“There’s no correlation between playing games and development, especially at that age. Those kids need to be on the ice (for practice) at least two to three times for every game.”
To maximize the “Golden Age of Skill Development,” Minnesota Hockey has made a rule change to ensure players are getting the proper ratio of practices to games. Beginning with the 2018-19 season, Squirt/10U teams will be limited to a maximum of 35 games (league, invitational tournament and exhibition), excluding district playoffs.
Some see this as a sort of war on games. However, the reality is players at 10U should be practicing at a 3-to-1 practice-to-game ratio to ensure proper development time. Mike MacMillan, USA Hockey National Coach-in-Chief, not only welcomes the change but believes it will play a key role in ensuring the State of Hockey remains a leader in player development.
“If you want to have the best players with the most skills and lift them up, you cannot be just having them play games all the time,” MacMillan said. “There’s no correlation between playing games and development, especially at that age. Those kids need to be on the ice (for practice) at least two to three times for every game.”
But the emphasis on practices over games does not just apply to 10U.
Practice to Game Ratios Matter at All Ages
Practice must be a priority throughout a youth hockey player’s development. Just look at college hockey, which now produces over 30 percent of the players in the NHL.
For perspective, most NCAA teams have around 34 regular season games on its schedule this season. Minnesota high school teams play about 25.
“My college team (MacMillan is an assistant coach with Hamline University) plays 28 games. When I coach high school they played 26 games,” he added. “And we’re going to have a debate over 35 games for squirts? The high school players and college players are practicing four days a week and playing twice.”
But Games are Fun!
No one can argue that playing games is fun, but does that automatically mean practices aren’t fun?
“If practices are being run according to long term athlete development principles, kids should be having fun in practice,” said MacMillan. “Practices should not be boring if they’re done the right way.”
“It always shocks me when one of my former players who are now coaching asks how we ran a certain drill back when they were playing. A lot of times I have to tell them not to do what I did back then. I like to think I was a little ahead of the time back then, but there’s no way I would run practice the same way I did even five years ago, much less 10 or 15 years ago. Practices today are so much more engaging and game-like.”
If coaches are doing things like disguising skill development in game-like drills, utilizing challenges and incorporating small area games, kids will have more opportunities to play the game they love in practice which fuels fun and development at the same time.
Games are easy to account – add up the goals and you have one winner and one loser. Johnny scored one goal, Hannah got two assists and the Wildcats won their third game in a row. But if you really want to calculate development, look at the simple math of how practice is far superior to games.
“Let’s say a team with 15 players and three lines plays a game with 15-minute periods,” MacMillan added. “They’re going to be on the ice for a total of what? 15 minutes. That’s not very much.
“However, if you’re going to an hour practice and have a good, organized station-based practice, those kids are going to have so many more puck touches, so much more skating and time on task, so much more development going on than a game situation. It’s that simple.”
How big is that gap, exactly? Research shows the top youth and NHL players have the puck on their stick for about 60-70 seconds in a 60-minute game. Meanwhile, players participating in a well-run practice can spend more than 20 minutes with the puck.
Small Games Spur Development
Small-area games in practice are far superior to development than loading a team’s schedule with full-ice competitions. Small-area games should be implemented in practices not only at 10U, but every level. They encourage competitiveness, teach hockey sense and spatial awareness, and are a lot of fun. Every pro, college and prep team uses small-area games to keep their players sharp during the season.
“A lot of the game at the upper levels is played in those confined areas along the walls, in the corners and in the offensive and defensive zones,” MacMillan said “If you can add that to practices then it’s double time compared to full-ice games because players are going out every other shift and there’s so much more action.”