The Saskatchewan Hockey Association (SHA) is making big changes to hockey programs for seven and eight-year-olds next season.
Novice hockey divisions across the province will shift to a half-ice game format for the first part of the 2019-2020 season, in a bid to increase enjoyment of the sport and to encourage more skill development.
“People that have bought into it are seeing the advantages, are seeing how all the kids are improving in their skills in the smaller environment,” SHA General Manager Kelly McClintock told 650 CKOM in an interview Wednesday.
Right now, novice division players play on a full sheet of ice.
McClintock said the result is a game that gives more room for skilled players to work and keep the puck, rather than making plays with teammates.
“You’ll have one or two players … they break off the pack, skate the length of the ice and try and score. It becomes a dominant game with very little puck movement or stickhandling,” he said.
“Now (with the changes), those players who are more advanced or better than others, they’re in a tighter environment. They’re going to have to have their head up more, stickhandle more. It’s not always going to be a clear path to the goalie.”
The change comes after a directive from Hockey Canada, which has done research on skill development in other hockey programs around the world.
Half-ice programs are already present in the U.S. and in several European countries.
“To be quite frank, most of the rest of the world doesn’t play on full ice at this age,” McClintock said.
He added the SHA is allowing novice games to move to full ice after Jan. 1, after hearing from people during zone consultations.
“It’s an easier sell,” he said. “If there is a move to half-ice, they want to transition during the year.”
The season split may result in more games being played on full sheets rather than half-ice anyways.
The SHA is also putting an emphasis on team practices, with no exhibition games allowed to take place before Nov. 15 in the novice division.
Tournament games cannot start until Dec. 1.
“The key message here is we don’t want people just to start playing hockey and within the first week they’re playing a ton of games,” McClintock said.
Moving to the half-ice game is also bringing a bevy of rule changes to the novice game.
Shifts will last two minutes each, with the buzzer sounding for a shift change. While a faceoff will start a shift, there won’t be any stoppages during a shift. Instead, a goal or goalie coverage will result in defensive team possession.
McClintock said another big change with the half-ice model is players won’t have to go to a bench when their shift is over.
He said the kids will move over to the other half of the ice, where a coach will help them work on skills.
“A kid being on the ice for an entire hour is much better in that environment than a kid going on and off the ice every third shift,” he said.