If you’re a parent who grew up playing hockey, you may be wondering why youth practice these days looks so … different. These practices might make use of smaller stations on the ice, players might be in almost constant motion or playing something that doesn’t always look like hockey, and they might, gasp, not even be using a puck in the process. Is this way better? In short, yes.
We caught up with Roger Grillo, a longtime coach who spent 12 years at Brown and since 2009 has worked with USA Hockey as a Regional Manager of the American Development Model here in Massachusetts and New England, who helped lay out a tale of two practices. There is the way he grew up practicing and there is the ADM approach that naturally leads to a host of advantages for young players across the spectrum.
Standing around vs. keeping things moving
"Before, I think there was probably more standing around than what we would like. I think if we went back and looked at practices from our generation, we’d probably be a little bit mortified. But, in reality, we could probably get away with it because the skill development was happening, on our terms, on the ponds or in the street or in other unstructured play. We survived it because we had another avenue.
"Now, and it depends on the age, but if you’re talking about 8U, hopefully it’s no or very, very little standing around. If you’re talking about 10U, maybe there’s a little more standing, and at 12U, a bit more than that. As you get older, you get less consumed with the amount of time and more consumed with the quality."
"Puck touches now are absolutely critical because players are not getting puck touches on their own time. You really have to be careful there, though—you can’t really force a kid to do something on their own because you want them to want to do that on their own. But there aren’t a lot of unstructured opportunities. I’m driving through Boston and it’s a week from Thanksgiving, and it’s 52 degrees. I can remember growing up in Minnesota, 35-40 years ago, I’d have been skating for two weeks on the outdoor rinks by this time. That’s just not happening anymore, so puck touches have become imperative, especially at that 12U age group."
"Skating is obviously a critical piece of the game, and it’s become even more important because the game is played at such a frantic pace. But the concern I have about skating is that there’s been such an emphasis on skating that we’ve forgotten about other aspects of the game.
"Skating has to be priority No. 1, but it has to be done age-appropriately and properly. Otherwise, it can really suck the life out of a young hockey player.
"[At 8U, for example], you can do bumper tag. You put one kid on one side of the bumper and another kid on the other side, and you have them chase each other. Their heads are up, they have to read and react, they have to change directions and they have to cross over on the ends. So you’re doing edge work, you’re doing skating, but their competing. It’s really taking the competitive piece, and the decision-making piece, and the skating piece of the pond into a structured, adult-driven culture.
"To do power skating for 20 minutes with an 8U kid can really suck the life out of them if done improperly.
"Putting a soccer ball on the ice, it’s balance, it’s agility, it’s coordination and it’s edge work. They’re just having fun. It’s Flintstones vitamins. It’s tricking them into doing the things necessary to become a better skater. We have to do a ton of skating in practice, but we can’t put adult teaching techniques or force skating with little kids. Because that is not fun."
Pucks only vs. rings and soccer balls
"If I’m going to teach passing, I’m going to get softballs. In order to pass a softball, if I slap it, it’s going to roll over the top of my stick. I have to step, follow through and use the right technique to get the ball over to my partner. Just by the tools I use for little kids, I’ve forced the right habits. Hand-eye coordination is critical, and doing things with the right habits, not by yelling, is critical."
Amount of fun during the hour
"It was always fun for me, but part of that was that the season was so short. There was no summer ice. You might have gone to a camp in the summer, but that was a week and was more social than development. The ice didn’t go in until mid- or late-October, then you only played 20 games because it wasn’t overdone. Now it’s there 24/7/365 and, if they’re over-involved, they’re overcooked."
Laps, lines and lectures: Leave them behind?
"As much as possible. It can be an individual thing based on how much ice time you have. If I only have two practices a week for 50 minutes, I can’t hit singles. I have to hit grand slams. And that’s my responsibility. It’s not the kid’s responsibility. As busy as we are with our kids and our family, if I’ve committed to coaching a youth sport and my kid has limited opportunities go get better, I have to bring my A game every time.
"When you average it out, when we were kids, it might have averaged out to an hour a day for 365. I was on the ice another six hours a week as a skate guard and listening to Hall and Oats, but I wasn’t being scrutinized or coached."
"For us now, there are pockets of it all over the United States, but we’ve been fortunate enough to have talked to other federations in the world. And you see what the Swedes, and particularly, the Finns do with so many high-end players. You ask them what they’re doing. And it’s exactly what we’re selling. Again, there’s no short cut to success. There are certainly principles you have to have in place for certain things to happen.
"But if I’m doing the same things that I grew up doing in 1970s and ‘80s, then the kids I’m involved with have no chance."