It’s one of the first things a coach has to figure out how to handle with his or her own team.
Do I create special units? When do I really start working on it in practice?
When asked about the age at which coaches should start teaching special teams play to their kids, USA Hockey’s Michigan District coach-in-chief Jack Witt says that no coach should even consider it at the 8U level.
“The whole purpose of cross-ice hockey is to get the kids into a small space,” Witt said. “They’re going to learn things that they’ll eventually need, right? But focusing on any kind of special teams at that age is just ridiculous. Kids at that age are just learning to play the game. We shouldn’t be teaching them any kind of systems like a power play or a penalty kill at that young of an age. All that time should be spent teaching and refining the fundamental skills instead. And frankly, I would say the same thing for 10U. I really resist teaching any kind of system to kids younger than about 14.”
Equal Ice Time and Opportunity
Witt believes it’s wasteful to creating specialized power-play or penalty-kill units before bantams. Equal ice-time and opportunity for all players is highly recommended.
“Defining units and putting kids on a power play or a penalty kill at that age seems a little silly because that means some are going to get more ice time and more experience and others are not,” added Witt.
At the younger age groups – 8U through 12U – Witt wants to see coaches letting players figure out how to handle special teams on their own, with only some basic instruction, and let every player experience plenty of situations.
“My personal philosophy is to give every kid a chance to play in those situations, because that’s how they learn and how they get better,” Witt said. “It’s probably not going to run real well with some coaches, but I really don’t care.”
Special Teams Skills Hidden in Small-Area Games
To work on special teams in practice – no matter the age – utilize small-area games. By controlling the situation, you can force players into power-play or penalty-kill learning opportunities, without the players even realizing it.
“You don’t get better unless you play in those situations,” Witt said. “Honestly, that’s one of the reasons why small-area games are so good, because they give kids a way to play those odd-man situations, constructively, with a coach right there talking about what he might do and what the alternatives might be.
“Maybe instead of a hard-around, you want to do an escape kind of move. You want to hold the puck and possess the puck instead of giving it away. You want to always talk to them about why it’s important to out-number the opponent at the puck if you’re trying to get it back while you’re forechecking against a shorthanded team.”
At Older Levels, Still Be Inclusive
Once we get to 14U and beyond, a coach needs to start accelerating his special teams construction.
“I’m looking at hockey as a late specialization sport, but truly our competition model that is imposed on us forces us to put kids in those situations, so by the time you’re a bantam coach and you have to win some games to move on to your national championship or your states or whatever, you probably have to define some special teams, specialty units,” said Witt.
It’s perfectly acceptable for higher-level teams – late-age bantams, midgets and high school teams – to start putting players in certain roles, but to be mindful of certain situations and matchups where other kids can be shuffled in and out.
“If you’re going to do it, you should still try to get all the kids involved,” added Witt. “Who’s on special teams for one week may not be who is on special teams for the next week. You can factor in who your opponent is. Maybe your top two defensemen will be your PK specialists while you’re up against a higher-tier opponent, but you can vary who is on your PK unit when you’re playing against an opponent of equal or lesser ability. That gives them all the chance to play the role and you can do the same thing for power plays.”