Improving kids’ hockey: More players, better skills

Like many sports in Canada, hockey has recently been making changes in kids’ community programs to improve the playing experience. The goal: to make sure the youngest kids are having fun and developing quality skills, so they will develop a love for hockey and stay with the game for years to come.

The problems in kids’ community sports are well documented. One of the biggest problems is that kids are often forced to compete and train like adults from the time they are 5-years-old. It takes the fun out of playing and often leads to poor skill development and player dropout.

To address the problems in hockey, Hockey Canada has been recommending innovative changes to competition schedules and game formats at the youngest levels of the community game. Active for Life recently spoke with Corey McNabb, senior manager of player development at Hockey Canada, to learn more.

Q: What changes do you think are needed in kids’ hockey at present?

When we look at our long-term player development plan in hockey, I think the first think we need to look at is updating our season structures. When teams are selected, how teams are selected, what things do coaches work before the season, what do they work on during the season, and what do they work on as they lead their teams into the playoffs at the end.

From the time coaches select their teams, we are saying you need three or four weeks of pre-season where you focus on developing individual skills. And when you look at the regular season, you need it to go longer into the winter.

At present, coaches don’t really get enough time to work on developing skills because they get into league games right away. And they are trying to get into the playoffs, so a lot of the time they end up emphasizing team strategy instead of skills, and it doesn’t necessarily benefit the individual player.

In the current structure, playoffs have to start by the middle of February. So if you work back from there, you really only have about two months to work on skills development through November, December and into January. We have to look at changing some of the provincial championship schedules, because the leagues are basing their regular season schedules on that.

Q: What does the playoff schedule have to do with kids learning hockey skills?

Right now, teams compete round by round in the playoffs, so they have to start the playoffs very early in the season to get through all of the rounds. The problem is that after each round, half of the teams are eliminated.

By the time the end of February comes around, a majority of the players have been eliminated and their hockey is finished.  Meanwhile, the other half of the kids are still practicing and playing and developing.

The format is pushing the kids out of the game too early.  And then it opens the door for kids to get pushed into spring hockey.  So now when you sign up in March for spring hockey, you are committed to play right into June.

We end up putting kids on the ice for 11 months of the year. At the competitive levels, they really don’t get a break. And at the same time, we also remove some of their opportunities to play other sports, so they lose that chance to develop their all around athleticism.

Q: What would you see doing differently?

Realistically, we could have our regular season going into March, and then have April as the beginning of our playoff season. If you work back from there, it would really give coaches and players a lot of time to work on skills.

I think we also need to move playoffs to a tournament format in many age groups, where you are guaranteed at least 4 games of good quality, competitive hockey. In the current playoff round format, it’s best two out of three, so your team could be eliminated after two games, which could be as early as the middle of February.

For the kids who are eliminated early, if they are invited to go to Provincial camps in the spring, they could be looking at two months without hockey. So the parents have to pay more money to get them into spring hockey programs so they are ready for the Provincial camps. So it’s not an equal playing field for everybody.

Q: What other changes are you recommending?

The second thing we are going to try to do is to introduce more athleticism into hockey. So kids will sign up for hockey, but there will be more off-ice activities designed to build overall athletic skills, including agility balance and coordination, so it’s not just hockey-specific skills all the time.

And in spring hockey, we’re looking at making it more about improving your skating skills, or improving your shooting skills, as opposed to competitive team hockey programs. It should be about individual and personal development. That’s where we’d really like to see spring hockey go.

Q: How will these changes be introduced?

Number one is education and awareness. We can educate parents and coaches, but we also have to educate the people who run the leagues and associations. We can say, here’s a snapshot of our current structure, and here’s a snapshot of what the structure could look like.

We want to be clear that we’re not taking games away, but we’re scheduling the games when they need to be.

Trying to mandate things is going to be difficult, so education is important. And other factors have to be taken into consideration as well, such as availability of ice during certain times of the year in different municipalities and regions.

As time goes on, I think it will be less about a mandate or a policy structure change. I think people will simply say, “You know, this is the right thing to do, so that’s why we’re going to do it.”

4 responses to “Improving kids’ hockey: More players, better skills

  1. Just another so-called “expert opinion. What a pile of hypocrisy that reflects Hockey Canada’s attitude of more development for 100% of the players just so they can polish up the 1% they are looking for. Again, nobody EVER asks the parents or the kids playing at ALL levels what they actually want from hockey. The author claims kids should be exposed to more sports but wants them playing hockey until April when soccer has started. As if the majority of kids and parents want more practices from September to April. He argues that those poor kids that are invited to provincials aren’t getting enough hockey if they are eliminated too early from the playoffs. Boo hoo. It is always about the 1% of kids. As far as not taking games away, that is exactly what Hockey Northwestern Ontario mandated this year. Maximum game counts for novice (35 games), atom (45 games), & peewee (50 games) – at ALL levels. And every game counts – even friendly exhibition games between boys and girls teams (under OWHA) looking for competition. Needless to say, the boys coaches would often say they would love to play but could not afford to “burn” a game against girls. To discourage travel to U.S. tournaments (the ones the kids and parents love), all U.S. tournaments counted as 5 games towards your game count – even if it was a 3 game tournament. Coaches had to budget games for potential playoff games. If you don’t get them, oh well, the kids lose some games.

    As far as spring hockey goes, I really don’t care where you think it should “go”. That is why spring hockey exists. So that kids and parents can play they way they want to play without some bloated organization or a know-it-all “expert coach” telling us how it should be done. If you don’t like it, DON’T PLAY. Or, form your own team and run your skills and drills development camp for your kids that will also all be playing beer league hockey like everyone else when they are 25.
    Lastly, hockey is a team game. When did kids learning how to play like a team become such a bad thing? It’s ridiculous. You teach kids puckhandling skills but they have no clue as to where they should be on the ice when they don’t have the puck. Ya, that is great “development” for them and the next coach that gets them.
    All of the BS like this is from people trying to make a name for themselves and from Hockey Canada worried about winning the world juniors. They want to control the development of the 1% playing AAA and therefore every kid in AA and A gets their mandate jammed down their throat too. We are always told what the so-called issues in youth hockey are but nobody EVER backs it up with actual evidence of what the questions were and who exactly was surveyed for the answers. Why is that? It is because the people with the answers want to tell us only what they want us to hear. They need to drive their agenda and pretend it is what the majority of kids and parents want. It isn’t.

    1. Mike, we’re not Hockey Canada, so we can’t speak for them. But from our perspective, we know that kids who specialize too early in hockey are more likely to get injured and drop out. Experts agree that playing multiple sports benefits kids.

      Here’s just one example:
      “Research shows that kids who play multiple sports have fewer injuries, and continue to play longer and at a higher level than children who specialize in a sport before puberty.” — Dr. Dwight Chapin, “How much hockey is too much hockey?” published in The Globe and Mail, Sept. 16 2014

      Also, we’ve always said that you should never prevent a child from doing something they love. And many kids love hockey enough that they want to play lots. We would only caution that parents make sure their child really wants that, because sometimes they’re only doing what they think their parents want them to do.

      1. Your answer is impertinent. What are you talking about… The big point is “How will these changes be introduced?” Why are you talking about specialization ?! I’m agree with Mike Hockey Canada just care about AAA and international tournament

        1. You are certainly welcome to your opinion, Pascal. From our perspective, Hockey Canada is changing its system to benefit players. And promoting multi-sport participation is one key way that’s happening. The science is clear on this: early specialization is dangerous and counter-productive.

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