Hockey is a game that’s primarily played on a large sheet of ice that’s normally around 200 feet in length and 85 feet in width. Five players line up against each other on the playing surface in addition to a goalie for each team. There are either three or four lines of forwards, normally three pairs of defensemen.
And there’s only one puck.
Everyone chases the puck all over the ice in an attempt to secure it, manage it, move it according to a predetermined system of play and, hopefully, deposit it into the opposing team’s net.
When kids are young, this is all usually accomplished by one or two players who are faster or more skilled than the other four or five on the ice. It’s the reason so much effort is put into placing kids on appropriate teams.
No matter how you slice it, hockey will always be a game played with one puck. It’s why coaches place such high importance on defensive systems and playing without the puck. The more we control the game away from the puck, the less likely we are to be scored on.
Makes sense, right?
Sure it does. But that doesn’t mean we should be ignoring the offensive side of the game: the parts of the game where we do have the puck.
Cross ice hockey in practice presents more opportunities for young players to touch the puck. Stickhandling, passing, and shooting in skill development practices is valuable, but there’s no substitute for the pressure of a game-like situation.
Truth be told, it’s not just young players who benefit from added touches on the puck. I’ve employed cross ice hockey and other small area games in practices with 15, 16, and 17 year-olds in the past because the more you touch the puck, the more comfortable you’ll become with the puck.
In cross ice hockey and other small area games, the coach has the option to play 5on5, 4on4, 3on3 or even lower. If you’re playing 2on2 hockey, 25% of the players will be touching the puck at any given time, right?
Right. See, hockey coaches know a little bit about math.
Another great thing about cross ice hockey and small area games is the natural competition that emerges. In regular practices that place emphasis on flow drills and systems, it’s natural for players to grow complacent over the course of the long hockey season.
But pit them against each other in a small area cross ice hockey game with something on the line like candy and watch the fireworks. It’s magical. Not only are the kids touching the puck more than they would during a normal 5on5 full ice scrimmage, they’re doing so in a heated environment with all their teammates watching and scrutinizing their every move.
And nothing motivates a hockey player more than the opportunity to impress their teammates.
Wanna break up the monotony in your youth hockey program? Schedule some cross ice hockey games and watch the action unfold. Practices? Focus on a specific skill for 40 minutes and then harp on that skill while your players compete against each other in small areas.
There’s a famous story about a young hockey player from Arizona named Auston Matthews (maybe you’ve heard of him) and how the only option available to him in his hometown of Phoenix was 3on3 hockey.
And if you’ve seen Mr. Matthews handle the puck, it’s obvious that it’s second nature for him. As a youngster, Matthews was able to touch the puck more often than he would have in a regular 5on5 hockey game, and he did it in tight spaces. He had to be quicker, stronger, and smarter than his opponents to keep possession of the puck.
There are hundreds of small ice variations you can do and it doesn’t matter how old your team is. The point is that while hockey will always be played by the same basic set of rules, that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative in your practices or in games for the early levels to boost your team’s productivity.
Alright, I’ll bet you can guess what I’m running at practice tomorrow!
Image of Auston Matthews from Pascal Mora of the New York Times