I used to dislike doing Small Area Games in practice. I think it mostly stemmed from not enjoying them as a player, which in turn was manifest in not being very good at them. I wasn’t the type of player that excelled at playing in close, protecting the puck and out-muscling my opponents (or teammates). I was more of a flow drill kind of guy, craved open ice and enjoyed going full speed.
About six years ago, I had my mind changed drastically about Small Area Games. I had offered to take a few of my son’s 10 year old friends over to our rink to hang out on the ice during “little gaffers” ice time. There were six of them and no one else showed up – they had the rink to themselves. I got everyone’s skates tied and helmets snapped on in the dressing room and off they went. I looked out from the warm room to make sure they we all OK before I got out there with my skates and the boys had already moved one net down to the other end and set up for a little three on three cross ice game. Before I had gotten my skates out of my bag they were into a full blow game without any adult help at all. It brought me back to our days on the street playing ball hockey and I thought it might be best just to sit and watch instead of going out there with my adult influence – intended or not.
But here’s the kicker. My son was a decent hockey player at the BB level and I had been coaching his teams for a few years. The remarkable thing about the next hour of three on three “play” was that he improved more in that hour than he was improving in a month of practices with me and the team. His skating, stick-handling, passing, shooting – everything was better. It was unbelievable.
So, as a coach I am thinking, “How do I bring this to my regular practices?” It was simple – play more Small Area Games.
My biggest obstacle? Parents watching from the stands. It doesn’t look good to have the whole team down one end for 10 or 15 minutes and not using all of the ice. As coaches too, we feel that if we are given a full sheet of ice we should be using the whole thing not just from the blue line in.
So here is my solution, I call one of the other coaches in the association and rent an hour of ice together to save costs. I bill the practice as the Small Area Games practice. I take one end, the other team takes the other end, and we have an extra, very constructive practice. The other solution, and with some creative Zamboni time, I try to overlap practices with Small Area Games. In other words, if I have ice from 7 to 8pm and another coach has ice from 8 to 9pm then we do three segments: 7 to 7:40pm, 7:40 to 8:20pm and 8:20 to 9pm. The middle segment becomes the split Small Area Game time where both teams are on the ice in their own end. Everyone gets an extra 20 minutes of ice AND gets 40 minutes of Small Area Game time in. (If you are the team coming on in the back half of practice this is a great way to get your team warmed up as well.)
There are so many resources out there for Small Area Games. Here are links to two of them that I use frequently:
My favorite Small Area Games are those that don’t take a lot of thought, are fun and do their best to mimic game situations. For example, one of my all-time favourites I call McGill 2v2. We set the nets on the faceoff dots in one end facing each other. The hook is that a player has to change with his same coloured teammate if he gets a shot on net. So, this gives the other pair a chance for a quick 2 on 1 going the other way while the shooting player is changing. Often this can become a series of quick transition 2 on 1’s, back and forth, at high speed, and lots of changes to keep players active.
Finally, I encourage you to watch this four minute USA Hockey video NHL Analytics Tracking of 8U Hockey Players. It’s a fascinating look at the power of playing in smaller areas – particularly in younger age groups.
If you want to improve the skill level of your players at any age and level, incorporate Small area Games into your practices regularly.