More on smaller rinks – and smaller rosters
Posted by Dean Holden at April 25th, 2013
by Jack Blatherwick, 27 May 2012
Normally, when I hear the familiar noises of a youth game outside my window — I’m lucky to have an office inside our practice facility — I don’t get too excited. It’s usually more of the same: enthusiastic parents and not-so-enthusiastic kids, waiting for parental approval of their play — or just waiting while sitting — something they get very good at.
This Mite game, however, had the makings of something interesting — dividers across the middle red line — two games going on at once. This was a tournament — one of those “big-time” events — perfectly manicured to make the hockey experience more meaningful for 7-year-old kids.
This was 4-on-4 competition. So there were 20 players on the ice at a time, including four goaltenders. There were no refs, just some dads on each end, who blew the whistle only for goals. I asked about penalties, and they said the bench coaches would take care of any, but they hadn’t seen one all weekend.
So let’s do some math. Goaltenders in this tournament get exactly twice as much ice time as they normally would. Compared to a 5-on-5 full-ice event with the same number of rostered players, each skater gets 60 percent more ice-time, because there are 16 skaters on the ice rather than 10.
Furthermore, each kid is 25 percent more likely to touch the puck during a shift with eight players competing, rather than 10.
Just as significantly, game action was doubled in this tournament, because the non-refs weren’t holding the puck half the time. This means each individual got about triple (320 percent) the normal ice time and touched the puck four times as often — a much better return on the investment each family made to get to the rink from distant places.
This was a Mite game, and I can assure anyone with lingering skepticism, no one missed the full 200 feet of ice. They skated up and down — about 30 seconds elapsing between the up-part and the down-part.
If we analyzed the physics, Mite players skate about half as fast as NHL’ers, so even if they skated full-speed up and down the ice, they should use a rink about half as big. In this context, playing on large rinks couldn’t stand up to a routine cost-performance analysis because we use such a reduced portion of the ice.
Note: we have tested 6,000 players, Squirts through NHL and Olympic levels. I decided against testing players younger than Squirts when one of the little kids turned and waved to his mom in the middle of the test. Therefore, the speed of a Mite player is an estimate.
When you think about it, there is little difference between this divided rink and the down-sized football and soccer fields or basketball courts used for youth in their sports — even for junior high competition.
So if we didn’t consider ourselves something special, we might try this, at least some of the time, for Peewees and Bantams. Besides the extra game-time at reduced cost, the half rink requires skills and creativity in tight areas that can’t be matched on a big ice sheet. So, perhaps we should consider this — just some of the time.
For this particular tournament, the good news was limited to the divided rink and substitution of fathers for refs. The bad news was the over-crowded benches. Whoever was the District Director (when we first decided to have district directors) who originally decreed that Mites, Squirts and Peewees must have 15 players — well, they hadn’t read the advice of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness.
These teams had four lines of four players each, presumably so that no one was in danger of feeling the slightest fatigue. Heaven forbid that a youth hockey player should ever experience fatigue, or an elevated heart rate without three minutes rest between episodes. The only ones in this arena experiencing an elevation of cardiovascular symptoms were the parents.
Forget the development of hockey skills for a minute — I submit that youth hockey is the worst example of a recreational activity to relieve the growing epidemic of inactivity, obesity and diabetes among our children — the worst!
Youth hockey is a couch-potato sport, folks, when we put too many kids on a team, use ice-time inefficiently, and allow refs to coddle the puck.
Compare hockey to basketball or soccer, where players — even the least-engaged — run up and down the court several times a minute. Because of the reduced friction on skates, kids can waddle up and down the ice at quarter speed and never elevate their heart rate to the level it reaches while playing a video game.
Finally, if we asked any elite hockey player — someone who plays at the college level or higher — we’d get the same answer to this question: what were the defining experiences you had in youth hockey? Every one of them would include, “Unstructured scrimmages or pond hockey.”
Structure might be defined in these terms: a) limited ice time; b) sitting on the bench; 3) refs with the puck in their hands; and 4) an over-emphasis on systems as opposed to skills and creative competition.
So, we have two diametrically opposed factors: A) we are told by those who know, they got where they are by unstructured “pond” hockey; and B) we have eliminated that element from the development of our next generation.
Do we do this just to satisfy a competitive need to stage competitions so “big-time” that when our Squirt team wins, it’s actually an adult win over the parents in the next suburb?
Jack Blatherwick, Ph.D., is a physiologist for the Washington Capitals, and has held the same post for other NHL and Olympic teams. Check out Blatherwick’s website at www.overspeed.info