If you ever watch Zach Parise or Phil Kessel carry the puck, it’s amazing to see how much space they’re able to find for themselves against NHL competition. But as much as the NHL’s top playmakers have the ability to make the ice surface look exceedingly spacious, an NHL rink is still only 200-by-85.
Because of the increasingly condensed nature of the game, many NHL coaches work with their players on small-area games in practice. If players can learn to win the tiny battles by playing small-area games, they’ll be well on their way to winning the not-so-tiny battles.
Ron Wilson is one of those coaches. His resume boasts 648 wins behind an NHL bench, ranking eighth all-time. Wilson is currently coaching the 2016 United States National Junior Team. He recently spoke to USA Hockey about how small-area games are not only a valuable tool for his current team, but how they can be especially beneficial for youth hockey coaches.
USA Hockey: You’ve long been considered a proponent of small-area games. How do you define them?
Ron Wilson: It’s any situation where you compete in a small area. That’s very important at the highest level and the lowest. It’s necessary in learning to create 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s down low.
USA Hockey: Why do you think small-area games are so beneficial for youth hockey players?
Wilson: I think kids should be playing them so they’re not lost out on the full-sized ice. You get used to playing those small-area games, so you’re used to the concept of 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s. If they’re playing on big ice, there’s just too much area to cover. You’ve got to get used to playing those games, where you cut it down to the basics of hockey and play in a small area. 2-on-2s and 3-on-3s are what they should be working on.
USA Hockey: Are there any specific small-area games that you think youth hockey coaches should be using with their players?
Wilson: I think you have to get them used to playing 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 hockey down low, close to the net. Teach them to compete in those small areas around the net and be the guy who’s good in front of the net.
USA Hockey: How much have you used small-area games as an NHL coach?
Wilson: You use them a lot. You break it right down to the guys who have got to get better at creating 2-on-1s. That’s something you work on with your (NHL) team in practice and see how your team gets. With youth hockey, it’s a good way to improve in a hurry.
USA Hockey: At what point in your hockey career did you start noticing the value of small-area games?
Wilson: I knew about them right away because I played in Europe (in the Swiss-A league). I got a lot of European coaching along the way. We used to play two-pass – where there must be two passes before a shot is taken – all the time. We’d move the two nets down to the one end and you played in just the one zone. That’s where we were learning and competing.
USA Hockey: Small-area games are becoming increasingly popular and are a key part of the ADM. Why weren’t they as universally popular in the past?
Wilson: I suppose there were some coaches that don’t understand the value of them, if they weren’t educated on them. But any time you see teams competing in small areas, that’s what the game is all about. If you see a team getting beat in 2-on-2s and 3-on-3s down low, that’s basically where games are won and lost.
For more small-area game tips and ideas click here.