Minnesotans have a plethora of options to watch pro, college and high school hockey. But youth hockey parents should remember:
6U/8U hockey practice should not look anything like what you see on the flat screen.
You might expect a more formal and strict approach, with lots of whistle-blowing, sprints, line rushes and power plays.
But what you will find at 6U/8U practice may surprise you: footballs, soccer balls, tag, stuffed animals, coaches in costumes, and a lot – a lot – of smiling, screaming and laughing.
According to former Minnesota Wild and University of Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard, that’s by design.
“Sometimes as parents we get too focused on ‘it should be a certain way,’” said Ballard, a Baudette native who has led the Little Wild Learn to Play program since 2016. “It might not look like a hockey practice of the 80s, but at this level we’re trying to create a fun experience for kids, take the stress out of it and get them excited about the game.”
Moving = Improving
Ballard joined the Wild front office in 2016 to manage Little Wild, a program designed for children 5- to 8-years-old who have not previously participated in organized youth hockey. Little Wild, like most introductory hockey programs, is a great way to familiarize kids with the game in a fun environment – to get them comfortable and excited about being on the ice with others.
But hidden behind the masks and teddy bears is development, even if they – or parents – aren’t even aware of it.
In Ballard’s words: “If they’re moving, they’re improving.”
“It starts with the basics – learning how to get up when you fall, how to take a stride, things like that. We’ll have 4-6 stations on the ice for a designated time period and the kids will go from station to station. They may think they’re just playing freeze tag, but they don’t know they’re also working on outside edges and building balance and coordination. It’s a kid’s game. It’s a fun game. Whether it’s Little Wild or a community association team, I think sometimes we can do more by doing less.”
In addition to on-ice games like freeze tag, Ballard says practices at the younger levels may include activities such as soccer, where players practice dribbling the ball through a set of cones or pass to teammates, or relay races through obstacle courses. According to Ballard, these activities are helping the kids learn to use their feet, turn both directions, learn how to fall and get up and improve athleticism.
Focus on Fun
Ballard believes the focus on fun and skill development, without the pressure, is helping young skaters fall in love with the sport, and that this approach has contributed to an increase in youth hockey registration and retention numbers across the state.
“I love this age because everyone just wants to learn,” he said. “They’re not at that age where it gets overly competitive. Some kids are further along than others, but we’re all learning. When a kid who may not be the greatest skater falls down and tries over and over to stand back up on their own and they finally get up and have a big smile, that’s the fun part for me.”
As a hockey dad himself, Ballard recognizes the important role parents can play in their young son or daughter embracing and enjoying the experience. His message to other parents is simple: be supportive, reinforce what’s going well, emphasize fun and let them carve their own path.
“Some parents may not agree with the fun-first mentality, but it’s important, it works,” said Ballard. “As kids get older pressures change, expectations change and what’s asked of them will get a little tougher. At this age it’s most important for them to have fun with the game, whether on the ice with their team, playing at the park with some buddies or playing knee hockey in the basement. It doesn’t always need to be regimented.
“The more fun they have, the more skills they’ll learn, confidence starts to build and smiles get bigger. And it’s more likely they’ll want to keep coming back to the rink.”