By Mark Lichtenfeld. Originally published at State of Hockey:
Western Regional Silver Sticks just left town and though the hockey was pretty much legitimate AA as advertised, OS was most surprised by the ignorance of basic USA Hockey rules displayed by several of the coaches. I mean, this is 16U and 18U AA, and at the very least, coaches should be expected to master some of the well-known playing regulations, no?
Rule misapprehension No. 1. Too Many Players on the Ice.
So the coach of a certain 16U team, replete with oversized USA Hockey National Championship patch donning the chest area of his jacket, gets all flustered when I called a too many players infraction on the opponent.
“What’s wrong?” I query.
“You waited 15 seconds to shut the play down,” he hollers.
“Yeah, that’s when the offending team gained possession,” I retort.
“That’s not the rule for a too many players penalty,” he insists. “You have to blow the whistle immediately.”
So let’s look at USA Hockey Rule 409.
Rule 409 | Calling of Penalties
(a) Should an infraction of the rules be committed by a player of the team in possession and control of the puck, the Referee shall immediately stop play and assess the penalty(s) to the offending player(s).
Now, it’s true that this rule refers to “player of the team,” but that is a problem with the rulebook verbiage. In fact, the rulebook that makes no exception to the team in possession rule when the infraction is too many players. Like any other “infraction of the rules” being assessed against a single team, play continues until the offending team obtains possession.
Rule ignorance No. 2. The simple USA Hockey Rule 409 scenario when a shorthanded team is being assessed a delayed penalty and the opponent scores a goal.
Rule 409(b). If the Referee signals an additional minor penalty(s) against a team that is already shorthanded (below the numerical strength of its opponent on the ice at the time of the goal) because of one or more minor or bench minor penalties, and a goal is scored by the non-offending team, the goal shall be allowed. The delayed penalty(s) shall be assessed and the first non-coincidental minor penalty already being served shall terminate automatically under Rule 402(c) (Minor Penalties).
OK, so try explaining this to a 16U AA coach who’s been plastered on the sofa watching too much idiot box and insists that the delayed penalty is waved off while the original offender stays in the box. So what if that’s the NHL rule? This is USA Hockey, right? And you’re supposed to be a AA coach competing in the Western Regional Silver Sticks. Watch out for this, you coaches, parents and impressionable players.
Rule insanity No. 3. Tell me, how does an 18U AA head coach not comprehend the USA Hockey high-sticking rule? You know, when a player plays the puck with a stick above the shoulder resulting in a stoppage and a faceoff in the offending team’s defensive end zone.
Let me repeat this one more time for you ignorant coaches. I say ignorant only because no one, coaches in particular, should ever call out a veteran official for an alleged rule error when that coach himself is ignorant of the very rule debated. In this case, the rule is the USA Hockey high-sticking Rule 621(c), and here is the applicable casebook scenario:
Situation 8: A player high sticks the puck which deflects to an opponent. The opponent makes no attempt to play the puck, hoping to get a faceoff in the offending team’s Defending Zone when the puck is first played by a member of the offending team. What should the Referee do?
The Referee should stop play and the ensuing faceoff shall take place at an end faceoff spot in the Defending Zone of the offending team. Rule Reference 621(c).
The non-offending team has no obligation to play the puck in this instance, because of the high stick infraction committed by the opposing team.
Got that, Mr. 18U AA coach? I stopped play because the opposing team wasn’t interested in playing the puck since they understood the rule.
In sum, and this is for you younger players in particular, as you proceed through college and life in general, never engage in debate with an opponent unless you are absolutely certain of your facts AND you are positively convinced your opponent is ignorant of his or her respective facts.
Because as the aforementioned scenarios illustrate, certain coaches have lost credibility with their young players, and credibility lost is immensely difficult to retrieve.
As an up-and-coming coach, Dan Muse occupies an interesting space. At age 36, he’s already in his second season as a Nashville Predators assistant coach, but he also has enough recent experience at lower levels, including high school and college, that he can offer a unique perspective on player development.
As such, we tapped Muse’s expertise for some tips this month aimed at 14U and 16U players. Here are some of the key takeaways from our conversation.
Hockey sense is key
Muse says a key separator for top players as they approach higher levels of hockey is their sense and feel for the game.
“I’ve coached from a lot of different vantage points. In college, where I was in 16U rinks and unfortunately even 14U for recruiting, I was looking to see players who have good habits and understand the game – have game sense,” Muse said. “I think that’s something that’s developed over time.”
