From their first few moments on the ice, young hockey players tend to adopt a pretty simple strategy: find the puck, get the puck, shoot the puck. But when is the right time to introduce youth players to a more nuanced approach to the game?
Depending on their age and skill level, players can be taught the basic points of breakouts, zone play and special teams. And learning these systems can potentially increase both their appreciation and aptitude for the game.
"There are a lot of differences in opinion here. The coaches in travel hockey want to use systems. Whereas coaches and parents in house hockey just want the kids to have fun," says Dick Bertrand, a former head coach at Cornell and Ferris State who most recently served as the director of hockey for the East Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey Association. "You need a less formal way of using systems. Put them all in position and just walk them through different breakouts. Practice it until they get it and then move on from there. Really, that's what the game is all about."
While youth house league teams might not necessarily have the time or experience needed to employ diagramed hockey systems, traveling teams at the peewee [12 years old and younger], bantam [14 and younger] and midget [16 and younger] are generally considered ready for a more strategic take on the game. The key, especially with younger players, is to keep things simple.
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The simplest and most efficient introduction to systems for a youth team is the breakout. They are generally uncomplicated and provide a sizeable advantage to a team in a game. By devising a few simple strategies to transition the puck from the defensive zone on through the neutral and offensive zones, teams can have a real plan of attack that requires players to work together. No matter how simple they might be, breakouts won't work well without coaches preaching the basics of hockey.
"Keep it as simple as possible. Never lose sight that you have to keep doing skating and stickhandling and shooting drills," Bertrand said. "Kids must learn that there is logic and order in offensively breaking the puck out of their defensive zone, getting it through the neutral zone, setting up offensively in the offensive zone, and if they lose the puck to the other team, backchecking and picking up assignments."
After focusing on basic hockey skills, players can become more familiar with the zones and lanes on the ice. Before long, you'll have a working transition game. Diagrams can prove essential in familiarizing young players with these systems. And as players get older and more skilled, they can eventually learn the finer points of special-teams play and other more advanced systems.
What's important is for coaches and parents to properly gauge whether or not their players are capable of grasping the nuances of formal and informal play systems. If players aren't ready yet, then it's best not to aggressively teach systems. If they are ready, then slow and steady is usually the perfect pace. But once they're ready to adapt this diagramed approach to the game, it could prove to be a turning point in the development of young hockey players.
"Personally, I think it's really important. In order for a kid to get a real feel for the game, they have to be exposed to system play," Bertrand said. "They'll really benefit from it and they'll appreciate the game more."