It’s time to bring an end to ‘zombie hockey’

Zombie-art marked

By @StefanKubus –

At the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association Summer Meeting, two prominent USA Hockey executives called for an end to “zombie hockey” and “over-scripted” practices.

Bob Mancini, Regional manager for the American Development Model and a former college and OHL head coach, said with some youth teams are playing upward of 75 games per season, the importance of development is often lost in the process.

“We have a lot of issues here in Michigan,” Mancini said. “We do so many things well, but we have some issues that we have to deal with. One of these things we have to deal with is this creation of ‘zombie hockey.’ We have kids that have played, by the time they get to 14, they’ve played so many games, they’ve played so much year-round, they play five and six games on tournament weekends… They just go out, it’s another game. ‘I’ve got six this weekend. I’ve got 75 this year as a 12-year-old.’ There’s no importance, there’s no competitive drive to get better in these games and practices because we’re burning them out by playing too much.”

The U.S. National Team Development Program U-18 team plays 50 games per season with 130 practices and 100 off-ice sessions to complement.

“It’s so important that, when we look at high performance development and we look at the model, that we get in control of the competition schedule because in the United States, more often than not, it’s our competition schedule that drives the training schedule,” Mancini said. “And as soon as we let that happen, we lose focus on development, we lose focus on what’s important. Because the fact is, any age up to this age, if you’re going to play more games than what allows you to get in the right number of practices, you’re going to retard development.”

But it’s not only balancing a healthy ratio of practices to games. It’s practicing correctly.

Ken Martel is the technical director of the ADM and a former assistant coach with Michigan Tech University. A Lake Superior State alum, Martel also lived in Ann Arbor for a number of years while he served as an assistant coach with the U.S. NTDP from 1998-2006 and even saw his own kids pass through the Michigan youth hockey system.

Small-area games have been around for a long time, but Martel and Mancini want to see more teams utilizing them in practices. After all, playing hockey in a tight-quartered space forces players to make not just quick decisions under pressure, but smart ones, too. Players have to learn anticipation, finding open ice and transitioning from offense to defense in an instant. Playing in open ice is the easy part.

“You need to have our kids in situations on the rink; every drill that they do should have some type of decision tied to it,” Martel said. “The over-scripted drills that we do, and I know I was guilty as a college coach in terms of over-scripting stuff, we’re not helping our players actually learn how to play and make decisions, so we have to tie decisions into everything they do. Whether that’s through live action drills, gameplay, however, there’s lots of ways to accomplish it, but we have to rethink a little bit how we teach the game.”

Martel added that with the readily available support and information, it shouldn’t prevent the youth from receiving high performance-like training in developing toward an elite level.

“High performance is what the Olympic Committee does with our national teams, and not our teams in Ann Arbor, but our men’s, women’s senior national teams, our Olympic teams. That’s high performance. However, high performance in a developmental stance, there’s nothing that precludes us from the quality and the high performance delivery in the development that we provide our kids.”

With his offer of information and constant support on the table, Mancini – who, in the early ‘90s spent time as head coach of Michigan Tech (alongside Martel) and also at Ferris State – put the onus on the local associations to commit to the high performance development model.

“We shouldn’t be using the excuse of, ‘What about the ice? What about this? How do we do that?’ We have to find ways to deliver this. Is it possible in every situation? No, often times it isn’t, but we have to find a way to put development first. What I mean by that is, we have to fit our schedule and focus based on what’s good for development, as opposed to, ‘Oh, here’s our budget, now this is what the 18-year-olds get. Here’s our budget, this is what the 14-year-olds get.”