I’ve been writing a lot about initiation and young hockey players this week. It’s an important age, there’s no question, because it’s the level at which kids decide ultimately how much they love hockey. As you get older it becomes more of a career, even though it’s not a career. No, initiation hockey is all about enjoying the game, learning new skills on and off the ice and discovering more about yourself than you ever knew.
I’m talking about the players here, not the parents.
Anyways, here are the five core skills outlined by Hockey Canada and specific methods coaches use to get the message across.
Warmup game? Skating. Warmup drills with pucks? Skating. Grabbing a knee and listening to the coach? Skating.
No matter what you’re doing, skating is the most important skill to teach at the initiation level. Hockey is still a strange and uncomfortable sport at this age, so it’s interesting to watch unique skating styles develop both through drills specifically intended to teach skating and drills that only teach skating as a byproduct.
I could stickhandle around the rink with a puck on my stick for hours. It’s addictive. Sure, I like skating around and whatnot too, but my favourite part of the game is the dangles.
Stickhandling is also a natural progression from skating because it requires movement while employing a new tool. It’s important to get the basics down while stationary before adding dynamic movements like tight turns, stopping and backwards skating.
Every young player wants to shoot the puck, but it’s important for coaches to prioritize passing first. How many shots does a player take in a game? How many passes?
Stationary passing while facing a teammate encourages proper hand position and balance transfer. It’s the toughest skill to master and it’s the skill that requires the most time at older levels. Every Stanley Cup ever has been won on the strength of the victorious team’s passing. Seriously.
The progression from stationary passing includes forward pairs passing, dynamic turns and stops that add passes and positional play that depends on good passes.
So yeah, passing is important.
Alright, let’s shoot the puck.
Teaching shooting is tricky at young ages because technique normally goes straight out the window when the coach isn’t looking. This is because young players simply lack the strength to raise the puck, but all they want to do is rip pucks top shelf because that’s what poor-decision-making coaches like me do every time we step on the ice.
But hey, it took me a lifetime to put the puck in under the bar 4 times out of 5, don’t you kids understand that? (I’m going to say this to the hockey 3’s later today).
Shooting is all about technique and repetition. Practice, practice, practice, over and over again. Every professional hockey player works on their shot every time they get the chance. They can’t get enough of it either.
Making a play to steal a puck doesn’t necessarily include body contact, but body contact occurs no matter what at every level. That’s why you spend so much money on gear.
At initiation, half the time contact occurs is because players aren’t watching where they’re going. It’s usually a traumatic experience for a second until the player realizes they’re protected and they’re not actually hurt.
After that, checking occurs naturally in game situations and small area competition as players start to figure out how badly they want the puck.
I tried to resist but I couldn’t. Kids who listen are kids who learn. The general rule of thumb is that kids can only pay attention for an amount of time equal to their age. So, 17 year-olds listen for about 17 seconds, 7 year-olds? You get the idea. This is the hardest part of coaching initiation hockey. It’s all about getting the eyeballs looking at the coach and speaking quietly.
Focusing on these five or six areas makes it much easier to get the point across to a group of young players trying to find their way early on in their hockey journey.
Most of the time.
Actually, just writing this part down is making me tired.