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Developing talent in UK Ice Hockey

It’s great to see IHUK advertising for the position of Head of Development, something the sport is clearly massively in need of.


From an external viewpoint, for a country where only Liam Kirk has been born, developed and then ultimately drafted to the NHL, the British approach to Ice Hockey development is clearly one that needs to be reviewed and changed if there is ever going to be an improvement in the number of players that ultimately go on to play in the biggest league on the planet.  


At the recent World Championships in Prague, 8 of the squad competing were born outside of the UK (32%) and 14 spent some part of their junior career playing overseas (56%).  The need to develop future Great Britain internationals that can compete with the top players in the world has to be a priority in any development changes we explore.


Ask anyone why we’ve only produced one NHL draft in the last 40 or so years and you’ll get a multitude of valid answers ranging from Hockey not being a priority sport in the UK to the number of rinks and the quality of our league systems.


Now the purpose of this is not to get into the hockey mechanics, there are people far more knowledgeable in the sport than I am who can do that.  There are people with much more informed opinions on the quality of the league structure, the politics of the Elite Leagues import numbers or the ownership of Ice rinks.  The purpose of this is to look at what we can CONTROL.


When you start to think about development, you have to think radically.  Look at what some of these other nations and have and you will quickly realise that we can’t compete like for like.  In a recent study in Canada, it was found that 22% of households had a child playing Hockey.  If we had this in the UK, it would equate to somewhere in the region of 6.6 million houses with a junior hockey player in them.  To put that into context, we currently have 3.35 million junior players playing football each week in the UK.


At the last count, there were 58 ice rinks in the UK.  Again, for context, Canada has 2860 serving a population that is 28 million less than here in the UK.


So we can’t do it.  We can’t compete like for like.


We have to think differently.  


Now, I’ve thought about this a lot.  Previous roles in education and sport development have taught me a thing or two, so here’s four instant wins that would see a huge impact in the development of Ice Hockey and, importantly, the quality of the athletes we are developing.


  1. Roller Hockey


So let’s look at accessibility - let’s say we can’t build more rinks, but we need to get more kids playing, learning and loving skating and scoring.  So why not look at roller hockey as a means for developing skill?  It worked for Connor Bedard, Connor McDavid, Henrik Lundqvist, Pat Maroon and many more.


Get it into schools, get clubs linked to ice clubs, get a senior league set up, turn that into a professional league (think 20/20 cricket, Rugby 7’s etc) where it becomes a weekend event.  


Build an environment linked to Ice Hockey where people can play cheaply, with easy access, in a game that has an abundance of transferable skills.  Get kids playing on parks, get them playing on the playgrounds at school.  Get them playing.


Drive the participation, then focus on the transfer to Ice.


  1. 3’s Hockey


Danny Meyers is probably the most forward thinking man in British Hockey and has a ready made blueprint for taking 3 on 3 hockey to a place we most people can only dream of.  Smaller rinks, more touches of the puck, less time to make decisions - read any national governing body athlete development model and you will see exactly that method.


Small-sided games improve development by targeting key technical, tactical and cognitive skills that allow an athlete to subsequently perform more efficiently in a larger playing space.  


Think of marathon training - you train at altitude in sub-optimum conditions so that when you return to sea level, the process is easier.  You’re accustomed to a more difficult environment so can perform better when it’s easier.  If you can play 3’s and thrive in a lack of space and time, you’re going to by much better in a bigger 5 on 5 rink.


  1. Neuro Development


Is playing more games beneficial? Yes.  Is more time on the ice beneficial? Yes.  What happens if I can’t get either of these?  


Well then you need to think about the training you do and maximise the impact you get from it.  


Ask any retiring athlete why they’re stopping playing and they all say the same thing - I see the game better than I ever did, it’s just that my legs can’t keep up anymore.  It’s the professional sport paradox - we are cognitively at our best when we are physically at our worst.


What if we could change that?  What if we could put the brain of a 35 year old player into the body of a 17 year old? Ultimately, that’s what Neuro Performance training does.  


Guess what happens when you train young athletes to make decisions at NHL level speed, to process information at NHL Level speed, to see threats and opportunities at NHL level speed?  Well, you start to develop an athlete that can play at NHL Level speed.


Not everything is about skating fast and having good hands.  Take football as an example - think of all those players whose legs had ‘gone’ but they just knew where to be at the right time.  They read the game.  We can create that in hockey players too, and we can do it before their legs have gone.


  1. Less structured training/play


Coaches aren’t going to like this, but here goes.  Ditch the whiteboard with any team until they reach U14.


We don’t have ponds that freeze over, kids can’t just go out and play.  But if they could, I can guarantee they would far quicker than any drill that you can design on a whiteboard will do for them.


So we can’t freeze ponds, but we can be less structured with our training and games.  I could talk to you for hours about the neuroscience behind unstructured play in junior athletes but this isn’t the forum.  Just trust me that by leaving your whiteboard at home, you’re going to create more intellectual, skilful and resilient hockey players.


Plenty more where these came from, so maybe number 5 should be to look to people with experience outside the sport to come and help move it forward.