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Small Area Games: Gold Mines for Development

By Jamie MacDonald, 01/19/23, 11:00AM EST


Roger Grillo, USA Hockey’s Director of Player Development offers insight into small area games

At least some broader acceptance of small-area hockey owes a bit of gratitude to a Division III college program right here in New England. 

When Bill Beaney was winning DIII championship after DIII championship at Middlebury College — five in a row from 1995-99 — people started to take notice of that success in the Green Mountain State. 

Among them was USA Hockey’s current Director of Player Development Roger Grillo, who, beginning in 1991, spent five early years of his coaching career as an assistant at the University of Vermont, located about an hour north of Middlebury.

“When [Beaney] started winning all those national championships, I think it kind of opened some peoples’ eyes,” said Grillo, a Minnesota native who played college hockey at the University of Maine and served as head coach at Brown University from 1997-2009. “There were a lot of college coaches and a lot of pro guys who were going up there to try to figure out what he was doing because he was having so much success.”

After coaching at Brown, Grillo joined USA Hockey as New England’s regional manager of the American Development Model in 2009, and has also been influential in the evolution of the game in this country — thanks in part to the influence of Beaney’s approach to practice.

“Bill coached his college teams 80 to 90 percent small-area games in practice, and this is going back 25 or 30 years now,” Grillo said, while pointing out that the greatest credit for coaches relating to small-area focus is leaving it to the players. “At the base of it, I think it really comes from the understanding that the experience of the activity is really the coach, and not that the coach is the teacher. Its allowing the kids to experience something and not have to go 150 feet, or even 50 feet, to experience it. They can go 10 feet and have to make a decision or make a read. And that conflict and chaos — dealing with physical, mental and emotional chaos — in practice is so much more like the game is played.”

Small spaces, big plays

In the eyes of so many with a front row seat to the research, the success, and the evolution of small-area practicing, it’s easy to understand how clearly they connect its role in the development of hockey players. They also relate to how far the game has come in terms of skill and the highest expression of its form in places like college, international and professional hockey. It seems not all that long ago when there was a threat that hockey might by now look like an all-contact sport rather than the more skilled game that it has become.  

“When we first started the American Development Model and hired player development people to really look at what was going on in rinks, what we noticed was that at really young ages, the game wasn’t very skilled,” Grillo said. “It was either, ‘I’m scared to death I’m going to get hit,’ or ‘I’m going to show how tough I am and I’m going to hit.’ There weren’t a lot of kids who wanted to play with the puck. So we instituted some rules to change that format in the game — by taking away tag-up offsides, by taking away icing the puck on a penalty kill and by moving bodychecking up an age group. I think it really gave the game back to the kids.”

Playing in a smaller areas obviously increases the density of players in a space, but it also dramatically changes the density of puck touches, decisions and reads to make, the recoveries from bad reads, and just about every skill a player needs to get better faster. On a big sheet, exposure to those puck touches, decisions, reads and recoveries take exponentially longer with every increase of square footage. The time to recover from each of those is longer, too, which lowers the load on a player's brain. In a small area, that increased load, having to process more frequently more quickly is development of hockey skill and hockey sense. 

If a player is mining for opportunities to improve, small area situations are a gold mine.

“The game is played in small spaces,” Grillo said. “It’s making good decisions, and it’s your technique of maybe getting yourself out of some bad decisions. [In small-area environments] they’re managing their physical output, but they’re maximizing their decision-making in reads and in problem-solving because that’s what the game comes down to.”

Players can still dump in the puck or wing it around the glass, but the instances of those as defaults are lessening. This is in part not only because the times are changing, but because some of the changes are being encouraged through rule changes, and by coaches who agree that the game and its players are better served by an output that comes from the input of small-area practices.

And that takes the buy-in from administrators and parents and, most of all, those coaches.

“You can still dump it in and you can still ice it when that might be the best play,” Grillo said. “But, now, the decision is the player’s and it’s not the coaches and the parents. Not everybody in the stands is yelling to dump it in. We’re having kids pick their heads up, scan the ice, make a read and make a play.”

Of course, for the player with the puck, none of these reads or plays are going to lead to much unless his or her teammates without the puck are also working with the same assumptions. Small-area practices also help players learn through those experiences. So much of the game is played without the puck, and the more a player has reps with those reads and reacts or forced decisions, the more naturally they help a team by learning the right decisions.

“You add in the 98 percent of the game that is played without the puck, and all the work away from the puck that kids have to do has a domino effect,” Grillo said. “The best players in the world have the puck on their stick for 2 percent of the game. So your effort, your decision-making and your reads away from the puck are critical. If you don’t have the puck, put yourself into good positions to get it back. If you do have the puck, maintain possession and try to get a scoring opportunity. When you force those situations more often, it just allows players to get better at it.”

