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What We Can Learn from NHL Practices

By Touchpoint Media, 12/15/15, 10:00AM CST


At a recent Minnesota Wild practice, the coaches orchestrated a series of drills that used the entire length of the ice. Wild players repeatedly skated end-to-end, line rush after line rush.  

Then the coaching staff broke the ice into sections. Instead of continuing to use the entire sheet of ice, drills were performed across the ice in the neutral zone (between the blue lines), below each goal line, along the sideboards, and later, in the center-ice circle.

The Wild uses cross-ice and small-area games to engage the players in highly focused drills that build a particular skill set. After all, hockey games, regardless of the level, are oftentimes won and lost in the small areas of the ice. This is why cross-ice games are so effective as a development tool, especially at the Mite/8U level.

Minnesota youth hockey players, coaches and parents can learn a lot from the Wild’s cross-ice and small-area games practice regiment. Richfield native and assistant coach Darby Hendrickson says youth hockey teams can easily emulate NHL teams by participating in these drills/games that teach puck protection, stickhandling, quickness and hand-eye coordination.

“Minnesota youth players can benefit from the same drills the Wild do, for sure,” said Hendrickson, who scored the first goal in Wild history. “Players like Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle work tenaciously on small-area skills. That’s a focus we have. They are always trying to refine those small areas of their game.”

High and Low Gear

“We have a lot of naturally gifted skaters in Minnesota,” said Hendrickson. “But I think to complement their game a player needs to practice small-area skills.”

All players need to learn how to make plays at full speed. But it’s not always about flying around the ice in high gear. To become an all-around player, a youth hockey player needs to develop a low gear. It may not be glamorous, but Hendrickson believes that adding puck protection, tight turns and skills below the goal line adds a whole other dimension to a player’s overall development.

“To make the next level, a player needs to improve their low game,” said Hendrickson. “For young players, watch the guys that are good down low. It’s the subtleties in their game. What makes them good is their stickhandling in tight spaces, puck protection and a wide base. And they are doing all of this with their head up.”

 Puck Protection

A sheet of NHL ice looks huge to a Mite – and it is. But space is extremely limited for older, physically developed players. This is because of the size and reach of the players, defensive strategies that choke off space, and the increasing speed of the players shrinks room to move. When there is such limited space to operate, puck protection becomes crucial and that equates to small-area games and drills behind the net and in small spaces along the sideboards.

“Look at players like Zdeno Chara and Victor Hedman. There is not a whole lot of room out there,” said Hendrickson. “Puck protection is such an underrated skill. A player can create space from quick, tight turns. The elite players in the NHL do this. Some do it with strength, some do it with quickness. Sidney Crosby is elite in the league at this.”

It’s important for young hockey players to get used to tight spaces and the chaos that ensues in small areas. It forces them to develop those puck-protection skills and awareness.

More Reps, Better Development

Drills that consist of long lines mean the players will only get a few reps and this can hinder skill development because, in the end, repetition is the key to development. NHL teams like the Wild routinely use station-based drills to increase production. Fewer players in a group mean more touches and this helps increase both skill and confidence, two important keys in overall development.

Coaches can break the ice into thirds (or even smaller segments) to maximize both the practice time and ice sheet. There can be three stations with several minutes at each station. This allows coaches move players more efficiently from drill to drill, saving time and increasing the amount of repetitions players get.

By breaking into cross-ice drills and small-area games, coaches also get the opportunity to teach the specific skill within a smaller group context. When dealing with fewer players, coaches are able to take a big lesson like body-checking or puck protection and individualize the focus area of the drill for those specific players.

Keeping Kids Engaged

Hockey is fun! That’s why we play. Cross-ice and small-area games are a great way to inject instant activity into practice. This is especially helpful in keeping young players engaged because it means less time to stand in line and mess around, but older players, including pros, love them, too. Attacking, defending and shooting drills in small areas will increase energy levels when effort and attention spans starts to wane.

For additional ideas on small area games and how they can assist your association's player development initiatives, visit USA Hockey Small-Area Games