That means learning how to support the puck by moving into areas where you can be useful to a teammate in trouble while playing with speed and awareness, among other things.
“For younger players, the systems should be secondary. The first thing you should be looking to do every day is developing a skill set, habits and game sense,” Muse added. “It’s on coaches to put players in an environment to develop general concepts and developing habits. Those are going to be parts of your game that transfer from level to level, team to team, regardless of system.”
Those environments include small-area games and high-pressure situations with limited time and space, along with encouraging unstructured pickup hockey whenever possible.
Build habits and instincts
As players get bigger and faster, the amount of time a player has to make decisions decreases. By building good habits early, that transition is smoother. But it takes work, Muse says.
“The game is so fast that you have to do it instinctually. You can’t stop and press pause. You have to work on those habits,” he said. “That’s where I really like what USA Hockey is doing. They’re doing an amazing job with small-area games, creating an environment where they’re going to play in tight areas with a purpose in mind. That purpose, when there’s a plan for it, players have to think and react, and as a result, they’re building those habits and instincts that are going to become natural over time.
“For long-term success, you need to be in an environment to build habits that translate. Learning how to read and react and support pucks, defensively learning how to use the stick and close out space. USA Hockey has done a really good job of helping promote teaching those things,” Muse said. “We’re developing our players to get better in this league or take on new roles and play longer. For the younger levels, it’s different. What’s the priority? It should be to make each player better while growing within a team structure.”
Faster, faster, faster
If you think hockey is fast at 14U or 16U, just wait.
“The game is so fast. Plays happen so quickly. So for young players coming up, if you want to be working toward your full potential – and everyone wants to play at their highest level – it’s pushing yourself to play at that speed. I don’t see it slowing down, it’s only getting faster,” Muse said.
That might mean creating short-term discomfort by pushing yourself to try new things when it would be easier to rely on old habits to dominate.
“If you’re 14U, 16U, every practice you have a choice,” Muse said. “For some, maybe it comes easier. But if they want to play at a higher level, they need to push themselves now to be mastering things as fast as they can. If you don’t, and you get to those levels, you’re going to be a step behind.”
Success takes work
Muse has seen up close what goes into the daily preparation for an NHL player and can also reflect on how much work it took for players to get to that level.
“They make it look easy, but their habits and attention to detail are so strong that they’ve gotten to the point that it’s instinctive. That takes a long time and a lot of work, and that goes back to working those parts of their game at a young age,” he said. “You have a lot of players who were blessed with natural talent, but it was hard work for all these guys to get to this point. You see it in the daily habits, how they take care of themselves and their practice habits.”
In my long-ago youth, I had a bright red T-shirt from a skating skills clinic. The message on it in huge white block letters was not subtle, but so memorable that I still remember it:
Stick down, head up.
I doubt they still manufacture that same shirt, but a generation later, it’s still a valuable message according to Ken Martel, the technical director for USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
When teaching 8U players basic puck control skills, the message starts there and moves forward.
Eyes up is the goal
The reasons for teaching kids to get comfortable controlling the puck while looking up are as varied as they are relatively obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy skill to master.
“Kids need to become comfortable handling the puck with their head up. They don’t have to do anything fancy. They don’t have to do a backhand toe drag,” Martel said. “But if they can carry the puck and be aware of their surroundings, then they’re well on their way.”
Those who fail are doomed to repeat their mistakes at higher levels.
“Being able to handle the puck with their eyes up should be a primary goal for kids,” Martel said. “Because you can’t play the game if you can’t see anyone else and can’t avoid opponents. By the time you get to 14U and enter a body-checking environment, if you still haven’t learned this, you’re going to have some issues.”
Drills and skills
Instead of always using cones as obstacles when teaching players to handle the puck, Martel recommends skating and puck control drills that naturally force a player to survey his or her surroundings.
“It’s as simple as putting kids in a group, and everyone stickhandles in a tight space to avoid each other,” he said. “Maybe it’s the trucks and trailers game, where I have to follow you everywhere you go, but there are other people I have to watch out for. And keep-away, where there is another opponent. Things that involve time with the puck on their stick, in an open environment, where there are moving things that they have to avoid."
The key as a coach is to incentivize players to actually do what we want as the end goal within the drills and games that we design.
“Coaches will say, ‘I told them,’ but then they set up drills that encourage players to handle the puck with their heads down,” explained Martel. “That doesn’t work. You have to find a way to make them do what it is you want versus telling them. If the environment you create isn’t incentivizing them, maybe the environment needs to change.”
