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So far, so great for entry-level youngsters playing on smaller ice surfaces

By Brendan Nagle on August 31, 2018

OMHA photo

HONEY, I SHRUNK THE RINK.

No, Rick Moranis hasn’t taken over minor hockey in Canada. But, the powers that be in Canadian community hockey have taken a page out of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids — the 1980s feature film in which Moranis starred as a residential inventor/scientist whose kids are unwittingly shrunk with a home-built shrink-ray.

The move by Hockey Canada and its provincial partners has effectively cut the rink in half, and in some cases into thirds, for entry-level players just getting started with skates, sticks and pucks. The standard ice surface is divided up, and skills-development sessions and scrimmages are played cross-rink on the rink divided into thirds, and lengthways — from the centre-line in — on each half. 

Initiation-aged kids (ages 5-6) played last season on rinks divided into thirds and played cross-ice.

This season sees the half-ice playing surface move to Novice (ages 7-8).

Various regions are currently in different phases of the rollout, with B.C. dropping the puck on its third season of smaller ice for little people, while Ontario is entering Year 2. 

Flexibility in the program allows the provinces to work within the new national framework while adding their own touches to it to suit their needs. Some provincial associations will “graduate” Novice-age players to full-ice midway through the season, once they’re ready. Other variants may include minor and major categories in the early-development age groups, where you might see entry-level kids moving up from cross-ice to half-ice surfaces because they’re good to go.

All these choices, and more, are available to the provincial associations within the national framework developed by Hockey Canada in consultation with its provincial partners. Options are good. 

Hockey Canada’s goals for the shift to smaller ice are simply to increase enjoyment, engagement and participation in the game for very young, entry-level players.

As with all significant changes in Canadian organized minor hockey, the transition wasn’t immediately embraced by the adults in some circles. But, with a season of Initiation completed on the smaller surface, the returns are demonstrably positive across the country. 

“It’s looking really good,” says Paul Carson, Vice-President of Hockey Canada’s Player Development. “We’re really pleased with where things are.”

It’s not like this initiative fell from the sky into the laps of community hockey associations across the nation. Hockey Canada spent years engaging its minor-hockey constituents in the provinces, assembling the data and material necessary to ensure the shrunken-ice programs would succeed right from the opening faceoff. (They don’t really face off all the time in Initiation. The coach will toss a puck onto the ice and get the little skaters into the flow of the game.)   

“You always start with the end in mind. Then, you reverse-engineer the process and try to determine what do you need in terms of promotional material and messaging to your constituents? What do you need for resources to support minor-hockey associations and coaches? ” Carson explains. “We’ve been engaged in the process for almost five years now in terms of rewriting the plan for Initiation- and Novice-level hockey. We’re really excited to be where we are today. If you look at the Initiation and Novice material that’s been available to coaches for well over 30 years, it has always recommended small-area games — cross-ice hockey, half-ice hockey — it’s always been a recommendation. A number of countries across the world even took that material and said, ‘Good, that’s what we’re going to do.’”

Remember, Carson is talking about hockey for little people aged 5-8 — the majority of them beginners. The need to hot-house them, to coach them to play to win, isn’t as acute at this level as it is to put them out there to participate and explore their budding creativity in an activity that is brand-new to most of them.

Once they acquire a level of enjoyment, and skill, through their introduction to hockey on smaller ice, they can take that forward as they progress. They’ll advance to more-competitive, full-ice hockey soon enough. (They grow up very quickly,) 

“Now, we’ve got to look at ‘How do we keep kids in the game in Atom, Peewee and Bantam if all the pressure was put on them early on to excel at the game?’” Carson surmises. “Right now, we just want them to have fun. We want them to enjoy developing the basic skills of the game, and we want them to have success as they continue their engagement in hockey through what we hope is going to be a life-long membership with Hockey Canada.”

HOCKEY CANADA INITIATION PROGRAM
Core to the Initiation Program
— The Initiation Program is a progressive, learn-to-play teaching curriculum. Children learn through participating in practice drills and informal modified games.
— The program consists of four phases of instruction, designed for any entry-level hockey player, which introduce the skills of skating, passing, puck control and shooting in a progressive, one-step-at-a-time manner.

Initiation Program Objectives
— A comprehensive program for the development of young children as hockey players.
— The focus is on skill development and fun without the pressures of winning.
— It aims to create participants and instructors who will continue in the game.
— The motto is Fun, Fitness and Fair Play.

HOCKEY CANADA NOVICE PROGRAM
Novice Program Philosophy
— Hockey Canada developed the program to ensure that a child’s early experiences with hockey are delivered in a safe and positive experience.
— The program enables participants to become contributing members of a team effort, develop self-confidence and experience a sense of personal achievement.

