Mite Hockey: Half-Ice or Full-Ice?

MiteHockey1

If you’re involved in youth hockey right now the ADM needs no introduction. But if you’re just beginning your hockey journey as a parent or coach, ADM stands for American Development Model and is USA Hockey’s “nationwide model for successfully developing American hockey players.” While the ADM is great, and for the first time ever provided associations nationwide with a blueprint for player development, at the Mite hockey level (8 & under) there is much debate about the mandate to play half-ice games.

This article isn’t meant to be a nuts and bolts breakdown of the ADM, but if you’re interested, more information can be found in this one-page PDF (ADM Q&A) or on the ADM Kids website. The purpose of this piece is to share with you what my experience has been as a Mite hockey father and coach, specifically in regard to the size of the playing surface.

It makes sense, I get it. Little kids playing on the same size surface as adults is not what’s best for their development or their relationship with the sport. Most major sports are preaching some degree of this at their youth levels and tennis does a great job advocating for their game to be “sized right for age and ability” with their Ten and Under Tennis program. I agree with the concept and truly believe there is value to these formats, and after being exposed to both half-ice and full-ice Mite hockey for the past 3 years, I can honestly say that I think the best thing for the development of most our Mites is having them play in more half-ice games. The problem becomes, what’s the right balance with full-ice games? USA Hockey states in article VIII of their 2015-16 Annual Guide:

(1) The age appropriate standard playing surface at 8 & Under is cross-ice or half-ice. (2) Effective for the 2013-14 playing season, but subject to limited exceptions as are approved by the USA Hockey Player Development Committee, all games and scrimmages at the 8U age level shall be played either cross-ice or half-ice, or on a surface that is equal to or less than the dimensions of cross-ice or half-ice. Each Affiliate shall enact applicable rules and regulations to address the governance, implementation and transition for this rule to become effective within the Affiliate on or before September 1, 2013. To the extent an Affiliate desires to seek exceptions for a limited number of full ice games or scrimmages for its teams at the 8U level, the Affiliate shall submit a plan by January 31 each year detailing such request to the USA Hockey Player Development Committee.

In our case the Affiliate is Massachusetts Hockey. What’s Mass Hockey think about all this? Well, they agree, but also take USA Hockey up on their offer of allowing limited exceptions to the mandate. In Article VI Section 3 for Mite Games in their 2015-16 Annual Guide they state:

The following is the only exemption to age-appropriate hockey and only applies to age 7 and 8 year old players: 1. No more than 8 “full‐ice” games and one tournament [traditional weekend tournament with no more than five (5) games] will be allowed for any member team (after December 25, 2015). This and any future exemptions are granted by USA Hockey on a yearly basis, therefore the exemption is subject to change annually.

As you can see, this exception says no full-ice games for any kid under 7, and for the older Mites, they cap their exposure to 8 full-ice games plus one tournament. For the younger Mites, I couldn’t agree more. My son’s hockey ability today at age 8 is night and day compared to his ability at when he was 6. At 6 his jersey was hanging down to his knees, his head was constantly down and focused on his skates or the puck, and he’d fall to the ice simply because another kid got close to him, let alone made contact. We often share ice time at practice with the 5 and 6-year-old Mites and I see much of the same with them and don’t think a single one would get anything developmentally out of a full-ice game. So, that part of the rule I get 100%.

After that is where I start to have questions. Is the current exception requested by Mass Hockey the right balance for older Mites? Should the talent level of a particular team also come into play when considering this? Is there actually a downside to half-ice games when the age and talent levels of a particular team are at the upper thresholds? 

My son currently plays on a Mite team that participates in a league not sanctioned by USA Hockey and has played full-ice games all year long. His team is very talented and most of the kids are returning Mite 1s who had a very successful season last year playing in one of the top divisions in our region. The rest of the team is made up of the remaining top Mites in our organization, every single one of them 8 years old.

I was told that full-ice Mite games are typically dominated by 1-2 elite players who carry the puck end to end and all other players are left puck starved. I was told that the ice surface was too large for such small bodies and the kids wouldn’t have the stamina for it. I was told the kids would constantly be out of position because they weren’t ready for the strategic part of the game that comes into play on a full sheet of ice.

