2012 USA Hockey/Fenway Sports Management Youth Hockey Day (Credit: USA Hockey Magazine)
Allowing free play in an unstructured environment is one key to development and creativity.
Sometimes, the best hockey gift arrives after the traditional winter holiday break for hockey players in Massachusetts. And many of us wind up waiting for the gift that is lacing up our skates in the great outdoors.
While we can no longer count on permanent outdoor ice on the ponds and bogs and backyard rinks across the Commonwealth, we can always dream the kind of dream that came true at the beginning of January.
Nearly all of our frozen fields of dreams were ready – just in time for the weekend that began on Jan. 9 – to give players of all ages and abilities a place to skate under the sky.
Like so many favorite frozen watering holes across the state, a roadside bog off scenic Rt. 6A in Sandwich teemed with skaters from nearly sun-up to sun-down over that January weekend, and ages ranged from under 2 to more than 60.
When the ice is out, you have to chase it.
Benefits of Unstructured Hockey
For those of us who love the outdoor game and all that comes with it – freedom from clocks and walls and officials and coaches and whistles and lines – unrivaled joy beckons.
There is also a byproduct from this lack of structure: Player development for young skaters.
"What's so special about it is that it's on their terms," says Roger Grillo, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model (ADM). "There's no one there judging their success or failures. They can kind of be who they want to be – and that's absolutely critical for a kid. And it lends to creativity, which is a major, major part of developing high-end players."
Bringing the Outdoors Inside
Grillo even advocates for building unstructured hockey into typically structured environments such as youth practices – bringing some of the outdoor game indoors, so to speak – and he refers coaches and parents to an "Activity Tracker" at www.admkids.com.
"We're encouraging coaches and parents to download that form and track their kids' activity patterns, especially at the younger ages," says Grillo, who also suggests coaches with early morning practices that begin before, say, 8 or 9 a.m., consider not running a structured practice but instead choose open hockey.
"What we've found as ADM regional managers is that the best drill is free time," he says. "Everybody is doing something. Some kids are skating, some kids are stickhandling, some kids are shooting, some kids are chasing each other. So, what that does is emulate the unstructured time. As the kids are doing that, the coaches can set up their stations and their practice format. [During] the first 5-8 minutes of practice and the last 5-8 minutes of practice, unstructured free time is absolutely critical."
Building a Creative Player
In some cases, of course, players need not look beyond their own backyard for unstructured hockey.
There aren’t many reasons a kid will get up before school, particularly in the cold, and go outside, but the novelty of playing hockey seems to do it. Kids are rising and shining to skate before the bus comes, they're stickhandling, they're shooting, they're learning and they're developing vital hockey skills.
"On their own, they are creative when they make up their own drills and games,” says Jack Tolman, who is in his sixth winter of building a backyard rink in Norwood. “When playing with friends, they work out the disputed goals without a parent and play on.”
His sons, George and Declan, who are now 10 and 14, have come to expect the rink, along with the hours of enjoyment out the back door of their kitchen when the ice is set.
"They are quicker and faster, and, as they grow, the rink gets smaller," says Tolman, who grew up, like many kids in and around Norwood, skating at Froggies (which was crowded with skating kids almost as soon as a half-day of school in Norwood let out recently). "They're forced to make tight turns and quick stops. It’s just like the cross-ice concept and it speeds up their play. They learn how to keep moving and change direction. On a backyard, rink they have to keep their head up."
Extra Time, Extra Development, Extra Fun
Declan says the rink gives him time to work on all of his shots and their accuracy.
“So when I’m playing I’m able to put my shot where I want it to get the best opportunity to score,” he says. “I also sometimes work on a few cellies.”
And, honestly, how much more enjoyable can life be than rehearsing for something to celebrate?
His brother uses cones and works on his stops and starts.
"So in a game, when I'm in a corner, I can get around a player," he says.
Says Tolman: "It's all worth it when I see them skating at night and getting up before school to get on the ice. Because they want to."
Backyard rinks are now a cottage industry unto themselves, but they remain, no matter how ornate or spartan, rooted in what makes outdoor, unstructured hockey one of hockey's great teachers.
"Their fun might be something completely different from what you think it might be," Grillo says. "Really, just make sure it's a safe environment and get out of the way."
Whether in the backyard or on a frozen outdoor sheet, or even on a rink at the start or end of practice, that's a gift fit for any season.