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Cross-Ice Hockey: Not Just For 8U Programs Anymore

By Stephen Kerr, 12/18/19, 8:45AM MST


USA Hockey has begun introducing the beneficial tenets of small-area hockey to 10U levels

Young players on a full sheet of ice face a steep learning curve as they struggle to cover extra space, recover errant passes and ultimately spend most of their ice time away from the puck. USA Hockey’s American Development Model principles have spent the past 10 years focusing on developing 8U players using cross-ice practices and games. A decade later, some USA Hockey districts and programs are so impressed with results that they’re developing cross-ice concepts at 10U in order to better transition athletes to a full sheet of ice for the first time.

“I think 8U players playing cross-ice is like having them do 50-yard sprints,” explained Kenny Rausch, USA Hockey’s director of youth hockey. “Now, at 10U, we’re asking them to run a 5K. That’s a pretty big stretch.”

To make this transition smoother, select districts and programs have moved toward introducing cross-ice games at the 10U level, a trend that has been popular in Finland, Sweden and other countries for some time. In a 2013 study by Dr. Tomas Peric of Charles University in Prague, 84 players ages nine and 10 were tested using cross-ice and full-ice scenarios of 5-on-5, 4-on-4, and 3-on-3. Dr. Peric found substantial evidence that playing 5-on-5 full-ice was least helpful in a hockey player’s development at that age level.

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A handful of USA Hockey programs have adopted the practice of 10U cross-ice, including the Alaska State Hockey Association. Clubs across the state are asked to play a minimum of six cross-ice games at 10U. If a program wishes to hold jamborees and other similar events, the ASHA provides grants to clubs interested in promoting the concept.

“We’re currently in the second year of doing this,” said ASHA Vice President of Player Development Wayne Sawchuk. “We can get more kids on the ice. Looking at the science behind it, with puck touches, change of possession, and better decision-making, we felt it was going to be better for the development of the game.”

One of Sawchuk’s first tasks was educating coaches and parents on the concept so that they could fully understand and appreciate it. During a weekend tour last season, he and Rausch, who is also the ADM manager for the Alaska region, watched a 10U full-ice game, then had the same two teams play a cross-ice game the next day.

“It was a 3- or 4-to-1 difference, with passes, shots on goal,” Sawchuk recalled. “The more parents watch a half-ice game, the more they can see the increase in intensity, and it’s faster than watching a full-ice game.”

In Seattle, the SnoKings Amateur Hockey Association began implementing cross-ice games in its 10U recreation program four years ago. The concept was then mandated by the Pacific Northwest Amateur Hockey Association the following year. Players in 8U who participated in cross-ice were introduced to half-ice at 10U and transitioned to full-ice at the 12U level.

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“When you go to our state festival and watch 4-on-4 hockey at 10U, it’s like watching a real hockey game,” SnoKings Hockey Director Doug Kirton said. “You’re seeing kids in small areas make plays, getting used to having less time and space, one-time rebound shots. It’s almost like watching a mini pro game.”

Rausch believes the shorter space of cross-ice games teaches players the importance of skill development and keen on-ice intelligence, which is especially important if they wish to play hockey at the highest level.

“It forces them to make constant decisions and handle the puck in traffic,” he explained. “You watch the way the modern game is played … the game is not a 200-foot game anymore. Everything is literally a small-area game. If I’m watching an NHL game right now, I see 11 grown men in a sixth of the ice. If you can’t make plays in tight areas as a 10-year-old, you’re not going to be able to make plays in tight areas as an 18-year-old.”

While USA Hockey is committed to creating successful programs, development of each individual player is also a high priority. So how does a coach go about transitioning from full-ice to cross-ice at the 10U level and still compete?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Sawchuk said. “Obviously, we want to develop the best players. At the end of the day, whoever has the most talent is probably going to win the game most of the time. Coaches may think, ‘If I don’t win at the 10U level, I might not get hired back at 12U.’ [But] winning at all costs before skill level will come back to haunt you.”

Other programs in several states have adopted cross-ice games, including Missouri, Oregon and Montana. Kirton has a simple but convincing message to other programs who may be considering the practice for its 10U players.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “You do it, the kids like it, they’re used to it. If it’s making them better players, it will prove itself in the test of time.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.