Growing pains for cross-ice hockey implementation in Highlands

Everyone agrees on the intended goals of cross-ice hockey: to help beginners learn to appreciate and play the game. However there is some debate around how to implement the new approach outlined and enforced by the Ontario Minor Hockey Association and Hockey Canada who it applies to and when.

This past year the Highland Storm Minor Hockey Association implemented cross-ice hockey which is when children use part of the rink the width or half the ice from the boards to centre ice.

Scott Neilson the coach of the tyke AE team worked with the new format and said he agrees with the concept for children up to six years old who are starting out in hockey.

“They can learn a little more skill instead of full ice [when] a kid is just skating from one end to another and scoring goals right? That’s a huge difference when you’re at a real young age but if they’re a six-year-old that’s a stronger hockey player or a seven-year-old I’m a firm believer [in] playing real hockey full-ice hockey learning the game” he said. “This year we played half-ice hockey.

Well the kids you know we’re trying to get them to line-up but we had no face-offs to line up [with]. They don’t know offsides. They don’t know icing. There’s really no refs. There’s no face-offs. It’s glorified shinny.”

Neilson disagreed with the way it was implemented this past season. Mainly with how some players had already started with full ice and had to learn again working with the smaller space. He thinks it would have been better if they started with the players who had little to no experience with full ice.

He felt his six-year-old son Henry was held back and lost a year of hockey because of Hockey Canada’s decision. Henry had already played full-ice hockey at five and then had to play half-ice.

Prior to the decision for cross-ice hockey his son made the cut for the tyke A rep team but was not of age to play full ice according to the new rule. Neilson didn’t have an explanation when his distraught son asked how this could happen.

Added to the complication was how players like Henry would be at a disadvantage in competitive play. Specifically his select team based out of Quinte will be competing against players from the Greater Toronto Hockey League who were exempt from cross-ice hockey.

“Eighty per cent of those kids haven’t played full ice so they’re going to go down to Toronto … and play kids that have played full ice for two years. I know they’re young but you’re already a step behind” he said.

He acknowledges the necessity to scale down an Olympic size rink for children but when it comes to Haliburton and Minden rinks the playing area is smaller. He said children will learn to skate better with space instead of being crowded into a small area. The best way for half-ice was three-on-three. This often changed according to the venue and the host though so when it was five-on-five it didn’t work.

In smaller centres he reme mbers there were some teams they played that were not capable (many could not skate) and were easily dominated to the tune of 25-0. There was also a financial cost to implement this program which required rink dividers covered by the generosity of Haliburton’s Matt Duchene an NHL centre with the Ottawa Senators. The 16 blocks required to segregate the rink cost close to $2500 each. The association needed to buy two sets of eight one for the A.J. LaRue Arena and one for the S.G. Nesbitt Memorial Arena.

Hockey Canada made a major decision to allow players like Henry to play full ice with other players – moving up one year. Neilson expects with this change there will be enough players for a novice house league team.

One of Neilson’s players Neil Mihlik (soon to turn eight) played his second season of ice hockey splitting between goal and playing out for the Storm’s tyke AE travel team.

Neil’s mother Lisa Barry said she and her husband appreciated the half-ice hockey for how it allowed her son to be able to stay with the play this season and get to handle the puck more.

“I think part of the reason he got interested in playing out as they call it was because he could get to the puck” she said.

During her son’s first season he played full ice. The difference in the players’ development was noticeable to her.

“All of the kids that were strong hockey players controlled the puck because they could get across the ice” she said referring to their stronger skating. “I was kind of skeptical when we started this whole half-ice thing. As I got watching it … I was ‘Wow all of the kids have more of an opportunity on technically the ‘full ice’ because you know they’re only playing half of it.”

Her skepticism she said came from uncertainty about how the game was going to be contained to the half ice since in the beginning there weren’t any dividers. Also the score was not kept (even if the kids kept track) she said.

“I noticed huge huge huge advancements in all the team. I don’t know if that would have happened on a full ice” she said.

“Overall the kids get skating ability they get stick-handling and they get the concept of the game – off defence. Where before it was like who can get the fastest to the puck. They’re all just chasing the length of the ice. One of them wacks it to the end of the arena. I would say they’re touching the puck twice as much” she said.

She’s uncertain about how her son will do with next season when he has to play the full ice surface again.

“If I had my way I’d love for him to have one more year at half ice” she said.

Ontario Minor Hockey Association president Ian Taylor said associations for the most part have been accepting. However there will be a learning curve and an education for everyone particularly from parents who believe in playing “real hockey.”

“Overall the comment we often hear is real hockey and what does that mean? Change (this is Canada) is not always easy but I think overall we’re getting good traction here and I think across the country as well” he said.

Taylor added every young player can benefit from the smaller ice surface.

“The kids are smaller therefore the space they are playing in should also be scaled that way. The same way they ride smaller bikes or in school use smaller desks and chairs it’s appropriate to their size. So for the better player I suggest their challenge is operating without open space meaning the player who’s able to pull the puck out of the group and gets outside and is gone simply kids can’t catch them. That might work in the short term but it’s not going to be something to do in the long term. At some point they’re going to be dealing with smaller areas” he said.

Working in a smaller area can benefit the better-than-average player challenging them to skate with greater precision and improve the development of stick-handling.

The idea of this isn’t completely new. For close to 30 years players eight and under played initiation hockey which included practices with stations and games held in a smaller area.

Now Hockey Canada has applied this to include all players of a certain age to have this experience for consistency. The enforcement of cross-ice hockey started this past year for six-year-olds and the next season it will be half-ice for seven-year-olds.

During 2019-2020 the full mandate will be implemented to include novice hockey players to play half-ice until Jan. 15 with a transition to full-ice.

When asked about extending the scaled down ice for players older than novice Taylor said he’s heard a community in British Columbia has decided do it with players up to 10 years old. This concept has been used in Europe already he said citing Sweden and Finland.

There is enough work to do with the current changes but the implementation of this transition has led to discussion about what can be done differently for players at nine and 10.

The main feedback from associations was the acknowledgement of the players’ calibre when determining things.

“One thing we’ve recognized is we’ve got to group like players with like players. In bigger centres that might be easier to do. In smaller centres that might be more of a challenge so again that will be a situation whether associations do all their programming in-house or whether they might combine with some other centres and to ensure like-skill players are playing against like-skill players” he said.

Hockey Canada he said there will be a study performed in evaluating the results of the new concept across the country. The OMHA will also work with Hockey Canada. Information will be gathered from observation of games including video recordings to assess shots passes and puck touches. Taylor said research is still in early stages and he didn’t know the specifics of the information gathering.

Taylor said the effort to make changes improves the game.

“There’ll always be naysayers with anything but hopefully what we’ll see overall is … engagement is such an important thing. Kids are involved. They’re touching the puck. They’re having fun. They’re going to want to keep playing. That’s one of the real key factors with this program. Not only from the skill development side but purely from the engagement side and keeping kids coming back” he said.

Taylor said this programming is also about the vitality of the game.

“Our history would say you live in Canada you play hockey but there’s lot of options for kids and if they’re having fun and enjoying it and getting better well there is a better chance they’ll stick with it” he said.