When you’re between the ages of 5 and 8 years old, trying something new can be intimidating. When that something new is a sport on a frozen hard and slippery playing surface, a little bit of apprehension is more than understandable.
But, what often begins as uncertainty quickly gives way to smiles and fun, as kids learn the game, develop new skills and forge lifelong friendships along the way. Ups. Downs. Falls and smiles. Such is the life of a Mite hockey player.
Many former hockey players look back at their days as young skaters as the most challenging and fun times of their careers. Thanks to Minnesota’s community-based model, parents appreciate the lower cost of entry and commitment, as kids get their first tastes of the sport with classmates and other kids in their own neighborhoods. Behind most great youth hockey stories is typically a caring, thoughtful coach or local association that had their priorities in order.
As the former Minnesota Hockey District 5 Coach-in-Chief and a frequent head coach at Little Wild program events, Brian Johnson has spent a great amount of time teaching young players the sport and picking them up when they fell down. Johnson shared with us what the Mite level should be all about.
Minnesota Hockey: What’s most important at the Mite level for coaches, parents and kids?
Brian Johnson: When kids are just starting, it is important that they are having fun. It can be pretty scary to put on all of the equipment, close the facemask on the helmet and then put them on the ice when the parents are on the other side of the glass.
Minnesota Hockey: What do we want to see out of our Mites?
Johnson: Smiles and sweaty heads! If the Mites are having fun and going hard, they will be improving and want to come back again the next time.
Minnesota Hockey: What should coaches do better for kids/teams at this age?
Johnson: Coaches should run a station-style practice. With the Little Wild program, we always have six stations on the ice and can easily have 10 skaters per station. Within each station, we have two to three coaches there to work with the players. We make sure all the players have names on their helmets so we can call them by name when giving them pointers or compliments. While the station-style benefits the players because they concentrate on one drill for 6 minutes, it also benefits the coaches because those two or three coaches are only responsible for that one specific station for the entire practice. These coaches become the "experts" with this drill for all of the players (60 in our case) on the ice.
Minnesota Hockey: What are benefits of cross-ice and small games?
Johnson: Puck touches and competition for all. If you play full-ice games, it is usually just one player skating from one end to the other and shooting the puck. In reality, that is not the true game of hockey. Hockey is played in confined areas where puck movement is key. Most players are only carrying the puck for minimal strides before moving it to an open player. By playing cross-ice, we can reflect this style of games for our younger players.
Minnesota Hockey: Do parents and coaches sometimes expect too much?
Johnson: I think maybe so when it comes to playing "games" as older teams do. In the station-style practice, the players are competing in each of the six stations. They are getting many more puck touches than they would in a "traditional" game set-up by playing full ice. Sometimes we have to think like the 6-to-8-year-old and figure out what is fun for them. If I had those little legs, I wouldn't want to chase someone 180-plus feet on the rink.
Minnesota Hockey: What’s most critical in getting kids to love the game and want to come back the next season?
Johnson: Having fun, making friends, and liking the coaches. In today's tech society, we need to make the atmosphere exciting, fast-paced and rewarding.