A fellow dinosaur with great advice for youth hockey
Posted by Dean Holden at November 23rd, 2013
by Jack Blatherwick, 21 November 2013
If you’re not on Social Security yet, you probably never heard of Howie Meeker. He is a 90-year-old legend for a half-century of hockey analysis as an author and broadcaster. Before that, he played eight years in the NHL, winning four Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs (1947, 1948, 1949, 1951), claiming the Calder Memorial Trophy (rookie of the year) in 1947 and posting a five-goal night against the Blackhawks. Later, as a commentator, he added much more to the conversation during games than the standard advice of today’s talking heads: “Well, the Leafs need to hit more.”
Even at age 90, when Meeker speaks, hockey coaches listen. His recent interview in The Globe and Mail (reprinted online here) is loaded with thoughts every coach, parent and administrator should read – not necessarily perfect answers for every situation, but several interesting points about developing skillful, creative players.
I’ll mention only a couple of his thoughts, because you should not miss his interview online. Meeker’s opinion is that today’s hockey players are bigger, faster and stronger … but not necessarily smarter and more skillful. The first part of his premise is borne out by on-and off-ice testing we’ve done for 35 years.
Some of Meeker’s observations fit our situation in Minnesota all too well. Like most regions of North America, we suffer from a cookie-cutter youth hockey system that forces each program to structure much of their development program the same way. It is too inflexible, too expensive, too laden with rules from above, too structured on and off the ice, and too focused on adults. This is not a statement that Minnesota hockey isn’t going well; it’s simply that we could do better.
A) There are too many players on a team. With two lines on a youth team, players would have to think, not just skate hard.
B) Adults schedule too many ‘big-stakes’ games, shifting the focus from trial-and-error development to win/loss records, trophies and the need to avoid mistakes.
C) Fifty-one percent of the rental time for every game is wasted while the puck is in the hands of the referees. There should be more ‘low-stakes’ scrimmages with non-stop action.
D) Practices with long lines and overly-structured drills without competition are not as fun as full-ice or small-ice scrimmages. Therefore the passion meter is low, and the drills don’t teach the most important skill in hockey: creative decision-making.
Ben Smith was the USA women’s coach for three Olympics. He was also an assistant coach on the men’s Olympic team in 1988, and head coach or assistant at several colleges. Ben has always believed we have too many players on a team.
“The game is meant to be played at different paces, just like soccer [like Pavel Datsyuk, I might add]. Now it is played at one pace only. Today’s players are faster, but not better. If there are four lines on a team, I want to be the center on two of them. We are developing ‘buzz-bomb’ players who do nothing more than hustle up and down the ice.”
It’s interesting that the top coaches in USA Soccer have similar thoughts (I paraphrase from two soccer articles): Our problems in international competition start at the youth level with too much structure, over-coaching in games, too much emphasis on winning and too many players on the field. There should be more competition on small fields with fewer players. That way American youngsters would have more touches and learn to make creative decisions in tight areas.
Tight areas. Smaller teams. More touches. De-emphasize winning to allow trial-and-error. Creative decisions instead of adult instructions. Sounds like a winning formula for fun and development.