Novice Hockey Goals
— To have fun while playing hockey and engaging in physical activity.
— To learn the fundamental skills required to play the game of hockey.
— To develop and refine basic motor patterns.
— To be introduced to the concepts of co-operation and fair play.

ONTARIO MINOR HOCKEY ASSOCIATION

Count the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) as a significant and successful participant in the move to the smaller ice surface.

With 90,000 kids aged 5-20 playing organized hockey in 28 leagues spread across 223 local associations under what is claimed to be the world’s largest regional minor-hockey umbrella, the OMHA provides a cavernous petri dish in which to conduct this latest hockey experiment for entry-level kids. Of the association’s player total, 29,462 players participated at the Initiation (5-6 years old), Tyke (7 years old) and Novice (8 years old) levels in 2017-18. 

Initiation-aged players (5-6) taking up the sport for the first time played on the shrunken ice surface (divided into thirds with players skating cross-ice last season.)

“Overall, it went off. It was well received,” OMHA executive-director Ian Taylor says. “A lot of associations were already playing games on modified ice. It wasn’t like starting from scratch.

“The reality is kids just want to play. If the kids are engaged, they are going to have fun,” Taylor explains. “The second part of that is the kids are going to come back. I know that second part wasn’t always on the radar before, kids automatically played hockey, right? It’s not a for sure anymore. There are a lot of options out there for people. So, engagement is huge in terms of enjoying it and in terms of continuing to play.”

In an established program like the OMHA — which began in 1935 and has turned out game-changing players such as Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr — change doesn’t always come easily, particularly for some of the adults, at least.

“Change is always a challenge, especially when it comes to the sport of hockey and your history in the game and all that good stuff that comes with being Canadian,” Taylor offers. “But change is always a challenge.”

However, with challenges come rewards. If rekindling interest in grassroots hockey and retaining entry-level kids are the goals, recent Ontario enrolment numbers reveal a telling story. An Aug. 13 press release from OMHA media-relations official Joe Roma indicates an immediate and demonstrable spike in Initiation hockey participation. In the inaugural season of cross-ice Initiation hockey for kids aged 5-6, in 2017-18, there was a 35 per cent jump in registration over the 2016-17 season in Ontario.

“At the end of the day, everyone says this is the right thing to do,” Taylor says of shrinking the rink for the little people. “Kids sit at smaller desks and chairs in school, they ride smaller bikes. Other sports are doing this. It's a no-brainer that way. But we're a little more prepared now on how to deliver it and what that experience looks like."

OMHA BY THE NUMBERS
— Novice-and-below programming accounts for 32 per cent of total registration annually
—  30,000 players were registered in programs Novice and below last season
— The OMHA accounts for 20 per cent of Hockey Canada’s total membership
— Currently, the OMHA administers 28 leagues and 223 local minor hockey associations across Ontario

HOCKEY ALBERTA 

With Alberta completing its first season of shrunken ice at the Initiation (5-6) level, the official introduction of Novice half-ice games isn’t due until the 2019-20 season.

But that isn’t keeping the provincial association from allowing its community partners to get the jump on the new Novice model.

"We're encouraging associations to move forward with a transitional plan for the 18-19 season for their Novice age group (7-8),” says Justin Fesyk, Manager of Hockey Development for Hockey Alberta. “We've outlined a program for them, and those that are wishing and willing to go ahead in a transitional year are encouraged and supported to move forward in implementing half-ice and cross-ice at the 7-8 age groups for the 18-19 season.”

With the Initiation transition set, and Novice now in a flex year, Alberta’s regional hockey centres have the freedom to devise the best way to get the Novice plan rolling, ahead of total implementation in 2019-20. Some associations may put all their Novice kids on to half ice, others may decide to put first-year Novices on half ice, while second-year Novice players who’ve already been playing on full ice continue to play on the full rink.

It’s a process.

"What we've created in Alberta is an Intro-To-Hockey model. It's your first four years of hockey,” Fesyk says. “We're working towards that for 2019-20. It's our Hockey Alberta Intro-To-Hockey model. It's really looking at the developmental components and scaling down process for age-appropriate programming for all the way from 5 to 8 year olds.”

Fesyk was in the room with hockey officials from across the country as Hockey Canada enlisted the support from all regions to assist with the design and implementation of the small ice-surface model for entry-level kids. He admits he was skeptical at first of the proposal to mandate smaller ice surfaces for entry-level little people. Then he saw it in action.

"There were some things that I wasn't a 100 per cent believer in, until I saw it. You can see it on paper, you can have your own personal beliefs, and those are based on your own experiences, right?” Fesyk says.

