A hot topic throughout the hockey world is skill development. There is no question it is and should be the focus — along with loving the game — for our young players.
In a perfect world, each hockey organization would have a group of independent, skill development consultants to work with every team and at every level.
There are many places in the United States that hire these people and commit to at least one practice a week — and the hour is totally skill and skating focused. Only problem is the added expense, so we have to have coaches who are willing to learn, commit and experiment with new ideas.
Skating is the number one area that should be worked on — there are some great teachers that make it fun and challenging for kids. Teaching them how to use edges, proper body position, balance and the proper stride fundamentals are areas that not a lot of people understand and can teach properly. (In the Soo, there are some good teachers and I recommend teams use them.)
As the players improve, add puck-handling to the skating. So, instead of power skating, it is power skills work.
Puck handling, passing, receiving, puck protection etc. should be done in small spaces. Small-space games are fantastic for kids to learn how to hold on to the puck and make plays under pressure.
There are many places on the Internet to find these small-area games and I highly recommend coaches implement them in every practice!
There are game situations that are part of skill development, how to play 1 on 1, 2 on 1, 3 on 2, 4 on 3 etc., both offensively and defensively. Teach them options and how to use their skills and vision.
Players at every level want to get better, the coach’s focus and teaching of skills and how to use them is so important to development.
The practice to games ratio is an area for debate in the hockey world as well. For me, for players under 12, it should be 3-1 practice to games. Ice time availability is probably the biggest challenge. After the age of 12, probably increase the ratio to 3-2.
There are some kids and parents who just want to play games and there is nothing wrong with that — it probably happens more in house leagues where they practice less.
Another thought is to have less kids on a team — like maybe 12? That would mean more individual teaching and more ice in games. But it also will need more coaches and hours of ice, so that could be tough sell.
Anyway, I am just trying to share some ideas that may help. Love the game and have fun getting better!
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of columns written for Hockey News North by retired National Hockey League player and coach Craig Hartsburg. Hartsburg retired from the game in 2016 after an eventful 27-year coaching career that included 19 seasons in the NHL and successful stints in the Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League. As a player, Hartsburg had a world-class career as an all-star defenseman with both the Soo Greyhounds of the OHL and the erstwhile Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He was captain of the Greyhounds for two of his three OHL seasons and was captain of the North Stars for seven of his 10 NHL seasons.