If you are a fan of old-time NHL hockey, you may have gone down a YouTube wormhole or two the last several months binge-watching hockey highlights. It hardly looks like today’s game. Grainy videos of guys wheeling around without helmets, goalie gear is half the size, sticks made of some material called wood, but probably the biggest difference is the speed of which players motor around the ice. In today’s version, everyone can skate like the wind.
“For me, skating is the name of the game,” said Cosmo Clarke, USA Hockey’s Rocky Mountain District Coach-In-Chief.
For our younger players trying to build up confidence on their blades, learning how to skate is paramount to their overall experience with the game.
“If they can’t stand up and keep their balance, be able to turn or stop, they’re going to struggle,” said Clarke. “That’s going to make the game a lot more difficult for them to fall in love with.”
However in the modern game, with the modern athlete, how can coaches deliver skating instruction today?
Incorporating skating into a practice plan shouldn’t be boring – especially for the younger players. The idea of lining kids up on the goal line and working on their edges for the length of the ice should become a relic, like Cooperalls or the glow puck.
Roger Grillo, ADM regional manager for USA Hockey, said that coaches need to deliver practice plans that keep players engaged.
“Can skating be delivered in a fun, entertaining, decision-making package?” Grillo asked. “Not taking skating and breaking it down for our younger athletes in a combine-style format. We don’t want to have the mentality that we have to do this monotonous, un-fun stuff before we can have fun in practice.”
Keeping younger players engaged can be as challenging as herding cats.
“They get zoned out pretty quickly so you have to incorporate those skating mechanics into fun games and activities, so that they are not necessarily thinking about it but automatically getting confidence in doing it,” Clarke said.
Grillo said that adding the element of decision-making will also elevate players overall ability and joy for the game. Playing a simple game of tag and adding different components will make players think on their feet. An example is setting up in the neutral zone where one-half blue line to red line players can only skate backwards and the other half they have to slalom. In this game, they gain at least three skills: backwards skating, pivoting and all four edges. Plus, it’s a lot more fun than skating in a straight line down the ice.
As players progress and become more serious about the game, coaches can get more technical and fine-tune more advanced skills, but coaches should still have a plan to implement whatever technique is introduced.
“Doesn’t make sense to introduce crossovers and then have a straight-ahead relay race,” Clarke said. “Add some cones where they have to jump over or spin around or whatever the skating skill you introduced.”
For age-appropriate drills, games and practice plans, download USA Hockey’s Mobile Coach app, powered by Marriott Bonvoy.
If the objective is to develop good hockey players who have a passion for the game, then there should be five elements in every practice plan: fun, game-like, constant decision making, challenging and touches.
Small-area games deliver all five of those elements and coaches can get players to work on specialized parts of skating without players even knowing.
“If we’re doing stops and starts we might play small-area games – 3-on-3 in the corner where I don’t give them a lot of area to giddy up and go. It’s three or four strides,” Clarke said.
You can also add rules to any small-area game. If coaches want to work on C-cuts, instruct the players that they can only use their inside edges and C-cuts in the game.
Small-area games help turn skating into purpose.
“There’s a purpose for a change of direction, there’s a purpose for a stop, pivot or crossover, to get to open ice, win possession of the puck or a scoring opportunity,” Grillo added. “There’s a purpose to what you’re doing and it’s based on a decision, it’s based on spatial awareness and a read by the player.”
Download the full manual of USA Hockey Small-Area Games.
Players can improve their skating off the ice, too. To be a truly great skater, it’s important to be a well-rounded athlete.
“Building agility, balance and coordination is at the base of transferring over onto the ice,” Grillo said.
Coaches are encouraged to organize dryland before or after practice and USA Hockey has age-specific training materials to help them come up with fun activities that build the ABCs.
As players get a bit older and more serious, there are also inexpensive tools they can make with the help of a parent that will help them develop on the ice.
“One big thing that we’re missing that people can do at home and get creative is a simple thing like a slide board to work on stride mechanics and building up the leg strength,” Clarke said. “You don’t always have to go out and purchase one, you can make your own.”
For players in warm-weather states like Texas, there’s also a longer season to get on their roller blades.
“It got a little bit of a knock because there’s a lot of gliding involved,” Clarke said. “But anything kids can do to feel that single blade underneath them is definitely something they can do to get better at skating while having fun.”