Proof that small ice hockey is better for kids

Proof that small ice hockey is better for kids

Editor’s note: Since this article first published, on February 15, 2017, Hockey Canada has mandated small-area games for novice players, and evidence that half-ice hockey benefits kids continues to build.

For the last few years, a debate has raged in the hockey world. On one side you have hockey specialists that recommend that kids aged 8 and younger play on a smaller surface (often half-ice). On the other side of the debate are the hockey purists and parents who believe that half-ice hockey is not “real hockey”.

For the advocates of a small ice surface for small kids, the main issue is proportion. A full ice surface is simply too big for younger kids.

In these short videos adults had to play hockey and soccer on surfaces that were proportionally as large as a full surface is for an 8-year-old. Their comments give us a sense of how a young child feels playing on a full-size ice sheet.

“The ice looks so big, it’s overwhelming,” one man says. “I barely got to touch the puck,” says another. “The other players are so far away, you can’t catch them, I gave up,” one player admits.

And this revelation: “It’s no fun.”

Science to the rescue

This is where the science of data analytics comes in. Data analytics is when technology is used to gather data about different components of a sport. The advantage of data analytics is that it provides evidence-based facts.

Back in 2014, the National Hockey League (NHL) data-analytics division brought their professional expertise and technology to Detroit and gathered data from kids 8 and younger who had experienced playing on both a full ice and a small ice sheet.

The facts they captured tell a clear story: Kids who played on the cross-ice surface touched the puck more often, attempted more passes, and took twice the number of shots as kids who played on a full ice.

The infographic to your right was created by Sport for Life and is a visual representation of the data captured by the NHL data-analytics team.

Double everything that’s good

I’m no scientist, but as a hockey dad, the conclusion that I take away is this: Kids who played on the smaller ice surface had a better opportunity to improve their skills and, more importantly, they had twice as much fun.

25 responses to “Proof that small ice hockey is better for kids

  1. Amazing how all the experts come out with an opinion. Small ice, small puck, blue puck, small net. All these concepts seem to work well in baseball, soccer, basketball, and football. Why not in hockey. Why are they all more popular than hockey? Tradition gets in the way of progress. Hockey’s too expensive. Small ice cuts down on that expense. Ever try playing goalie and have to defend a goal that is taller than you. Kids feel helpless and don’t want to try that again. Ever look up and see your closest pass option 100′ away? No wonder kids develop the habit trying to carry the puck until they have no other option than to dump it in. Just too bad that leadership USA Hockey and Hockey Canada do not have the stones to mandate ice size, puck size, net size, and game format. They are allowing idiots to kill the game. USA ADM be a recommendation instead of a mandate is a huge mistakes. Experts developed it. Rookies deny it. Grow a pair. Ever look at the ice after a full ice game of U8. Most of it is still virgin smooth. I had the opportunity earlier in life to manage a facility that had a studio rink 45′ wide by 100′ long. It was the best teaching and development tool I’ve ever had. 10 and under could have a great practice and competitive games at a cost of 1/3 what full ice sheet cost. They learned how to spread out and use all the ice. Only had a 15′ neutral zone and kids could start to learn off sides and all the other adult rules stuff. Every building should have one of these. So open your minds to the opportunities smaller equipment and facilities provide kids. You can keep you big ice, pucks, and nets, but let the kids have a chance to learn the game. I don’t care if you don’t like the feel of the small or blue puck. It’s not for you.

  2. Cross Ice is fun, the majority of kids love it. So many more options & conditions you can put on the game to make it fun. Lots of analyzing above, not much talk about whether or not they are having fun. How quickly we push fun aside in the name of skill development. Fun leads to passion & that leads to wanting to improve because they love to play the game. And in the end that leads to lifelong hockey players, 99% of which won’t play anything but recreational hockey past high school. That should be the real goal.

  3. The data conclusion from Detroit’s U 8 team is very misleading in principal. The skill set is likely very unique with parity which realistically does not happen in western Canada or many jurisdictions.

