Unstructured Ice Time

The vast majority of information on this site is geared toward the structured practice and implementation of hockey player development.  For all the time we spend trying to “teach” the game to kids, we also need to understand the importance of allowing players to figure things out on their own.

Outdoor Hockey NetWhen you look at the areas in North America producing the most professional (NHL) hockey players, you’ll find they all have one thing in common.  At the top of the list: Canada, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Illinois, Wisconsin.  So what’s the common element?  All of these areas have climates which support outdoor rinks.  So what does that have to do with the number of professional skaters produced?  I believe the ability to find unstructured ice time plays an essential role in player development.  When players can lace up the skates and not have to worry about a coach yelling at them for mistakes, they get the freedom to try new things.  Instead of being in the pressure-filled game setting where everyone is coached to understand games “matter”, they’re allowed to make mistakes without any repercussions.  What’s the worst that happens if a move doesn’t work on the outdoor rink?  You grab the puck out of your net and try again.  Trial and error – what a great learning tool!

Outdoor rinks also give players the opportunity to work in small areas.  With the rise in popularity/awareness of the benefits of small area games, it’s no wonder these outdoor sheets provide such a great learning platform.  Very rarely will you see someone shovel off a 200′ x 85′ area to play some pond hockey.  More often than not, the area is no more than 100′ x 40′ – which is approximately 1/4 the square footage of a regular rink (4,000 sq. ft vs. 17,000 sq. ft).  This forces players to make quicker decisions and learn to handle the puck in tight quarters.  Think of the direct correlations here – the prime areas of the ice don’t allow players much time and/or space: slot area, corners, at the blue lines.  If you can constantly put yourself in situations which resemble those of a game, you will improve come game time.

Finally, I believe it’s the unstructured ice time which allows players to truly cultivate a love for the game.  If you’re reading this article, I assume you’ve already found a passion for the sport.  Put yourself in the skates of a young player – you get to go out and play with your friends, have nobody telling you what to do, have nobody yelling at you for making a mistake or not getting the puck deep, and enjoy the best sport in the world.  Life is good!

Kids will learn so much on their own when given the opportunity – everything from puck control and passing to conflict resolution skills when there’s a disagreement.  Be sure to give players an opportunity to have unstructured ice time – even at the expense of part of your $300/hr practice time – believe me, it will be well worth it.


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3 Replies to “Unstructured Ice Time”

  1. Kevin,

    I completely agree! I’m a head coach of a competitive team of 10 yr olds and i strongly urge parents to let their kids go to the neighbourhood rink and play. No coaches, no parent comments, just play and have fun. It makes a difference when they get on the ice with their team and start doing things you haven’t seen them do before! Thanks for the article.

  2. I had a great experience a couple of years ago on a local community outdoor rink. My son and a couple of friends were 9 or 10 at the time (house league players), they were out on the rink with myself and another dad, two or three 13/14 yr olds who didn’t play competitive hockey and a couple that did.

    The older kids would dazzle around each other but slow it down for the 10 year olds, sometimes making a move to get around them and other times letting the kids make the play to “beat” the better players.

    no way they were letting us old guys get the puck though!

    But the kids just played and had fun.

    On the competitive side I can see the parents worrying about having an unstructured practice thinking that you’re wasting time. But you read about Bobby Orr (and others) and realize they played unstructured river/pond hockey to great benefit.

    Let the coaches coach though, they’ll know what they’re players get out of the practice, good and bad.

    Took my first coach stream course on Saturday, one of the thing emphasized was that 99% of the time coaches interact with their players in a game is when they make a mistake.

    Kevin as you said in one of your posts on tryouts, don’t be afraid to make a mistake, get back up and keep going.
    Same thing with unstructured practice, let the kids try new things and not worry what the coach (or team mates) have to say about it when it doesn’t work out.

  3. I remember my first time on the ice, at the neighbourhood rink, across the street from our house. I was 4. My first season was played on an outdoor rink. I can still hear it in my head, the familar sound of a frozen puck hitting the metal tubing of the net ”TINK”.

    I spent many nights on that ice. Many nights barely able to walk home on frozen feet. Those where the days……

    I’ve been coaching hockey for 4 years now and got to know alot of players especially those that live in my municipality and their skill is proportional to the distance they live from the rink. I try and get my son to the rink as often as possible and we just play if the opportunity is there. If we’re alone we practice shots or whatever he wants. Rinks are essential to player developpment and I think Hockey Canada and Hockey USA should start looking at programs to either keep rinks open and open new ones. Yes we have the climate in Canada to support rinks but the municipalities and towns are cutting back so our rinks are diappearing. We need those rinks to develop future stars.

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