THE NUMBERS GAME
USA hockey has come a long way in the past 10 to 15 years. They have developed many players, and the results show on the world stage at the World Junior Championship tournament. They have won 5 medals, including gold in 2021, the past 6 years, since 2016. Their success is a result of an effective youth player development model. They based this development model on a study done on puck possession more than 20 years ago. They found that having players play more games than practice is not enough to develop skills. The players do not get enough puck touches in game situations. Players need to practise skating, shooting, passing and stick handling/puck control – as much as possible to continue to improve. In other words, more skill practises and small area games are needed more full ice games. Please check this article out by Harry Thompson for USA Hockey.
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AS HOCKEY FANS AROUND THE GLOBE focused their attention on Salt Lake City and the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, Mark Tabrum and Kevin McLaughlin found themselves in the enviable position of having front row seats for what was arguably the greatest hockey tournament ever held in the United States.
“We definitely had the best seats in the house,” recalled Tabrum, the director of USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program. But rather than munching on snacks from the concession stand and cheering for the home team, they were meticulously following players around the ice, counting their shots on goal and charting the amount of time they had the puck on their sticks.
Their findings would later become the cornerstone of the most comprehensive puck possession study ever compiled that added statistical muscle to the belief that puck skills are learned in practice, not games. The data, along with a library of other materials about long-term athlete development, would help form the foundation for what later became known as the American Development Model.
“We used that data to emphasize the importance of practice and the importance of good quality practices that can really influence your skill development versus playing in a game,” said McLaughlin, the assistant executive director of hockey development at USA Hockey. “We had teams running around the country, playing 100 games and practicing 20 or 30 times a year, which is exactly backwards from the way it should be.”
Tabrum and McLaughlin were part of a team of observers that charted the action of all 31 men’s and 24 women’s games during the 17-day tournament where the U.S. teams skated off with a pair of silver medals.
Prior to each game, three players who were expected to be key performers for their teams were selected for the study. The observers would calculate the length of each player’s shift, how long they had the puck on their stick, how many passes they received and made and how many shots on goal they attempted. They also counted the number of un-timed touches—those when the puck hit their stick if only for a brief moment.
For example, Canada’s Joe Sakic, who dominated play in the gold-medal game, touched the puck for only 1 minute, 19 seconds. In that time he tallied two goals and two assists along with four shots in Canada’s 5-2 gold-medal victory.
On the women’s side, Cammi Granato slightly outdid her Canadian counterpart Hayley Wickenheiser, touching the puck for a little more than one minute (1:02.2 to 1:00.9) during their gold-medal outing.
One question that came up time and again was if the best players only touch the puck for one minute, what are other players doing? “When you factor in that we chose the players who handle the puck more than others on the ice, you could argue that the numbers we came up with were inflated compared to the average Olympic level player,” Tabrum said.
To follow up the Olympic study, USA Hockey volunteers brought their clipboards and stopwatches to the Youth Hockey Tier I National Championships in Colorado Springs, Colo. While the skill levels varied, the results were pretty much the same. Even the best players, the statistics showed, don’t handle the puck as much as one might think. “These studies validate what a lot of people have been advocating for a long time,” McLaughlin said.
“It proved you can accomplish a lot more in practice with the puck than in a game. It also showed that you get so few opportunities with the puck in the game that you have to be proficient when it does hit your stick.”
Parents and coaches can conduct their own puck possession studies for their own player or team by using the Activity Tracker, which is available on the USA Hockey Mobile Coach App.
Even with strong statistical evidence to back the benefit of more practices, there are still those who believe that letting a team of 12-year-olds play the equivalent of an 82-game NHL schedule is the best way to develop a hockey player. “The dilemma that virtually every coach of developmental aged hockey players is faced with is, ‘How much ice time is devoted to practice and how much to games?’” Observation Project Chairman Rob Bruendl wrote in his final report. “Ice time is getting more expensive every year. Parents enjoy watching their children play and urge the coach to schedule more games. So coaches and parents try to convince themselves that their players are learning skills during the games.”
Armed with this statistical ammunition, USA Hockey continues to advocate a 3-to-1 practice-to-game ratio, and that a lot of that practice time should be station-based, which greatly increases the number of puck touches compared to what takes place in a game.
“I think [the study] grabbed the attention of some people who have never stopped to think about it,” Tabrum said. “Games are a measuring stick where you evaluate skill development, but it’s not where you teach it.” As the study prepares to celebrate its 20-year anniversary, the data continues to stand the test of time and proves to be as valuable today as it was back then. “The study increased awareness of the importance of high-quality practice and emphasis on reducing their game counts,” McLaughlin added.
“It’s not perfect. We still need to practice even more than what we’re doing now. But the quality of practices have improved. There’s less standing around and more activity on the ice, especially when coaches create station-based practices. “And the by-product of it is you are seeing more skilled American players.”