But while “stick down, head up” sounds simple, we shouldn’t confuse a basic concept with oversimplifying a task. In fact, Martel advocates pushing 8U players out of their comfort zones to create more decisions for players, not less.
“When we oversimplify things, there is less representativeness to the real game,” Martel said. “Keep in mind that, if a kid isn’t using the right technique, you can then show them direction in the course of the activity. Teach them. But for those who don’t need direction, and instead just need reps, let them go. Everybody is active and everyone is getting reps.”
Duluth is located in arguably the most hockey-loving part (northern) of the most hockey-loving state (Minnesota) in the country. So when the city on the shores of Lake Superior underwent a major youth hockey shift earlier this decade, people noticed.
The change? In its youth hockey system, Duluth eliminated its traveling “A” team at the 10U level and kept all 10U players in-house at the “B” level.
The reasoning? Kids were being divided into upper- and lower-tiered too early, and it was impacting retention in a negative way. Since the change? Numbers are up and – perhaps just as importantly – some order has been restored.
What does that mean? Roger Grillo, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, says Duluth has shown the rest of the country a model that – even if it isn’t followed directly – provides a blueprint for development at 10U.
“I think it’s fantastic. It’s certainly courageous,” Grillo said of Duluth’s decision. “That horse left the barn years ago, and to put it back in is not so easy. It takes strong leadership and conviction. I give them a ton of credit for doing it.”
Emphasize development and fun
The thing Grillo likes most about Duluth’s model is that it re-emphasizes some of the core edicts of the ADM, including skill development, creativity and fun at the 10U level.
That doesn’t mean every association should do away with the A-B model, but it does mean that within existing structures it is helpful to remember the core values that should be taught at that level.
“You still want a place where a kid who hasn’t been on the ice for four years already can join, be a part of it and still have a chance to get better. You can’t stick a kid in the deep end who has never been swimming before,” Grillo said. “For us in USA Hockey, it’s all about proper practice-to-game ratios, length of season, quality of practice, station-based practice and a focus on individual skill development rather than the scoreboard at a young age.”
The kids that need more seasoning will improve with better competition, and those ahead of the curve will benefit from more puck touches and confidence.
“At younger ages, it’s really important to focus on puck touches, repetitions, passion, confidence, having fun and building a base with a positive environment that encourages creativity and embraces failure. Let kids reach their full potential,” Grillo said. “If I’m looking with my development hat on, I want skaters to score a bunch of goals and own the puck, to make plays, to not just be on the outside looking in. And on the goaltending side, I want them seeing lots of shots and feeling engaged.”
Keeping kids together at 10U also keeps them from being mislabeled at a young age.
“In reality, with kids in an A-B structure, the As aren’t necessarily the best players – they’re the best skaters – currently,” Grillo said. “They’re on a big sheet of ice and can skate faster. That doesn’t mean they’re better.”
Once kids get placed in A or B, they tend to stay along that track – creating funnels that might not accurately reflect their true abilities as they mature. In some places, B players don’t get access to the club’s best coaches, a condition that impedes their development and becomes a vicious circle of sorts.
“To not segregate kids or label kids as strongest or weakest is fantastic, especially at that 10U age classification,” Grillo said. “Keeping them all together, with all the best coaches and development opportunities, does the greatest good for everyone.”
Cut down on travel
Another benefit of Duluth’s in-house model, Grillo says, is that it cuts down on travel. Duluth is about two hours north of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, home to dozens of associations.
“I have to imagine for people in Duluth the draw to go down south is a huge issue. But at a younger age, you don’t need to do that,” Grillo said. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to play against so-called better competition to get better. It’s true, but not necessarily at 10U. That doesn’t really kick in until 13 or 14.”
Develop happens on the rink, not on the road. Instead of spending hours every weekend in the car, kids should be on the ice – either playing within their own in-house associations or having unstructured ice time crucial to all aspects of development.
Create a culture
Not everyone can do what Duluth did, but the main takeaway is that the positive culture created by Duluth’s decision can be replicated within different associations regardless of size.
“The message to the parents and the adults is that there is no need for that (A-B) culture at that age,” Grillo said. “The reality is trying to maximize your culture and make it the best you possibly can for every player’s development. What might work in one region might not work exactly the same in another, but there are positive components of it and core principles that can work everywhere. We just want to create the best possible culture and development environment for kids. However that works for you in your area, make it work, and don’t be afraid to create positive change. What Duluth did is a great example of making hard decisions and creating positive change.”
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