My experience? Yes, 1-2 elite players carry the puck end to end and leave the other players puck starved … maybe a handful of times per game at most. Those plays often end up in a turnover and we always use the opportunity to point out to the kids what could have been done differently. Even if the result is a goal, we do the same. It’s a team sport and we are constantly reminding them of that, and if anything, these situations give us the opportunity to drive the point home. The ice isn’t too large for these 8-year-olds and they are chomping at the bit for more hockey 24/7. Rare is the time when I call for a line change that the kids coming off the ice don’t complain that they just got on. Rare is the time that towards the end of a game the kids aren’t conscious of whether or not this will be their last shift and push to be put out there one more time. Too young for strategy? No way, these kids eat it up and thrive on it. Our wings know to stay high and wide, the centers know to follow the puck and help out down low when defending our zone, all forwards work together on face-offs, and our defensive pairs play as partners and effectively man the blue line when we’re in the opponent’s zone. We rotate the kids between all positions and give them the opportunity to experience the game from all different aspects.

Most importantly, with every passing game we see an improvement in them playing together as a team and recognizing that this is the key to successful hockey.

I often get the chance to watch the Mite 2 team play in their half-ice games and now feel that I have the proper perspective to compare and contrast against our Mite 1 full-ice games. Our Mite 2 team is also very talented and consists of mainly 7 and 8-year-olds, so I think the analysis across the two teams is appropriate.

For starters, I do notice more puck touches and body contact when watching these half-ice games, but can’t say for sure this is beneficial to their development. The outcome of these games is often something in the realm of 25-17 as shots get taken from anywhere and everywhere. Is that a good thing? Sure there are less instances of those 1-2 elite kids being puck hogs, but it can’t be said that there isn’t any of that. At this age kids want to score for themselves more so than scoring for the team. If talented kid gets the puck on their stick they are going for the glory, even on the smaller sheets of ice. I would also argue that these half-ice kids are probably more burnt out stamina wise than the full-ice kids because the shifts are longer. In half-ice they change lines every 90 seconds at the sound of a buzzer vs. full-ice where changes happen on the fly and/or whenever there is a whistle. Speaking of whistles, there are very few in half-ice because there isn’t offsides or icing or even a whistle when the goalie covers the puck. If the puck goes in the net or the goalie covers, the ref simply throws a new puck into the corner and away we go. It’s basically go, go, go for 90 seconds and then change. So if we’re worried about little bodies being able to handle the workload, I’d honestly have to question if the current half-ice format addresses that.

Lastly is positioning. Half-ice has very little in the way of positioning and at best you have a couple of kids who stay further back than the others when playing defense. When we played half-ice last year we would have the wings get wide along the boards when breaking the puck out of our zone and they mastered this with ease. But if anything, the half-ice sheet almost encourages “magnet puck” where you basically have all kids together in a herd following the puck around the ice. Our 7 and 8-year-olds are ready for positioning and a degree of situational strategy and the half-ice format does not lend itself to this. It even can be argued that it’s something of a setback for the older Mites. Small area games in practice work perfectly for getting our kids the appropriate amount of puck touches and body contact to further their development, but come game time, I think the small area concept can actually stunt the older Mites’ sense of the game.

I love what USA Hockey is trying to accomplish with the ADM and I understand the design of their approach at the Mite level with regards to playing half-ice and cross-ice games. I’m glad they give their affiliates the ability to seek exceptions for a limited number of full-ice games, but I think exceptions should also be considered for playing full-ice games all year if the affiliate has just cause. Especially in a situation where you have a lot of returning, older Mites who played in full-ice games the year before with success. I have a hard time thinking that returning to half-ice for 2/3s of the season is a good thing for such a group of kids.

Each team is different and one size does not fit all. I believe my son’s team was ready for a full-ice season and nothing has changed my mind as we approach the end of our schedule. This group of 8-year-olds is thriving at full-ice. They have the stamina, they understand the degree of positioning and strategy we have introduced to them, they are comfortable with body contact and experiencing it often, and they are all touching the puck with frequency.

They are a hockey team with hockey sense and every single one of them is a better hockey player today because of this experience.

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