Considering players in Mite/8U programs are often hopping on the ice for the first time, learning basic skills, interacting with their high school heroes and initially falling in love with the game, first few years of hockey are a special time for kids.
“It’s about fun, but it’s also development within that,” said Erik Westrum, who was a two-time Gopher captain and played in the NHL.
In Prior Lake, where Westrum spent four years as the Mite Director, that meant an in-depth buy-in to the American Development Model and a commitment towards developing individual skills within an enjoyable environment. Practices often incorporated football, baseball, basketball and other games, as well as traditional skills like skating, passing and shooting.
That’s not to say the program they developed was easy though. Westrum made a concerted effort to ensure each player was challenged the right amount.
“Our goal was to get them ready for Squirts,” said Westrum, who is currently the boys varsity coach for Southwest Christian/Richfield. “We would go through the [USA Hockey Skill Progression] book and then you had to be self-aware of where these kids fit in.”
“Everyone has their own development process within them. It’s just having the patience to develop these kids the right way.”
Plan, Execute, Review
The foundation of every great organization and youth sports program starts with organization and communication so it’s no surprise that’s where Westrum focused the majority of his efforts when he first took over the PLSHA mite program.
“It was a huge overhaul of the whole process of what we wanted to do,” said Westrum. “It was getting the rink on board, the rink manager, the ice time scheduler. We would have coaches’ meetings before the season, two weeks in and then again after Christmas, just checkpoints. We were able to get all of those coaches to be on the same page.”
The main focus was creating a unified process and plan, and then communicating it to all parties so they could increase their efficiency and eliminate wasted ice time.
Mix and Match
The next step was putting in place a structure that made going to hockey fun and create a great learning environment.
“We would always try to create six equal teams,” said Westrum. “We would have kids at the advanced level who were just getting started. We wouldn’t do the best 15 kids. Some organizations they have first, second and third graders all on the same team. I look at it, for these kids, they want to play with their buddies.”
To balance their team structure with a desire to provide the right level of difficulty for each player in practice, Westrum instituted a tiered practice structure.
The players would all start practice together. Then, the coaches would break their team into the top half and bottom half so the kids spent time with players of like ability for the next segment of practice. For the last third of practice, often for some sort of game, two teams would pair up and break down their teams even further. The top third of each team would go together, the middle and then the bottom groups would pair up.
“You’re able to slowly break it down and get the advanced kids together,” said Westrum. “I think that’s kind of the happy medium. It appeases the parents, the coaches and kind of the political side of things, but at the same time, the most important thing is the development of the kids. That truly, truly benefits the top end kids and the bottom end kids.”
“The kids who are more advanced are getting more challenged, and the lower end kids are still getting challenged but are getting more confidence as well.”
Another critical component of creating an optimal environment is adjusting the difficulty of drills to match the current abilities of players.
“We would have different variations of each drill,” said Westrum. “Make sure you’re challenging them enough, but if there are certain kids who aren’t able to do it, they have to be at the level that fits them.”
Westrum points to the school system as a situation where this occurs frequently. Teachers adjust the difficulty of math or reading assignments, and sometimes even have them attend different classes, to fit their ability level.
Within youth hockey settings, it can be more challenging to do this as coaches are mostly volunteers and may not have the experience or time necessary to prepare practice variations for multiple skill levels. At PLSHA, Westrum overcame those barriers by listing drill progressions on each practice plan, laminating the plans and then posting them in each station area for quick reference.
“The most important part is the communication between the coaches, the parents, the mite director,” said Westrum, who emphasized the importance of everyone knowing what you’re doing on the ice and why you’re doing it. “In our coach meeting, we would talk to them, and say you have to be self-aware of your kids, who is at what level.”
Bumping and Battling
“Back in the day if you had a skating coach or if you shot pucks at home, you were ahead of the curve,” said Westrum. “The next part of advancement or what I’ve kind of looked at and seen is working with these advanced kids is around puck protection and body confidence. That’s one of the things that we implemented a ton of even with five and six years olds, and all the way up so by the time they got to the advanced level they were able to compete for the puck.”
“We used a lot of rings in our drills so the kids would have the “pucks” on their stick longer. The battles would be, instead of a three second battle, they would be a 30-40 second battles with the ring. It was more game-like and more competition.”
Meet in the Middle
Westrum and PLSHA also came up with a unique solution to address feedback regarding a desire for kids to learn offsides and icing and to play “real” hockey.
“We took the measurements of a three on three rink, and our rink was nice enough, when they re-did the ice in the summer, they actually marked off the dots where the net would go for that distance and then also marked where the boards would go,” said Westrum. “We were able to create the same feel of a three on three rink so it wasn’t as big as the normal ice.”
On Wednesdays, they would set the boards up in the dimensions of a three-on-three rink and hosted a Stanley Cup season. Each team wore an NHL logo, and they played games on the modified rink.
“We would have two teams playing a mini-game in the middle, and then on the outside, you would have two teams working on skills,” said Westrum. “Then, we would send two teams to Elite Gymnastics, and they would do off-ice tumbling and gymnastics stuff. The next week it would rotate and two of the other teams would go.”
With an ice sheet that still had both blue lines and the red line in play, the coaches were able teach kids about off-sides and icing.
“We would tell the kids here’s what offsides is and we would do it off the ice,” said Westrum. “When it was icing, the whistle would blow and they would have to skate back to their net, tap their goalie, and they could go again. Or offsides, if they went over too soon, they would have to go back and tag their goalie. After a while, they’re like, ‘do I really want to have to go back and tag my goalie? No. Instead, I’m going to figure out why the coach is blowing the whistle.’”
“They were getting so many more puck touches, and it was more real for them.”