Hockey is a game of patterns. Not in the sense of set plays such as football, but watch enough hockey and certain patterns, tendencies and outcomes become noticeable. The awareness and recognition of those things eventually translate to hockey sense, which helps players and coaches anticipate what may happen next.
As the game evolves over time, those patterns can also evolve, resulting in trends within the game. This week we sat down with Andover High School coach Mark Manney to discuss trends he has seen at the youth and high school level since he became head coach over 10 years ago.
Despite significant coaching experience including serving in USA Hockey’s Coach Education Program and as an advisor for his local association, Manney was quick to point out his observations are just that, what’s he’s seen, and may not be accurate for every team or association.
“I’m not there at the Squirt/10U level or Peewee/12U level to see what coaches aren’t teaching,” said Manney. “I see what the product is that they send me.”
He does however have a window into the top teams in high school hockey as his team has been among the top 10 in Class AA each of the past three years. Here are a few of the trends he’s noticed.
Angling & Steering
One of Manney’s first observations of youth hockey over the past decade is the impact of rule modifications to make the game safer, such as removing body checking from the Peewee age group, and the culture of the game moving towards an emphasis on puck possession.
Players are making more skillful plays than they used to. In turn, that has made key defensive skills even more important.
“I think angling is more important than it’s ever been because of the way kids can move the puck,” said Manney. “It’s really become important you don’t just skate straight at a player. You offset yourself a little bit, and then take an angle while keeping your stick in the lane.”
“Where kids have the most trouble with it is when a player is standing on the wall, like a wing getting a breakout pass. They want to charge straight at him. There’s a couple of things that come into play. Number one, when you go straight at somebody, they have the ability to fake and go either direction. Number two, you’re setting yourself up where if that player turns his back to protect the puck, getting a checking from behind penalty. You always want to avoid skating straight to a player who is on the boards.”
Stick on Puck
In addition to angling, teaching young players to keep their stick on the ice and use it to apply stick pressure on the puck or take away passing lanes has become a more valuable defensive skill.
“We will play a small area game where they’re not able to have any contact,” said Manney, noting how the rule forces players to use their sticks to create turnovers. “The girls have been doing this for a long time, and the boys are kind of catching up. When you have no checking, you kind of have to play that way.”
Keeping your stick on the ice is also a key component of effective body checking, in which the goal is to gain possession of the puck.
“We want the stick to be the first thing that engages,” said Manney. “Get your stick in on the puck and then skate through the hands. Hip in front of hip, arm in front of arm. If you don’t get the stick first, then you’re susceptible to a cut back or just a pull to the boards and protect.”
Limit Early Goalie Specialization
One opportunity Manney sees for parents and association board members to work together to create positive change is limiting full-time goaltenders at young ages.
“One of the big problems when kids specialize in goalie too early is you shrink the pool of potential goalies,” said Manney. “Then, what happens if you’re really good goalie at age eight quits at 11?”
Manney’s teams at Andover have had a great run of high-quality goaltenders during his time behind the bench, but each year he hears horror stories about goalie shortages.
“To me, finding a way to increase the pool of goalies through whatever means necessary would be advantageous to everyone. If some association wants to have full time goalies at 10U, fine, but I don’t think associations who do want to swap goalies should feel bad about it.”
Promote a Growth Mindset
Another area Manney believes coaches and parents should continue working on is encouraging kids to practice poise with the puck in games, rather than being in a rush to get rid of it when under pressure.
“What happened to striving to get kids to make direct passes?” said Manney. “Not just on breakouts but even coming up the ice. They will dump it in when they have the ability to make a play.”
Manney attributes much of this, not to a lack of skill, but a fear of making mistakes. With rule changes in place to prevent players from getting steamrolled on late or high hits, players should be urged to work on making plays under pressure, but we have to understand mistakes are part of the process of learning that skill.
“You will never be responsible for a turnover if you ring the boards,” said Manney. “You will never be responsible for a turnover if you dump it in. You will never be responsible for a turnover if you chip it into the neutral zone. While this attitude may help win a game along the way, it stunts development and creates bad habits.”
“A player’s thought process changes to, ‘we’re not going to get scored on if the puck is along the wall. There’s a battle, but it’s going to be 50 feet from the net. If I make a direct pass, it could hit a stick and end up out front.’ We shouldn’t be afraid to lose or get scored on in 10U or 12U hockey. Kids should be able to make mistakes, and then find a way in practice to correct those mistakes, but we shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
Parents and coaches can help by emphasizing the importance of direct passes and focusing on helping kids learn from mistakes, rather than trying to completely avoid them.