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Game Shape

By Patrick Johnston on November 22, 2013
Practice is widely recognized as more important for development than games, but when you really get down to it, does practice make perfect?

Practice makes perfect, right?

That’s the old adage and it’s mostly right. But we are also standing on a precipice, one that most experts warn is a result of too much ice time, player burn-out and, inversely, diminished top-end skill levels.

Going back more than a decade, the practice-to-game ratio has been a hot topic of conversation in the Canadian game. In the good old days, the inclination in organized hockey was towards games rather than practice. It was a reflection of how young players organized their lives, with the stereotypical Canadian player spending their free time on the ice, working independently on their skills. 

But in the late 1980s, this trend began to change. Organized teams had provided an outlet for the competitive spirit, but by the 1990s they were moving towards becoming fully-functional, seemingly round-the-clock operations. Skills and power-skating coaches were starting to farm their services out to associations and teams on a case-by-case basis. 

Today, teams from top to bottom have specialist coaches on their staff. Young players are better trained than ever before. Hockey Canada’s much-lauded Open Ice Summit in 1999 is pointed to as a turning point, where it came to light that the Canadian system needed some work. 

If ever there was a stark statement about the state of the Canadian game, the 1999 NHL Entry Draft first round was it. Only nine of the 28 Canadian picks were drafted that year.  It seemed as though Canadians had lost track of how to play a skillful game at the top end. There were still plenty of Canadians playing in the NHL, but they weren’t populating the league’s first lines.

After the Open Ice Summit, a commitment was made by Hockey Canada to increase practice time for minor hockey players. Time spent on frozen ponds – like Wayne Gretzky and other stars of yore had done – was a rarity. How could kids find time to take a spin on their own, when they were being rushed all over the place to play game after game after game?

“We were getting to the point where in a lot of areas, kids were playing way more games than practices,” says Hockey Canada’s Senior Manager of Coach and Player Development, Corey McNabb. “You really need two or three practices for every game if you want to see improvement. That was the biggest outcome of Open Ice.”

“What the studies have shown is that the best years to acquire skills are from ages eight to 12,” says McNabb.

But now the time has come to reassess how seasons are structured, McNabb says. Hockey Canada believes in an emphasis on practices early in the year, with fewer games, balanced by more games towards the end of the season. Later starts for regular seasons and shorter playoffs is what Hockey Canada would like to see, he says. 

“We’ve put together seasonal guidelines for each age group,” he says. “The push has to come from the provincial or league level. Often coaches don’t have a choice, they’re just handed a schedule.”

“When you speak to junior coaches, they talk about why a kid doesn’t make a team – it all comes down on the skill side, not whether they can play a system,” he says. “Playing other sports makes you are a more rounded, better-skilled athlete.”

The practice-heavy philosophy is something Burnaby Winter Club Bantam AAA head coach John Batchelor strongly believes in.

“It’s more touches on the puck,” Batchelor says. “I’m a big believer in practices over games. You get to play with the puck all practice long. I’ve always, always felt that. Some teams will play 10, 12 exhibition games. I’ll play two. I just don’t believe in it.”

Practices are better than games. Ok, clear. Most elite players are practicing at least as much as they are playing. But is it all adding up to too much time on the ice? One major midget coach thinks so. 

Jimmy Ghuman, an assistant with the Fraser Valley Thuinderbirds, a member-team of the B.C. Major Midget Hockey League, says too many kids are specializing too early.

“It used to be only elite AAA players playing spring hockey, everyone else played baseball or soccer or roller hockey in the off-season,” he said. “Now, many parents think that to give their kids a chance, their kids need to be playing 11 and a half months a year.”

“It’s too much ice time as a whole; kids are going to burn out. Some times they are on-ice six times a week, between games and practices.”

Both McNabb and Ghuman assert that more players should consider dropping their skates in the summer months and taking up sports like lacrosse, soccer or rugby that promote competitiveness while still pushing a player’s fitness, coordination and general physical ability.

“Soccer improves your foot work and keeps you competitive,” Ghuman suggests.

Marty Savoy, Commissioner of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, says that his league has a requirement of two practices to every game, although they recommend three.

“We went through a huge contraction, from 37 teams to 22”, he said. 

Our quality was suffering and we did assessments on all the teams and found that players weren’t spending enough time on development. Off-ices training is considered a practice as well.”

McNabb also points to medical worries. There are plenty of stories in North America, covering all youth sports, of kids facing surgeries the likes of which used to be reserved for adult athletes.

“There’s overuse issues,” he says. “Kids are seeing groin injuries in hockey. Or 14- and 15-year-olds having Tommy John surgery because they’re pitching in baseball too much.”

And while junior coaches may be impressed by the skills that young players bring with them, they too are sounding warning bells.

“You have a better player coming in [to junior hockey] than you did ten, fifteen years ago,” cautions Vancouver Giants head coach Don Hay. “But I don’t know if you are getting a better athlete.”

Hay worries that because players aren’t seeing enough other sports, they don’t know how to deal well with failure.

“It’s not just about the skill, it’s about the competitiveness of the game, of the will,” he said. If players were dealing with sports that challenged them with unfamiliar skills, they’d be better off, he feels.

“It’s about success and failure, they have to deal with adversity.”

It’s not just about restructred seasons; it’s about viewing other sports as equivalent experiences. The most successful hockey players are those who’ve learned to be successful athletes, first and foremost. The challenge of becoming good through adversity – and sometimes failure – is a net positive.

“Parents may say their kids love [playing hockey all year] but the fall back is that you lower the skill ceiling when you are playing only one sport,” McNabb said. “That’s like saying ‘my kid only wants to read.’ In school, we wouldn’t let them do that, we still get them to learn science and math, because that shapes them in other ways.”

“Hockey Canada is encouraging kids to play other sports, because the fact is, being off the ice leads to improvement in other areas.”

So, push for change in your team’s schedule and get your players doing other things. They’ll be better for it.

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By Patrick Johnston| November 22, 2013
Categories:  Minor Hockey
Keywords:  Exclusive Content

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