    What I do know is the kids that light the lamp in on full ice or half ice continue to do so.

    A few principle questions:
    Did you touch the puck or handle the puck?
    Play rotating 4on4 and 3 on3 so it’s not pin ball.
    The other interesting factor is play 1/2 ice or full all year!

    My conclusion is kids and players should be playing at their skill set level vs age level. The hockey brass should open their eyes and just think!
    Age Divisions 1 year And allow (kids to play where their skill set is at) as that is how players keep progressing and having fun!
    Age U5
    Age U6
    Age U7
    Age U8
    Age U9
    Age U10

  4. T make it simple. -lm 6’4 my son is 4′. How does it make sense we play o n the same size rink? The whole argument about passing and positioning is moot. By the time the kids get to the position the puck has moved on. And half ice forces kids to stop start and turn 5X as much in a confined area so they kid who can dangle with his head down won’t be able to pick up a cross ice saucer pass. I think he’ll be OK LoL

    1. The way half-ice hockey is being taught is actually detrimental to the player’s development. I agree with the need for a smaller space to start with, but if you’re only learning on one end of the ice, players can’t learn about offsides, icing, shift changes, until they play on full ice. If half ice is going to continue, play between the ringette lines, so that the full game is being played on a smaller surface.

      1. Ever hear of progressions. Kids don’t have to learn the entire game and all the rules by the time they are 8. Games are not for you, the parents entertainment. Teach the kids how to skate, pass, receive a pass, and shoot. 1/2 ice and even better 1/3 ice allows kids to make a cross ice pass. Open your mind. It’s not an adult game when you are 4′ tall and 70 pounds. Keep your fantasies in the beer league at night when nobody has to watch you.

  5. I think there is a benefit to both half ice and full ice. In half ice, kids who would be lost in full ice, get the opportunity to touch the puck. They learn to follow the play and a little on passing and positioning. Not everyone on the team are at the same level so this can be a great equalizer. Now to the players who are more advanced, they are learning to stick handle, pass, help out the team (that is a great, watching these players become leaders). in our league for Novice, we do half ice for half the year. The second part of the season, everyone again benefits as now they start to learn the rules (mainly offside) and positioning with 5 v 5. Those players who started out weaker, were able to learn with half ice and then step into full ice play with more skills development. The stronger player who can skate will be able to develop at this level as well and with full ice, their skills will be enhanced. Both ice surfaces are so good for each child, who are a different levels in hockey skills. Using both allows all to develop and learn.

    Kids learn differently so there needs to be more than one way to teach them. All players learn to develop the passing, stick handling, positioning in Novice and as years go on, new skills will be learned.

  6. Many people are asking on the long-term benefits of small ice play. On that note Doctor Steve Norris, world-renowned physiologist recently shared the following scientific perspective on the why small ice play is beneficial for the long-term development of younger players in a Hockey Canada video:
    “The research clearly shows, and parents should be looking at this, that their children are more actively engaged, which means they have the puck with them a greater number of times, they have the puck on their stick for a longer period of time, they’re interacting with the other players to a greater extent. They’re having to make more decisions, they’re having to control their bodily motions. So the whole milieu of key performance indicators is raised.”

  7. I agree in part, Initiation 1 and 2 and first year Novice should be half ice or cross ice. In second year Novice Tiers 3-8 should be cross or half ice.

    Novice Tiers 1-2 should be full ice with full size nets. The kids that have really got a handle on the game in Novice need to be prepped for the Atom full ice game. A lot of kids make the Atom rep teams in first year Atom but they likely won’t if they don’t play full ice in yr. 2 of Novice.

