Long lines can really kill a mood. Whether you’re at the coffee shop or the airport or stuck in traffic, time spent dawdling in line is annoying for everyone. Hockey practice is no different.
Practices that have a majority of the drills consisting of long lines actually limit skill building, and ultimately, diminish interest level in the sport. According to Paul Pearl, associate head coach of the Harvard University men’s hockey team, long lines can be detrimental to the overall development of a young hockey player.
This is especially true at 8U, where one of the main goals is to foster a passion and love for the sport.
“The easiest way to get a hockey player to not want to play hockey is by making him stand in line in the corner of the ice watching hockey,” said Pearl.
Pearl knows a thing or two about running practice sessions and guiding hockey teams through the grind of a long season. In his 20 years as the head coach at Holy Cross, Pearl won 297 games, two Atlantic Hockey Association Championships, and two Atlantic Hockey Association Coach of the Year awards.
As an experienced coach, Pearl believes that one of the best techniques to ditch long lines and beat boredom in practice is by separating the players into small groups in different sections of the ice and implementing station-based drills. Pearl started using station-based drills 25 years ago and continues to use them today.
“Using stations means less standing around,” said Pearl. “There is no question that it keeps guys fresh.”
Pearl offers the following advice on station-based practices:
Take the Time to Teach
“Sometimes you need to slow practice down,” said Pearl. “By breaking into stations, coaches get the opportunity to teach the specific skill that you want the players to learn.”
Stations allow the coaching staff the time to break the lesson into components, or core elements. In that way, coaches have the opportunity to take a big lesson or concept and make it more easily digestible, while also individualizing the teaching for small groups of players.
For example, 8U players can get a fun and easy introduction to body contact by performing a small-area game called “Bull in the Ring.” To play, the players turn their sticks over. One player skates in a faceoff circle with a ringette ring and the checker tries to steal it. This game teaches skating skills, strength on the puck and body positioning, while gently introducing them to the bigger picture of body contact.
Efficient Use of the Ice
Pearl likes to divide the ice in thirds to maximize both the practice time and ice sheet.
“We do three stations, seven minutes each, and seven players at each station,” said Pearl.
A typical practice can feature battle drills at one end of the ice, a small-area game in the middle of the ice that runs from penalty boxes to benches, and a shooting drill at the other end of the ice.
Stations allow for more engagement, puck touches and skill instruction – all of which leads to more quality development.
More Production in Less Time
Drills that consist of long lines reduce the number of reps for every player, which decreases skill development because, ultimately, repetition is the key to development.
And stations aren’t just for youth hockey players, either. NHL teams use station-based drills to increase production.
Dan Bylsma routinely uses small-area games in his NHL practices.
“I think you can accomplish a lot in small-area games and station-based practices in terms of skill development,” said Bylsma, who coached the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2009. “There are certain foundation drills that are important, but you can get a lot more touches and repetitions on the puck in the small areas and station-based practices.”
Fewer players mean more touches and this helps increase both skill and confidence, two important keys in overall development.
Increase the Level of Coaching
With end-to-end rushes, players can sometimes get lost in the buzzing and weaving. So, when players are divided into small groups, coaches can get a more accurate look at the player’s skills and areas where improvement is needed.
“With stations, there is a coach at each station, watching. Then there is one monitoring and watching everything,” said Pearl. “Kids are playing more hockey than ever before. As they get better and move up through the levels, the instruction level should rise with them. Coaches need to meet the rise and stations allow that.”
Keep it Fresh
Pearl believes in trying to find a good balance between full-length and station-based drills.
“There’s no one way to run practice. There’s time when you have the players zipping around the ice,” said Pearl. “But there are times when you have to cut the play down to have less standing around.”
Station-based drills are a great way to inject instant activity into practice. This is especially helpful in keeping young players engaged because it means less time to stand in line, lose focus and/or become disruptive. Attacking, defending, and shooting drills in small areas will increase energy levels when pace-of-play and attention spans start to wane.
And most of all, the kids will have fun and love coming to every practice.