Shaun Whistler poked a loose puck past the goaltender, raised his arms and grinned ear to ear.
It was Shaun’s first-ever goal in youth ice hockey – and the fact that it happened on an ice surface a third of the size of a regular rink didn’t dampen the 7-year-old’s celebration a bit.
The shrunken ice – a regular 200-foot by 85-foot rink at Northtowns Center in Amherst was divided into three smaller playing areas on a recent Sunday morning – may even have helped Shaun experience that first glorious score much sooner than if he had been playing on a full-ice surface.
“This is what they need,” said Brendan Whistler, who was cheering his son from behind the glass. “To me, I think this is the smartest thing they’ve done. From what I’ve seen, this is a very good model.”
But enthusiasm for shrunken-ice play is hardly universal in hockey-loving Western New York.
Some area coaches and parents say the cross-ice and half-ice games aren’t genuine hockey and take the fun and competition out of the sport.
“It’s more like a scrimmage, like pond hockey,” said Dave Borkowski, president of the Depew Saints. “The cross-ice games are games, but they’re not the same.”
USA Hockey, the governing body for amateur hockey in this country, has mandated the move to cross-ice games and half-ice games for kids 8 and under. Youth hockey was far behind the times in adjusting playing conditions to match the size and capabilities of younger players, it argued.
Little League baseball, for example, shortens the distance of the bases and has a pitcher’s mound that is 14½ feet closer to home plate than in the major leagues.
Younger kids play basketball on shorter hoops, and young tennis players now play with lower nets, smaller courts and bigger tennis balls.
Younger soccer teams now play with smaller soccer balls, and last May, England’s Football Association moved to introduce smaller fields and nets in youth soccer – a sea change in the way the country approaches its most popular sport.
Less travel hockey
USA Hockey’s changes were motivated in part by a large drop-off in hockey participation for American youth after age 8.
The organization spent years researching its American Development Model, which in addition to cross-ice games encourages less travel hockey and more involvement in other sports, instead of year-round hockey play.
“The whole premise is really to put forth what is the best experience for kids. And that’s talking about those kids who have elite potential and those who will play only at the rec level,” said Dave Fischer, spokesman for USA Hockey.
The ice debate has gotten so hot that some area teams split from their USA Hockey-affiliated leagues so they could play on a full rink.
“The kids absolutely love the full-ice games,” said Dean Schwenkbeck, an Eden parent who coaches the Frontier Outlaws, a travel team of 8-year-olds.
The Outlaws broke off from a Hamburg Hawks program that moved exclusively to cross-ice games. They’re now affiliated with the American Athletic Union, a separate athletics membership organization, and they play against several other area teams that prefer full-ice games.
Teams in Buffalo, Clarence, West Seneca, Rochester and Wheatfield also parted ways with USA Hockey over the cross-ice mandate.
At the same time, some local leagues have eagerly embraced scaled-down hockey.
Amherst Youth Hockey was able to overcome parental skepticism about the cross-ice model by investing in specially designed portable boards capable of dividing a full rink in half or in thirds.
The boards give the smaller ice surface the same look and feel as full ice.
“You’ve got to make it look like real hockey,” said Eric Guzdek, general manager of the Northtowns Center. “Parents want to see their kids play real hockey.”
The portable boards allowed six teams – about 70 players – to use the ice at one time at a recent round-robin format of three 30-minute games.
The play was fast and furious, with two goalies and eight skaters, rather than 10. Instead of faceoffs, referees simply tossed the puck into the corner of the rink.
No icing or offsides violations were called.
Hundreds of parents, grandparents and siblings filled the stands.
And while goals were plentiful, no scores were posted on the scoreboard.
“I’d rather watch full ice, but their legs aren’t strong enough to go,” said Courtney Ward, who was cheering on his 7-year-old son, Aidan.
Stress the fundamentals
As part of its new development model, USA Hockey is pushing coaches to emphasize the fundamentals of hockey – skating, stick handling, passing and shooting – rather than how to win games.
Ward said he likes what he sees in that regard.
“They’re learning the fundamentals of the game a lot more,” he said.
Borkowski said he’s also a fan of the small-ice, rotating hockey drills developed by USA Hockey.
“It’s really helping the kids become better players,” he said.
But he’s concerned the organization might be overemphasizing practice, and he’d like to see at least occasional full-ice games allowed again for kids 8 and under.
“When they’re just focusing on skill development, I think it takes the fun away,” he said.
Parents in Depew apparently feel similarly.
Full-ice games for 7- and 8-year-olds used to draw as many as 300 adult spectators; now a few dozen parents turn out for cross-ice play, said Borkowski.
In Amherst, coaches in cross-ice games try to match opposing lines based on skill level, making play fairer and more balanced. And because ice space is tighter, a single exceptional skater can’t simply skate the length of the ice on breakaways and score all the goals, as in sometimes common in full-ice games.
“Nobody gets better on a breakaway, except the kid with the puck, and there’s nine other kids on the ice,” said Tim DiGiulio, who is in charge of implementing the American Development Model in the Amherst league.
Proponents of cross-ice for the youngsters say it allows more players to touch the puck more often, thereby creating greater interest and fun.
Prior to his first goal, Shaun, who is in his first year of playing hockey, barely missed on two other opportunities to score within the span of a few minutes.
“The transition is always going on,” said his father, Brendan, who played youth hockey and now coaches. “If they were playing in a full rink, everyone would be in a corner, and the score would be 0-0 for a half hour.”
Still, other parents and coaches think that the emphasis on cross-ice play will end up hurting the development of players.
Schwenkbeck said the cross-ice play encourages mediocrity instead of requiring coaches to push kids to their potential.
“You should always challenge them,” he said.
Kids are fully capable of learning the nuances of the full-ice game, even as young as 7, he said.
“They’re sponges right now,” he said. “When they get older, it’s more difficult because they get set in their ways and they think they know it all.”
Seven- and 8-year-olds limited to cross-ice or half ice are “not playing at full speed. There’s less speed and intensity,” said Joe Huntley, who placed his daughter, Ella, with the Buffalo Regals so she could play full-ice hockey.
Cross-ice play might allow a player more frequent touches of the puck, but those touches are brief, and a cross-ice player ultimately spends far less time handling the puck than someone skating on full ice, Huntley maintained.
“The kids don’t spread out. It’s always bunched up,” he said.
But Fischer said cross-ice play will have nothing but a positive effect on the development of young players, including those who have above-average skills.
USA Hockey fully expected resistance to its new standards, especially since many of today’s coaches and hockey parents played hockey themselves as youngsters on full ice.
“They would say I turned out fine, so why do we need to change? Why do we need to be doing this?” said Fischer.
USA Hockey officials point to research by sports and child development experts indicating the changes, including cross-ice play, should fuel greater passion for the game in younger children and improve their likelihood of sticking with hockey.
“We want kids to have fun playing the sport,” said Fischer.