  8. My oldest is about to finish his last few weeks of novice hockey and it can’t come soon enough. Our organization hosted our Novice tournament this past wknd. I was a cocky goalie dad thinking our team had a good opportunity to win the whole tournament. We finished 9th out of 12 teams. The top 2 teams faced off in the A side final. The biggest realization when I watched the top 2 teams is that everyone on both teams could skate at a much higher level than 90% of our kids. . This isn’t a benefactor of the half ice program but of parents who got their kids skating at higher level that most kids their age. That’s the real difference.. When my son’s team played their half ice league games there was roughly 1-2 kids per team that could carry the puck. And that’s what they’d do skate with the puck and look for someone to pass it to. They do 2 to 3 laps aro7nd everyone and trying to find someone open while all the other players would just stand and wait. Where is that development? There is none. One kid gets better the rest stand and watch. Half ice has hindered development it has eliminated skating development if anything.skatibg is first and foremost what kids need to work on and be developed. If you can’t skate you can’t play hockey

    1. Totally agree. My son has been forced I to playing half-ice after having played a full year full ice. Is he skating more? No. He doesn’t need to do any effort to be involved near the play. Full ice, he had to skate to make his way around the rink. He couldn’t stay alone in the offensive zone or defensive zone. So less efforts and skating required. He’s not one that loves to be fighting for the puck against 7 other kids in a small space. He prefers to play smart and wait for the puck to come out. He prefers to have more space to skate and play the puck and use his speed. Sure. Passing?!! Most teams i’ve seen, including ours, doesn’t do anymore passing. I’ve seen one good passing team, since it started. Yes, definitely more shots on goal. My son likes being busier in nets. But he and his team mates are getting killed 32-6, 25-2, 20-2 on a regular basis. Even If the points don’t appear on the board. But they’re not stupid, they know they’re getting creamed. And it’s not every kid scoring, It’s always the same ones. Then there’s being stuck right next to the crazy parents that celebrate the team’s 20th goal like there’s no tomorrow and asnif the kid’s 10th goal was his first. And penalties… What a joke. Do you think the coach make the kids sit? Some games get out of hand, as penalties are not called. And we never got to play full ice after X-mas. Can’t wait until the end of the season and play real hockey this spring/next fall. He’ll most likely be goalie, but might split the season next year too.

  9. Still waiting for the proof portion of this article. So far it is just some statistics about numbers of passes and shots and touches, but nothing to quantify how it’s better in the long run? How do these extra touches translate to improved skills once they’ve reached atom or peewee levels? What methods were used to quantify the improvement in skills as a result of half ice games?

  10. We have half ice here at the initiation level and it works well, though the net size they have is too small. They tried the half ice for half a season at the novice level (7-8) two seasons ago and it did not go well, our kids were not prepared when we went to out of town tournaments where it was still full ice. For my son’s second year of novice (he is now first year atom) they took it away & went full ice for the year, was much more enjoyable for the players, coaches & fans.

    I think the novice level could be played on a smaller ice surface, but something in the 2/3rd size of a standard rink would work best, that way the rules of the game can be taught along with the other skills.

    1. Good comment Kevin. This is the kind of experiential feedback Hockey Canada and it’s provincial branches need to hear so they can adjust the standards for all kids to enjoy the game and grow their skills, confidence and enjoyment of the game.

    2. I fail to understand the reason you think “it didnt go well”. The only reason you provide is “our kids were not prepared when we went to out of town tournaments where it was still full ice”. Is that really the goal at that age? No it’s not! Yes we all have our bias because we grew up in another system but facts are facts and I don’t understand why people won’t accept what experts and stats are saying. Ps: my son just finished his novice minor season. I can’t tell you how many breakaways I witnessed throughout the season but I know it was TOO MANY!

  11. I really don’t believe this is for all children as there are some that want full ice and great skaters so what do you do with those who are bored with this and are great skater and especially if they have been skating since 2 years of age

    1. Beatrice you bring up a good point for me to clarify: “What are the specific benefits of small ice for kids?” The science is pretty clear that the small ice surface helps kids improve their puck handling, passing, and shooting skills. Another benefit is that it teaches kids to play with their head high and make sure they learn to “read” the play. If a kid is already a great skater, practicing and playing on a small ice surface will allow him/her to become a more complete player. My suggestion is that if a child were already a fast skater, the goal would be to emphasize the importance and fun of developing other skills, especially passing.

