At ages levels often characterized by chaos, the idea of adding some structure and organization to youth hockey can be a comforting notion for coaches and parents. Add in the natural desire to compete and win, and it’s easy to understand the allure of implementing systems as soon as players can perform basic skills.
The challenge for parents and coaches though is too much emphasis on systems at young ages may limit players’ long term potential.
“If you’re focused on systems, at a young age especially, it really takes away the kids’ creativity out on the ice,” said Rochester, MN native Guy Gosselin who serves as USA Hockey ADM Regional Manager for Minnesota. “They get kind of stuck in the mode of this is what I’m limited to. We want kids to be able to be creative hockey players and dynamic hockey players and really enjoy the game and develop that passion.”
In addition, kids at young ages are often slow to understand systems, which can lead to a waste of effort for coaches and a waste of ice time that could be better spent developing other skills and concepts.
The desire to have kids know where to go and what to do on the ice isn’t lost on Gosselin though. He just encourages a different approach.
“Habits and concepts essentially is your system in youth hockey,” said Gosselin, a two-time U.S. Olympian. “If we can teach the kids good habits and concepts through small area games or drills, it’s really going to help them in the long term.”
Systems vs. Concepts
At times, it may be easy to confuse hockey systems or positioning with hockey sense and concepts, but for Gosselin, it’s a key distinction when it comes to developing young players.
“Systems would be a zone coverage where they’re playing a 1-2-2 defensive zone coverage,” said Gosselin. “They go to a spot out on the ice, and this area is your area. That’s X’s and O’s type of coaching.”
“A defensive concept would be to understand to take ice away, use proper angling and outnumber the other team in order to get the puck, utilizing that concept that we always start in the middle and take ice away.”
Taking that one step further, defensive habits would be teaching players to have their head up, looking around for opposing players and to use their stick to take away passing lanes.
“This stuff should come immediately to our older players,” said Gosselin, emphasizing that habits and concepts must be built over time with repetitions in practices and games, whereas systems can be picked up quickly by older players.
No More Bubble Hockey
One of the key benefits of emphasizing habits and concepts starting at a young age is they can be applied all over the ice.
“In bubble hockey, you go north/south and you have a certain area that you can cover and that’s it,” said Gosselin. “That is a thing of the past.”
An increasing trend at the higher levels of hockey today is the notion that players are interchangeable. They aren’t restricted or pigeonholed into certain positions. Defensemen are more active offensively than ever before and forwards have taken on added responsibility in the defensive zone. The result is every player must understand offensive and defensive habits and concepts.
“Hockey IQ is a big thing,” said Gosselin. “Keith Tkachuk said this at a Level 5 clinic a couple years ago, ‘If you want a better hockey IQ, you don’t sit there and tell a kid at 8U exactly what to do. They have to form their own knowledge.’”
“You can implement it through drills, but watching the game and being a student of the game is a big deal too. Go and watch the local high school team play. Watch the colleges play. Watch the NHL guys play.”
Powering Your PP
The same holds true for special teams. No one is tracking how good your Squirt/10U team’s power play is, but the habits they form (or don’t) will be very noticeable as the players progress to higher levels of play.
“At the older levels, they’ll work on the set up, and they’ll work on the breakout, etc. but it’s not that important with our young kids,” said Gosselin. “We need to get away from being focused on the coach-centered power play so we can win the game mentality, and we need to get into the long-term physical development of our players where we’re working on habits so it just becomes second nature when they get older.”
Today’s game is played in a copycat world where there are no secrets when it comes to systems or special teams. Most teams are running the same or similar systems, and the difference in games comes down to which players have the skills and knowledge to make plays.
“You have to make decisions out on the ice,” said Gosselin. “If you have a two-on-one going, you may want to try a scissor play. That’s a habit and a concept. One guy is going to be driving, and you’re going to crisscross and make a play towards the net. We’re going to outnumber people two-on-one all over the ice. That kind of stuff can be taught in station-based practices.”
Use Your Time Wisely
“I’m not saying you can’t take some time but it’s a very small amount, a very small percentage of time to work on that kind of stuff,” said Gosselin.
USA Hockey’s American Development Model recommends introducing systems at Peewee/12U but encourages coaches to minimize the amount of ice time spent on systems play until later age groups.
Gosselin encourages teams to utilizes chalk talks and walk throughs off the ice to implement systems at those young ages to avoid wasting ice time. Once players have a general understanding, coaches can utilize small area drills and games that emphasize important habits and concepts within those systems.
“All of this stuff is a progression,” said Gosselin. “We have to make our kids capable of having higher skill sets so when it is time to implement stuff like this, and it starts kind of getting important in later years, they’re capable of doing it.”