November 27, 2013

Hockey Mom: Cross-ice demands a fresh perspective

By April Bowling

By now, any parent of a Mite knows about USA Hockey’s big change from full-ice to cross-ice for all teams, including travel squads, this year. Even if your child has aged out to Squirts or beyond and isn’t affected, you’ve still probably heard about it from an angry parent at the rink, a confused coach, or an enthusiastic booster. Everyone has an opinion, including the kids, and they generally aren’t shy about sharing them.

USA Hockey’s website explains: “Starting in the 2013-14 season, USA Hockey will put some muscle where its mouth is by mandating that all 8 & Under hockey will be played on a cross-ice playing surface, thus providing every association and Affiliate with a consistent and level playing field,”

USA Hockey Magazine explains that the idea is that almost all sports develop children on downsized versions of the adult playing field. Little Leaguers aren’t hurling balls 60 feet; 8-year-old tennis players aren’t serving from the baseline, and mini-hoopsters aren’t aiming for a 10-foot basket. Yet, at least in travel leagues, many Mite hockey players were playing on regulation-size ice.

This meant kids weren’t forced to develop their stickhandling and skating skills or speed, and instead were developing huge aerobic bases that they didn’t need and weren’t developmentally appropriate. It makes a lot of sense in the abstract. Another articulated goal is to increase puck touches by all the kids, by shrinking the space in which they play.

The problems always come when the rubber meets the road, and theory collides with reality … and 8-year-old boys. In Sam’s case, these rule changes came down in his last year of Mites.  So he played last year on full ice and is playing this year on half-ice.

Last year our team learned a lot about the strategy and positioning in the game. The first two games of this year, that all went out the window as the small ice space was overcrowded with bodies. Instead, it was all about the scrum, until the third week, when kids were assigned positions again and spread out a bit as a result. Still, at least initially, the goal of getting more puck touches is falling short as kids who are less comfortable pushing through the crowd or going hard into corners against opposing players can’t get close enough to the puck to play it.  Bigger, faster and more aggressive players who already have great stickhandling skills are dominating puck possession.

Our coaches already have started to get creative and address this by helping players structure passes to clear the ice and help everyone get their chances. But not every coach seems to be getting the memo because, to paraphrase Bobby Orr from a recent Globe interview, unfortunately their goal isn’t fundamentals so much as it’s winning a Mite game. 

Structurally, the installation of the half-ice boards has led to some logistical issues that need to get resolved. Four teams on the ice means two teams on each bench, and with the half-boards blocking  the center-ice doors, those two teams are going in and out one door. A logjam predictably ensues, and then kids start struggling over boards that are — in some cases — taller than they are, swinging skate blades precariously close to their teammates or forcing coaches to have to reach over boards and haul up 60 pounds of player and equipment over and over again. Meanwhile, since shifts are only 90 seconds, by the time the logjam gets resolved and the puck thrown out, there is often less than 50 seconds left in the shift, leaving kids frustrated and spending more time getting on and off the ice than actually playing.

Coming off the ice last Sunday, I asked Sam if he had fun. “Not really,” he said, shocking me silent. “But that’s three games down and only 11 to go before we’re back on full ice.” I felt sick when I thought of him wishing his favorite sport away. But I’m guessing that with some adjustment, on the part of organizers, coaches and players, he’ll get a lot out of the new format and return to having fun. I really hope that’s the case, because when you’re only 8 years old, a 14-game stretch without the game you love can seem a lot longer than a full sheet of ice.

As a mom, I felt like I needed to put things in perspective for him, so I pulled out the article on Bobby Orr I referenced earlier, pointing out to Sam, Orr’s advice that playing at this age should be just about having fun and learning fundamentals, finding your own creativity as a player, and paying little attention to coaching “truisms” that discourage kids from finding their stride before refining it. “This is what cross-ice is about, buddy,” I said sagely.

But Sam could have cared less about that aspect of the article. Instead he lay on the floor and read all about the children, the terminally ill, the homeless and the addicted individuals who Bobby Orr has been quietly and graciously attending to since his retirement so many years ago (see the Boston Sunday Globe’s Sept. 29, 2013, article on Orr by Bob Hohler). As usual, Sam gave me the perspective; all the best coaching and development theories teach nothing as important as the humanity and good citizenship displayed by one hockey god, worshiped by boys and girls in rinks everywhere, regardless of what size ice they play on.

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.

Twitter: @AprilBowling68