"When you walk into a rink, what emotions do you have as a fan, parent or player when it’s a 5-on-5, full-ice game?  And then you walk into the arena and the emotions you have when you walk into two half-ice games, 4-on-4. You can feel the energy, the excitement — the emotion. Everyone's involvement, the passion. You get a completely different feeling. We're really suggesting parents come in with an open mind and actually witness what’s going on on the ice and then talk to their child after, and I think they'll be surprised as to how excited the kids are to be actually playing the game.”

As a hockey dad, Fesyk expects to get a full report from his little players, who are jumping right into the middle of the shrunken-ice transition.

"I'm lucky. My kids are coming into second-year Initiation, so I'm seeing it first-hand,” he says. “Dealing with the struggles of getting them motivated to go to the rink — when my one kid doesn't touch the puck for a whole game — all those types of things.You deal with that emotionally, mentally, as a parent. As administrators of the game, sometimes we forget about the mental capacity of kids, and where they're at, and their emotions. We really need to ensure that we start to think at their level and do what's right, not do what we’ve always done.”

Remember, the emphasis is on participation, encouragement, fun — and learning how to play before learning how to play to win.

“It's 4 on 4. Everyone gets to experiment with goaltending. It's really making it age-appropriate, because the game is far too professionalized for 7 and 8 year olds,” Fesyk says of the entry-level model minor hockey is leaving behind. “It's far too serious already. We need to remember, kids need to be kids. They have the rest of their hockey careers to basically get to the Midget Triple A model. We don't need them playing it at ages 7 and 8.”

ABOUT HOCKEY ALBERTA
Vision: Hockey For Life.
Mission: To create positive opportunities and experiences FOR ALL PLAYERS through innovative leadership and exceptional service.
2016-17 enrollment
— Novice Boys, 9,735
— Novice Girls, 1,445
— Initiation Boys, 9,286
— Initiation Girls, 1,747

B.C. HOCKEY

Entering Year 3 of shrunken-ice hockey for youngsters, B.C. is ahead of the pack in implementing Hockey Canada’s program. They’ve taken notes and assembled a dossier on the transition so far, and are pleased with the results.

“Our biggest learnings have been two-fold,” says B.C. Hockey CEO Barry Petrachenko. “The benefits that our experts and research told us that would be a part of this seem to be correct — seem to be there. We have seen anecdotally that parents, coaches and administrators all feel and understand now this many years in that this is the way to go — that this is the way we should be teaching hockey.

“So we’re very happy with that, obviously.”

The second takeaway for B.C. Hockey and its member associations is that change is a challenge, both for the administrators introducing the change and the constituents asked to embrace it. Taking something as established as entry-level minor hockey and retooling it, significantly as some insist, can be a daunting endeavour. There will be differing points of view, even dissent in some cases, along with acceptance. 

“The people who felt that this system was taking something away from their players were the biggest opponents,” Petrachenko says. “That’s the biggest thing. If you look at it from the standpopint of something being taken away, they take the attitude that this is better for the bad players, the less-skilled players. It’s not better for the best players.

“We would argue actually the best players benefit as much if not more than anyone else because the skills they develop are different.”

It all gets back to the age group. We’re talking about kids aged 5-8 playing hockey on a smaller ice surface. Is it more about getting them into the game, or about them being Jamie Drysdale from the first time they hit the ice? There will always be higher-skills kids right from the drop of the puck. And they will still be those high-skills kids once they graduate from Novice to Atom, Peewee and beyond. 

Remember — parents, players and coaches are still going to the same arenas serving up the same post-game hot chocolate in the same neighbourhoods as before. It’s just that the playing surfaces in those arenas have been reduced to account for the size and skill of entry-level kids aged 5-8.

“What we’re finding with the kids is the enjoyment is up there,” Petrachenko says. “I think back to a story from the Yukon actually that I heard in our first year. The Yukon at the time had five teams in the Novice age group. The way they did it, because of their ice allocation, four teams would play against each other and one team would have a full-ice game every other weekend, or however the schedule worked out. When they had the full-ice game, the players didn’t look forward to it.They actually didn’t like it because they knew the one or two best players would dominate that game and they wouldn’t get to touch the puck as much. They wouldn’t have as much fun. I think back to that one as one that stands out. 

“Generally, we feel that the enjoyment level across the board has gone up.”

When young children enjoy doing something, they usually want to come back and do it again. If Hockey Canada’s goal with the move to shrink the rink was to increase participation by, and retention of, young hockey players, the early returns from its provincial member associations all point to success.

B.C. HOCKEY BY THE NUMBERS
— Approximately 130 Minor Hockey Associations plus Junior and Senior teams
— 60,000 players
— 4,500 referees
— 10,000 coaches
— 20,000 official volunteers

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By Brendan Nagle| August 31, 2018
Categories:  Minor Hockey

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