The evolution of teaching

As the game has changed, many coaches have both changed with it and also helped make it even better. Certainly, as a kid growing up playing through the 1970s in Apple Valley, Minn., Grillo has seen a good deal of that change. 

“It’s so funny because, when I was a kid, the big push was the long strides, like Eric Heiden,” he said. “If you talk to the people who understand the game and how it’s played at the highest level, they aren’t teaching Eric Heiden anymore. They’re teaching change of direction, separation, maximizing how to get on the good side, how to win good ice. When do you get the opportunity to really lengthen out your stride? Three-on-three in overtime? There’s just not enough time or space. It’s constantly changing and it’s constant chaos. [Now] you have players who can make plays in traffic. It’s amazing.”

Decades ago, practices were a lot less fluid. Though, in some places, they may still appear to be rooted in the 1980s.

“There was a lot of open space, cones, a lot of drills,” Grillo said. “In a game, the failure rate would be extreme. The reality of it was: It wasn’t the players’ fault. It was our fault, the coaches. The environment that we put them in on a consistent basis wasn’t anything like the real game is like.”

It’s cliché to say big things come from small games, but there are also some meaningful human development philosophies and concepts that come through an approach more steeped in small-area hockey.

“What we’re trying to do through our Coaching Education Program is to get coaches to focus a little bit more on how to coach and a little bit less on what to coach,” Grillo said. “The what to coach is kind of easy — because with all the information you can get on your phone, you can get those practice plans really easily. But how do you deliver that? I always say to coaches, ‘If you’re not happy with what they are doing on Saturday or Sunday in a game, is it because of the player or is it because of the coach and the environment you put them in through training?’”

Can that environment also include teaching creativity?

“I don’t think we teach it, I think we embrace it and we encourage it,” Grillo said. “The reads have to come from the kids. By the rules and the constraints that we put in the games and how we run the practice, we know what we’re trying to accomplish, but we let the kids experience it.”

Making progress

Just a few weeks ago, we watched a video go viral of a 14-year-old Slovakian, Nela Lopusanova, who casually scooped a puck up on her blade and shelved it over a Swedish goalie’s shoulder at the IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championships

In and of itself, the goal is an evolution of what has become known as The Michigan, which dates back to the behind-the-net scoop heard ‘round the world from Mike Legg eons ago. Legg’s goal looks almost laborious now in contrast to what Lopusanova, born more than a decade after Legg made his bit of history, made look so easy.

While small area practices aren’t necessarily directly responsible for the evolution, it does stand to reason that a player’s comfort in chaos is absolutely a benefit.

“I look at The Michigan differently,” Grillo said. “Some people, their heads explode. I have no problem with a kid doing The Michigan if they’re solving the problem of getting a quality scoring chance. If there’s a kid who is going to go from the back of the net and get a quality scoring chance because everything else is shut down, God love them. They’re problem-solving. They figured out a way to go from zero opportunity to a Grade A scoring chance. I’ll take that any day as a coach.”

One of the beauties of this particular hockey gold mine is that it can still be mined as the game continues to evolve through what might be the most skilled era in the game’s history. There are now 6-year-olds trying The Michigan on rinks across the country. Skating and stickhandling at every level is better than a generation ago. Playmaking and creativity have improved significantly. Progress is happening.

“The biggest impact that I’ve seen is just how our coaches attack practice,” Grillo said. “I think you see more and more station-based work and more and more small-area stuff. More and more game-like stuff. At the same time, there is a lot of individual technical work happening with skills coaches. So we have kids who can skate, and their hands are good, and the techniques are really solid, but they can then take those techniques and execute them in chaos. You see these young players who are coming out of the United States, and you watch the way they play, and the impact they’re having on the game in the NHL. It’s fun to watch.”

Still, there is room for more from the ground up when it comes to acceptance of the small-area focus and ethos.

“It’s getting coaches to understand the five critical elements of a good practice,” Grillo said. “Element No. 1 is fun. Two is an environment that has constant decision-making. Three, that it’s as game-like as possible in intensity and chaos and conflict. Four, that it is a desirable, correct challenge — meaning that I don’t coach a team; I coach the individuals on the team based on where they are at. Five would be that we’re giving them touches and repetition.”

We can all help in a few ways, too.

“I think there are two things,” Grillo said. “One is getting players, parents and coaches to change the mindset that game day is pizza and practice day is broccoli. Until we get that gap closed and embrace the importance of a quality experience for our kids in practice, we’re going to be limited on how far we can go. We’re trying to get our practices dialed up to nine or a 10 [out of 10] instead of a five or six. If we can stack up nines and 10s for our kids, we’re going to have more players who are better and play longer. Two, it’s patience. You can’t speed that development. It’s going to take some time, especially with kids. It’s a process and you have to let the process play out.