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.”
NHL-analytics

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.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.”

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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?

  6. 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!

  7. 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJPjVZjjIt0

  8. 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: https://activeforlife.com/hockey-canada-and-active-for-life-partner-with-postcards-for-parents/

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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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