When the Saskatchewan Hockey Association mandated cross-ice hockey for five- and six-year-old players prior to this season, it posted the following on its website: “Parents may ask the question, ‘Why should my child play cross-ice, what will this bring? I want my child playing like the professionals do, full ice, because I want my child to experience real hockey.’ ”
And if you don’t think there are hockey parents who actually think that way, you haven’t spent much time around local rinks. And the good people who govern minor hockey in Saskatchewan wouldn’t have posted it if those kinds of adults didn’t exist. So those folks will be disappointed at Hockey Canada’s announcement over the weekend that it will adopt the same initiative nationwide. Starting next season, all players aged five and six in the Initiation Program will be mandated to play cross-ice games.
Fact is, this decision is a game-changer. How many times have you seen kids on the ice for the first time, standing in the middle of nowhere, doing nothing while some other kids whizzes around the ice with the puck? USA Hockey, which mandates cross-ice hockey until the age of eight, is actually way ahead of Canada on this one. So is Sweden, which depending upon where you live, has cross-ice hockey until the age of 10 or 11.
But old habits die hard when it comes to hockey in Canada, so this is progress. A couple of years ago, USA Hockey actually did a study on this, tracking a bunch of five- and six-year-olds in half-ice, cross-ice games. What they found was that with less space, there were twice as many puck battles, six times the number of shots on goal, 1.75 shots per minute compared to 0.45 shots per minute on full ice, twice the number of pass attempts, five times more passes received and twice as many changes in direction per player.
All of these things are the foundation upon which future skills are based. In baseball, kids start out with T-ball. In soccer, they use smaller balls, smaller fields and smaller nets. In basketball, the rim is lowered. It only makes sense that when you’re dealing with smaller people who have yet to develop their skills, you make the playing surface more manageable.
It’s a complete win for the kids. First, and this is a factor in a country where ice time can be scarce and expensive, it allows four teams on the ice at the same time instead of two. In fact, there are some local leagues that split the ice into three sections so six teams can play at once, which is all the better. But the main thrust of the initiative is to give kids of all skill levels more of a chance to shoot, stickhandle and battle for pucks rather than chasing it around a full ice surface. It increases the pace of play and forces them to make quicker decisions in confined spaces.
“They’re learning to do something and it’s only when they start to put things together that they actually start to reach success,” sports psychologist Dr. Stephen Norris said in a Hockey Canada video on the subject. “The research clearly shows, and parents should be looking at this, that their children are more actively engaged, which means they have the puck with them a greater number of times, they have the puck on their stick for a longer period of time, they’re interacting with the other players to a greater extent. They’re having to make more decisions, they’re having to control their bodily motions. So the whole milieu of key performance indicators is raised.”
There are actually people out there who think this is not a good idea. Some of them say the kids aren’t learning about offside. Seriously? They don’t need to know the minutia of the rules near as much as they need the opportunity to try to master the skills it takes to be successful in the game. Kids in North America in general, and Canada in particular, are thrown into hyper competitive game situations far too early and play way to much hockey as it is.
From taking bodychecking out of the lower levels of hockey to mandating practice-to-game ratios, it can be a tough row to hoe for Hockey Canada, which often faces resistance from the fiefdoms at the local levels. But mandating cross-ice games and ensuring that the edict is followed is certainly a positive step.