Is cross-ice really best for our all of our young hockey players?
Yes, says Mike Terwilliger, head coach of the Bloomington Jefferson boys’ varsity hockey team. The former St. Lawrence University defenseman offers five benefits of cross- and half-ice hockey that fuel development for players of all abilities.
Benefit 1: Age-Appropriate Size
We don’t expect youth baseball players to run the bases of a standard diamond or pitch from 60 feet and 6 inches away from the plate. You’re not going to see an 8-year-old heaving a basketball up into a net 10 feet above her. Soccer goal sizes, ball sizes and field dimensions all change as players grow and mature.
Why should we expect 6U/8U hockey players to go end-to-end on a 200-foot rink? Cross-ice hockey shrinks the surface to a more playable, interactive and fun environment.
“It’s more age-appropriate as far as the size,” said Terwilliger, the New Hockey Programs Manager for Minnesota Hockey. “The kids are more involved. You’re not 180-feet away from the play, you’re always pretty close. There’s just a lot of really, really positive things about it.”
The smaller size also naturally creates smaller space, where the bulk of hockey is played at every level.
“The best players need to learn to play from the get-go in small areas, in tight spaces and without much time and space because that’s the game, that’s where it’s going,” said Terwilliger. “So not only is it better for skills, but you’re also given more chances to operate in those tight areas and make quick decisions.
“It’s not only good for your weaker players as far as being engaged and touching the puck more, but for the better players as well. They’re having to battle through versus making one move and skating to the other side five feet down the ice on the breakaway because they’re faster or bigger. That kid is still going to be good in a cross-ice or half-ice game, but it’s going to be better for development to learn to work in a smaller space.”
Benefit 2: Puck Touches
According to a USA Hockey study supported by the NHL, compared to a full ice sheet, players on smaller ice have:
“Smaller ice gives you much more activity and reps for the kids, so they get more touches on the puck, more touches to pass, more touches to shoot and score more goals which is fun,” Terwilliger said.
Benefit 3: Fun
Cross-ice engages players in a number of different ways. Gone are the days of long drill lines and standing around. What’s the fun in that?
“The more they stand around, then you’re monitoring behaviors,” said Terwilliger. “Station-based or cross-ice games, more kids are active and moving so there’s less of that behavior management stuff to do which makes it more fun for everybody as well.
“It does make you cringe when you walk into a rink and see 20 kids at any age standing around, while two kids are moving in a drill. That’s just a recipe for kids losing engagement and not having fun. Also, that’s not going to improve their skills.”
Benefit 4: Body Contact
That small space benefit we talked about? It also creates natural bumping and body contact, a skill coaches should encourage from 8U on up even before the age-appropriate checking level.
“We call it competitive contact, and we want the kids to get used to bumping and having competitive contact at a young age of 8U and 10U so that they can start to learn about angling and different concepts like that,” Terwilliger said. “If you watch good hockey at 10U and 12U and the upper level girls, all their players are bumping. There’s a little bit of rubbing out and competitive contact, and I think the smaller surface lends itself to teaching kids that crucial skill at each stage of their development.”
Benefit 5: Cost Cutting
Minnesota Hockey’s community-based model already keeps hockey affordable compared to other states, but cross-ice keeps even more money in your pocket courtesy of ice sharing.
“Our associations are doing better and better every year about having shared practices. You don’t see as much solo ice as you used to,” said Terwilliger. “I think it brings more energy and life to the practice as well. Most coaches I know would rather run a practice with 25 players rather than 9 or 10 or 12 based on just the energy and ability to do things in small groups.
“We’re lucky in Minnesota that it’s community-based so it helps keep our costs down right off the bat anyway, but if you do that along with an association that’s good at sharing ice and steering cost that way, every time you can reduce fees by a $100 or $200, that’s a big deal. That can make all the difference for some families for their kids to play.”
Bonus Benefit: Did We Say Fun?
“Honestly the benefits are endless,” reminded Terwilliger. “It’s about skill and development but really it’s about fun. Every element of cross-ice hockey brings in that element of fun which is one of the pillars of why we play, coach and teach this game.”