for this great article!

  • TKB2677

    I am from Red Deer and my oldest son is in second year Novice. In Red Deer, we play Oct – Dec is half ice and is exactly as you described. Team is split in half, 2 goalies, 4 on 4. The only difference is no penalties and we do faceoffs. As soon as there is a line change, they line up for a faceoff but that is the only one. The play is continuous for the whole shift which is around 2 mins. Lots of skating, lots of puck touches.

    After Christmas, we do full ice. They introduce refs and linesmen. We do positions, faceoffs, call penalties, icing, offside, the works.

    I see pros and cons to both. The pros for half ice is because you are splitting the teams up, the kids get more ice time. You are playing 8 kids plus 2 goalies at once instead of 5 and 1 goalie. At this level, it’s mostly about skating. If you can skate well, you stand out, if you can’t you don’t touch the puck as much. So if you split up the team, you can put the stronger kids on one side, the weaker kids on the other. Because the ice surface is smaller and you can separate out the stronger kids, the weaker kids get to touch the puck more.

    The cons for half ice is they don’t learn the rules as much. They don’t learn offside, they don’t learn icing, they don’t learn positions.

  • winteriscoming

    The problems that I have seen are the installation and removal of the boards, parents are at risk when they are on the ice especially after the Zamboni has flooded. Most of the time the rink attendant is required to help out as the parents are to busy getting the kids changed or not physically capable to do the task.

    • Svantw

      Depends on the board system. Half our games just have a small foam barrier separating the sheets. The rinks where we have the boards, basically we can pop out a section, turn the thing sideways and move it to the middle after the zamboni makes a swipe. Takes like 3 minutes to do the boards if it is a good system

    • Csaw

      The boards installation and removal really wasn’t an issue. Both teams needed to have a coach or a parent out there to take care of the boards. Hockey Canada requires the people doing the boards to wear skates and a helmet, so parents shouldn’t be at risk. Not all teams followed this rule, but I suspect this will be watched closely moving forward.

  • Johnnyo

    They’ve been doing half-ice in Europe for the 8 and under crowd for years — I’m glad HC finally saw the light. I’ve been around the young game for years, and the number one complaint from parents was almost always “my kid rarely touches the puck” when they were playing full ice. Full ice was straight line hockey for most kids under the age of 9, and the best two kids on the ice were almost always the ones with the puck shift after shift.

    This year, I’ve heard from parents critical of half ice, they’re the minority, but they’re loud: “kids never get really skating”, “my kid used to get breakaways all the time, now s/he can’t break free”, “they won’t learn the rules” etc. These are almost 100% of the same parents who last year had their kids in 3 on 3 leagues to supplement skills development because full ice games didn’t force the kids to stick handle through traffic and make tight turns, stop/start, etc.

    Small ice for young players makes sense. They’ve got years to learn offsides and icing. Skill development, especially skating, is far more important to their development and enjoyment of the game than learning to wait at a blue line for the puck to cross first — a concept that a 9/10 year old kid can understand almost right away compared to the 6/7/8 year olds.

  • HockeyRooster

    My son was in Novice 1 this year and I really liked the way the half ice games went. The small ice surface takes away the ability for one or two kids to dominate the play with strong skating skills. Not to be a leg-humper but I think Strudy nailed it in this article. My son was only in his second year of hockey (after 3 years of skating lessons) and his skating grew leaps and bounds. I will give the majority of credit to an amazing head coach (thanks Coach Curtis!!) but the small ice helped. My son isn’t the most aggressive kid so I’m not sure he’d skate the length of the ice to get the puck. With half ice, he is engaged 95% of the time on both offence and defense.
    I wasn’t sure what to expect with half ice and I heard a lot of complaining about it prior to starting this year. I am a believer and am happy my son gets to learn this way. I do wish he was learning offside and icing but that will come in time. He watches the Oilers (okay, bad example) but he understands the game well because of watching professionals and I have no doubt he will pick up the rules quickly when he starts Atom.
    It would be nice to keep score but after hearing Strud’s reason about the coach not having to focus on winning, I will take the trade off of not keeping score.
    And yes, watching your team (I was an assistant coach) make a few passes and then score is thing of beauty!

  • Rock11

    My only quibble with the coaching plan, which is fantastic, is the complete disregard of shooting. As a kid I was a player who could skate well and was always more of a passer/playmaker. I cant remember a coach ever spending any time with me teaching shooting and as a result I had a paajarvi muffin from the outside kind of shot. You are likely right that this age group may not be the time to do it but it is certainly a skill that needs to be taught.

    • ChrisG

      Coach can supplement with voluntary shooting competitions in basement/garage with small prize for winners. Also can do stick handling competition. Use every tool available for those that want to do more. If you have a Base Hockey in town, take your kid there. The guys in Calgary are amazing! I played decent hockey for 20+ years, but there’s a limit to my knowledge. Correcting minor flaws in a kids rschnique is difficult. If you really want him to learn, go to Base.

      Jason, I also like to give names to my drills so kids remember them better and I don’t have to waste ice time. Oilers passing drill, McDavid cross over drill, etc….. speeds up transition from drill to drill.

  • TKB2677

    What I do like about how Red Deer does it and I am not sure if that will continue next year is they spend half the year doing half ice, then the other half doing full ice so for the kids moving up, it won’t be such a massive learning curve for them when they go to full ice. If you have never played full ice, if you don’t know what positions are, if you don’t have a clue about offsides or faceoffs. Unless you tier it so only first years play first years and second years only play second year. A second Atom who will already have the advantage of being old and more experienced, gets even a bigger advantage over a kid who’s never seen the rules or played full ice.

    One thing I do like about how Red Deer did their half ice was they had a faceoff for every line shift. What it did was it allowed for the kids to get on and off the ice safely and get ready to go.

    We did a tournament in Clive this year which was 3/4 ice. There was a team from Sherwood park who plays exclusively half ice, 4 on 4, no faceoffs. It was MASS chaos because there was no faceoff. Benches are obviously side by side, gates are close. Shift change came and these Sherwood park kids would come off the bench full speed because the puck was live just laying out on the ice. So you had 8 kids coming off at full speed, 8 kids coming on at full speed all at once. So you have 16 kids who are newish to hockey and skating because they are 6, 7, 8, so none of them are elite skaters and at times can be a bit shaky on their feet, all clustered towards the bench all at once. There was HUGE collisions all over the place. It was kind of dangerous.

  • VK63

    Half ice makes so much sense. Those who vociferously opposed it due to “tradition”, the flat earth community welcomes you.
    The small area soccer game of Futsal has been linked to skill development and focused learning for forever. Subsequently its been implemented all over the world having originated in Brazil.
    Of note…. there are still mind bogglingly over invested parents that ruin the game. As David Epstein noted in his talk with Gladwell at this years Sloan conference. There are travel teams for 6 year olds in New York City, because, evidently, in a city of 9 million people they cant find equitable competition for their budding stars.
    He was being sarcastic, rightfully. ;))

  • godot10

    Not keeping the score of the game, and having a team win and lose is just wrong. I’m fine with not keeping individual stats. But sport is about winning and losing, and how to handle both is an important life skill.

    • McPucker

      Compete comes naturally. The important thing here is the coach coaches to teach and make it an enjoyable experience. As the players improve, so will their compete level.
      I do agree with playing to win but coaching to win is a lower priority. Coach them right, they’ll learn to win.