Directors and coaches of the Howard County Youth Hockey Club are literally turning things sideways, starting this month.
In years past, the club typically had its beginners use the entire rink during coaching and teaching sessions. Games and drills slowed for obvious reasons, and children did not touch the puck as frequently or learn as much as possible from the experiences.
But with encouragement and a grant from USA Hockey, the sport's governing body in this country, the club and many others like it nationwide are making some big changes in how they teach little players. They are downsizing the game, as baseball, basketball, football and soccer did years ago for beginners.
Switching to what is called the "Cross Ice 3-on-3" format for teaching and working with children ages 8 and younger, the Howard County club will have scrimmages with six players (instead of the regulation 12) on the ice at once. They will also play from side to side rather than end to end.
The club is using the new methodology with the help of USA Hockey, which gave the club several thousand dollars' worth of equipment - pucks, smaller goals, temporary rink dividers - to set everything up for Cross Ice, as well as a presentation on the new format.
Players, who will be grouped according to skill levels, will use equipment that is easier to work with. And while the playing area is almost as wide as that of a normal rink, the distance between goals is much shorter.
"In full ice, kids won't touch the puck as much," said Bud Michels, the club's second vice president and leader of the Cross Ice program. "The trick is to really [entice] the kids to learn hockey, to touch the puck, to `feel' the positions. It's easier to do it 3-on-3."
About 40 children will go to Columbia Ice Rink every Friday night for scrimmages using the new format. The rink will be divided into thirds in which three games or scrimmages can take place simultaneously. Two-minute shifts, which ensure equal playing time, will be used. With two-minute shifts, children play longer and get used to touching and controlling the puck.
Michels said players would use pucks that are smaller and lighter. The club also will use smaller nets and make goalies optional.
The program is concerned mainly with teaching fundamentals in a better way. A Monday-night skills clinic also will be available. "The trick is handling, passing [the puck] and skating," Michels said. "Those three things will help the kids protect the puck eventually. This also will teach them to pass, and with only six players on the ice [instead of the normal 10 skaters and two goalies] and one or two coaches for each of the drills to teach these kids, really, hands-on, this will give better one-on-one instruction."
The club has tried the format informally and has been considering making the change for a while, Michels said. Thinking the national body might be mandating the change, club leaders decided to commit early.
Michels said the club received some negative feedback from parents who felt that they might not be getting their money's worth if their children would be using just one-third of the ice in games and scrimmages. But directors unanimously voted for the project.
"They're having fun and learning something at the same time ... a great combination," said Chuck Shaw, a Cross Ice coach with a 6-year-old son in the program and a supportive wife.
"I like it because the kids are not just chasing the puck," said Shaw's wife, Jodi. "They're in a more concentrated area, and they're playing more and getting more done."
Michels said he hopes more children and parents have the same feeling. He is trying to talk to other hockey groups in the area about getting together with Howard's Cross Ice program to promote using it in other places. Some clubs use it in different ways.
Michels thinks this is a very simple change that will change how children learn hockey.
"It's too hard to chase the puck from end to end when you're 6 years old," Michels said. "Part of the goal of this is to touch the puck. They'll have no choice but to touch the puck. They'll actually be challenged by the other team instead of everyone going into a corner to try and get the puck."