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Fun, fast practices keep attention of young players

by Adam Kimelman
Kids don't have the longest of attention spans, something to which any parent will unhappily testify. That short attention span even affects sports, which requires a fair amount of focus.

As a result, the challenge youth coaches face is designing practices that not only teach the proper skills but keep the interest of the kids for the entire session. Whether the coach is a kid's parent or a Stanley Cup champion, the challenge remains the same.

Former New Jersey Devils center Jim Dowd coaches his two sons, ages 10 and 7, in the central New Jersey area. Not even his NHL pedigree -- 16 seasons and the honor of being the first New Jersey native to have his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup -- is a lock for keeping the attention of young hockey players.

"I'm always pumping them up, making it fun for them," Dowd told "It's a tough balance (but) that's your job -- keep it fun and make them come back, but keep the hard work."

Bob Nielsen, a long-time coach for youth and high school-age hockey teams in the Philadelphia suburbs and owner of the coaching website, said quick drills and constant movement is the key.

"Keep them busy," Nielsen told "When they play with their friends, they're not standing there looking at the shot they're about to take, they're moving and stickhandling. The big thing is to keep them busy, don't let them stand around."

Dowd said he does that by quickly jumping from one drill to the next, and since the 42-year-old still has his skating legs, he demonstrates the drills himself rather than draw them out.

"My theory is, you usually only have an hour of ice and an hour goes quick," he said. "I never go to the (dry-erase) board. Just skating drills -- skating, passing, shooting, just do drills. … Ninety-nine percent of youth hockey, you have an hour of ice. If you go to the board 5-6 times, you could waste 10 minutes."
Keith Primeau, who captained the Philadelphia Flyers to the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals during his 15 NHL seasons and now coaches two youth teams and a high school team in southern New Jersey, said he avoids the board at all costs, as well.

"I don't use the dry-erase board ever," Primeau told "They're in front of a chalkboard all day at school. I want to challenge them verbally instead of visually."
"My philosophy from the first day I walked into the rink was I want the kids to say I can't wait to come back." -- Keith Primeau
Dowd said one of the keys for him is keeping things as simple as possible. Not because he works with young children, but because he believes coaches at all levels sometimes can make the game harder than it needs to be.

"If I hear the word system … that's my least favorite word," Dowd said. "That should never be used in youth hockey. Just go out and play the game. Teach them different positions. It should be all skills that you work on and competing. Drills where you're competing -- throw the puck in the corner, battles."

Dowd said he also ends every practice with a game to reinforce the skills they've been working on.

He also said he makes sure to spend as much time with his less-talented players as he does his top kids.

"Work with your least-talented kid as much as you do your most-talented kid," Dowd said. "The most important thing is to get everyone thinking they're important. Just keep reinforcing how good they can be. … Include everybody and you make everybody feel like they're as important as the best player on the team. Give them extra attention."

And make sure they're having fun while learning.

"My philosophy from the first day I walked into the rink," Primeau said, "was I want the kids to say I can't wait to come back."

Contact Adam Kimelman at

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