      From my experience, when you look at the younger levels of hockey (initiation and novice especially or from 5 to 8 years) it is not uncommon to find at least one or two kids per team that are quite ahead of the group in their skating ability. The usual scenario is that there are kids who, because of their skating speed, can literally skate around other kids and score many goals. Another observation is that it is sometimes a very difficult transition to pee wee and bantam for these players who have always relied on their superior speed and have not developed puck handling and passing skills. As players get older, skating remains a key skill, but the ability to handle puck in crowded space and passing with great precision become as important.

      A final point is that you must look at the long-term picture when you think about skills development. Here’s a great example of the magic that can happen when you combine great skating, puck handling and passing:…JPjVZjjIt0

  12. John and Ken, your comment bring up a good point: the smaller ice surface must be adapted to the level of play and skating of the kids. As per the question of “norms” or “standards” of how many kids should play on smaller ice surface, I suggest you consult with your provincial hockey association – You will find a complete list of the contact information for all provincial hockey branches in this article:…r-parents/

  13. My oldest is 6 and has only been playing for a little over a year, so I’m new to these debates. He’s played 1/3 ice only. Last year, he was just getting skating down and this year has been primarily 3 v 3. Is 3 v 3 the norm at that size ice? It seems to allow for passing and open movement. The last few sessions they’ve been playing 4 v 4 or 5 v 5 which has been a mess. Between a 3-4 of kids going for the puck and 3-4 just trying to stay up on their skates, it’s just a mass of bodies.

  14. As a long time coach of minor hockey I have a few issues with using cross ice hockey as the only source of games for kids.

    I agree that younger, beginner hockey players benefit greatly from playing cross ice and the player who wouldn’t normally touch a puck, may occasionally get a few more puck touches.

    As the kids progress, the small ice becomes too tight to teach them many aspects of the game. Even at 5-6 years old, (assuming they are playing 5 on 5), cross ice turns into a lot of banging and crashing and doesn’t allow room or time for kids to find open ice and get up to full speed. There is also not much room for passing and any passing is limited to quick/short passes, not teaching them how to lead each other with passes at speed.

    The other big issue I have with limiting the kids to cross ice games, is that it makes it impossible to teach some of the rules of the game – for example there are no offsides or icings and the players can’t be taught the different areas and proper ways to line up for face offs.

    I guess it all depends what your focal point is. I’m a big proponent of focusing the majority of time on skating in the first couple of years, and feel that limiting them to the small ice scrums doesn’t force the weaker players to become better skaters. All the analytics used in the article relate to puck touches and shots, but don’t take any consideration into things like skating and performance.

    Personally, I prefer a mixture of cross ice and full ice games for the season, trying to get the best of both worlds. Use the cross ice games as a station at practices and use full ice for games and you get a taste of it all.

  15. Great article! Thanks for your thoughts. It’s a hot topic in our area! We have cross ice with the 4-6 years olds and I think that’s fantastic. They have recently included the 7 year olds and want to move it up to 8. My son is 8 and was grandfathered in and plays full ice. He would not do well at half ice but some kids it might benefit. They are really leaning how to pass the puck which would be tough with less room. My issue is that they are still playing 5 vs 5 for a smaller surface. If you reduce the playing surface, you should reduce the amount of players. other sports such as soccer, volleyball and basketball follow these principles. The other concern I have is that we need to be careful about jumping on the analytical band wagon. The kids that were used in this study were all high level athletes and of similar caliber. Most associations don’t have that option in the younger levels. If you put a player on the ice that has been playing for 4 years with a first year player, results will be different. If you put me on the ice with an NHL player, I’m not touching the puck! No matter what size the playing surface. LOL

    1. Hi Mac. From looking at the number of players on small ice surface, to insuring the caliber of players are within a certain range to keep the games meaningful, I agree with all your points.

      Your comments highlight another key element: we need more studies to assess the many aspects of this debate. And the big question that should direct all of this work is “How can we ensure that young players develop their skills, confidence and love of the game?”

      From one hockey dad and fan to another, thank you for your very thoughtful comments.

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