So rare are the days of frozen ponds in Massachusetts that your average youth hockey player can probably count on a couple of hands the times they’ve skated outdoors – which had traditionally been thought of as the training ground for creativity in the game.
Fortunately, through initiatives such as the American Development Model and coaching education practices that stress the kinds of components for naturally developing more creative hockey players; the game may look more like it had on the frozen ponds than many could expect without them.
Among those leading the charge in Massachusetts is Paul Moore, Mass Hockey’s Coach-in-Chief. Moore grew up in Falmouth, starred for the Clippers and went on to play in the IHL during a career that also included tryouts with the New York Rangers before he returned to coach at his alma mater after the legendary Buddy Ferreira retired. Moore was also an early adopter of the ADM, and he’s seeing the fruits of its labor over the past decade.
“These kids who are 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-years old, they were 7, 8, 9 or 10 when the ADM was adopted,” says Moore. “It took a few years for it to grab hold, but that’s one piece of the skill progression in the game. There’s no doubt about that. Creativity. Small-area games. Age-appropriate practices with skill development and cross-ice. It’s a combination of all of that.”
Long forgotten are the days of drilling into a youth hockey player’s head to stay in their lane or to dump the puck in as a 10-year-old. Coaches looking toward the future have been thinking for years that players were made to make plays – and mistakes – as a means to an end of developing hockey skills. Playing and practicing in small areas without constant play stoppages certainly sets the stage.
“For me, it should be game-like, and it should be fun and there should be conflict,” Moore says. “Instead of just going around a cone, taking shot on net and going back in line, that’s just a small example of what we’ve been getting better at over the years.”
Learning about blue lines and red lines – none of which were available on a pond — or where to go on a draw, those things can come in due time.
“We get too caught up, especially at the younger ages, on technical and tactical points of the game,” says Moore. “Questions about offsides and face-offs, those are the kinds of things that could be taught in practice.”
Or not even.
“Frankly, you don’t even have to waste ice on some of those things,” says Moore. “You can do some of those off-ice.”
Moore is a big believer in leveraging the ADM not only for skill development, but also for its ancillary benefits as a fertile ground for creative hockey.
“What it’s really doing is bringing the pond inside,” he says twice, for emphasis. “It’s bringing the pond inside. It’s the unstructured play. It’s letting the game be the teacher. And that’s what it was for us back in the day. I thought back then we produced not only better hockey players in a sense, but also better athletes.”
Better athletes, athletes who are able to perform skills they may have picked up in soccer or gymnastics or swimming, or lacrosse, basketball, football, tennis or golf, often make for more creative players, too. When Brad Marchand throws a pass into Patrice Bergeron’s skates because that’s the only place he could get it in a split second, as happened on Feb. 15, Bergeron, in another split second, decides which skate to use for kicking it to his stick, then goes backhand, forehand, backhand, goal.
Sounds a little like something that might happen on the pond. Or during unstructured play. At the younger levels, it also helps not to have adults getting in the way.
No coaches yelling or parents yelling. No one dictating orders on what to do.
“First off, from a learning standpoint, yelling does no good,” Moore explains. “If screaming from the bench was effective, you’d see NHL coaches doing that. But it doesn’t happen. We talk about robbing kids of creativity, yelling is the outright stealing that aspect. You need to let the kids make the mistakes, and imploring them to stop doing that by yelling at them—parents, too—frankly renders it ineffective in their development.
“What we had back in the ‘70s and ‘80s was that unstructured play,” Moore continues. “Whether it was in your driveway, playing street hockey, or on a pond, there was not an adult there. It was unstructured play and kids figured it out for themselves.”
Another way of framing “unstructured” hockey is to think of hockey without some of the limits placed on the game by walls, positions, coaches and systems. And in that environment, creativity can flow a little more naturally.
Where is someone more likely to try their first, say, backhand toe drag? In a game where a cloud of pressure not to lose the puck hangs over a player’s head? Or when structure loosens?
“I think we’re doing a better job at the youth hockey level of letting the game be the teacher,” Moore says. “Sometimes, you have to get out of the way and let kids express themselves, make mistakes and learn from them.”
In Falmouth, as in many youth hockey programs across the state, there are games with no whistles, no offsides and no icing. Positions are barely mentioned, officials are there only to throw the puck back into play after a goal and a buzzer sounds for timed line changes.
“We don’t need coaches yelling from benches, trying to make kids robots or to stay in their lane,” says Moore. “There are no lanes anymore.”
The fewer the whistles, lines and lanes, systems, positions or coaches yelling from the bench, the more it looks like a frozen pond so many kids have never seen. This is a place of creativity.
And, when it comes to making a positive impact from the bench, of confidence.
“The adults and the coaches have such a big impact on the creativity piece,” Moore says. “A lot of times, the creativity could be sucked out of a young player out of fear. What’s the fear? They’re afraid to make a mistake.”
In Moore’s eyes, creativity is inextricably linked to confidence. Without it, young players may not be willing to try building on their own development.
“Tell them it’s OK to make plays, and that it’s OK to make a mistake,” he says. “You have to let them make mistakes so they can gain confidence. And I’m not saying that culture is the only reason for a lack of creativity, but I will tell you that confidence is massive in creativity. And that’s what we should be teaching: confidence. The creativity will come.”
Even if the frozen pond won’t.