By Bobby Acri – With the cold weather approaching us, the ponds will hopefully begin to freeze and the opportunity for unstructured play will be in full swing. When 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. All 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 getting on 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 thing 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 around 1/3 the size of a rink. 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. 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 this winter to help them develop their skills and most importantly, have fun!