Hockey schools suck. They are, by and large, awful. I’m sorry to have to break this to you over the internet. I wasn’t sure when I’d get a chance to tell you in person.
From a general standpoint, hockey schools are an expensive way for parents to get their kids out of the house for a week, get them some exercise, and hopefully improve their skills before the winter. So for parents, hockey schools are plum. Expensive, yes (when I was last in one roughly 15 years ago, I believe a week ran the family some 700 dollars), but that’s the (literal) price you pay to bridge the long, arduous gap between school years.
Unfortunately, in my experience as a camp attendee, they took me out of the warm summer sun (in which I enjoyed baseball and golf) and into the cold, we rarely got to touch the damn pucks, which by the way is at the core of the game of hockey for kids, and we did a bunch of stuff that seemed like killing time (“dryland training” = shooting tennis balls past Shooter Tutors with broken straps) while the camp waited for the parents checks to clear.
As I got older, I became an instructor. It just seemed like the more logical side of the financial equation. At 17, after a season of Junior B hockey with a signed Junior A card in my back pocket, I was a skating instructor for a 14-year-old Shea Weber, who was quite clearly better than me at hockey. But hey, you gotta go to hockey school in the summer right, so there Shea was.
I did it for a number of off-seasons including the ones that fell between my years of University puck, meaning I was doing it until I was 23 or so. I may have even done it beyond that to be honest, I just can’t remember when I called it quits entirely.
Part of my problem with hockey schools is that they’re run how they always have been, and there isn’t much reason to change. By the sheer laws of human development kids get bigger, stronger and more coordinated as they get older, so the schools don’t really have to do much but provide ice time to look like they’re helping. And of course, it’s not going to hurt the kids. The more they practice the better, so you can see how easy it is to become daycare on ice.
If I were running a hockey camp today, I’d fix a few things. Let’s start with three things.
Hockey School Fixes
Pucks man, PUCKS
I know I already complained about this in the intro, so it’s correct for you to assume I was the kid playing with a puck while the coach was talking. I just had to have my stick on one. I’d move it through the skates of people listening, I’d step on it, I’d flip it up onto my blade. I love handling hockey pucks. A not so subtle secret of hockey is that most kids do.
So, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise when the first 20-30 minutes of a hockey school on-ice session – almost always puck-less – is full of disinterested kids. They get out there, they’re told to skate the length of the ice doing X, then doing Z, then doing Y CAN’T WE PLAY WITH THE PUCKS??
I realize that it’s healthy to put in edge work, but I do think there are better drills to be done than putting kids on the line and making them skate the length of the ice on repeat for half a session. Of course, when you jam 30 kids into a group to maximize revenue, you’re pretty limited in what you can coordinate.
I think pretty much every drill can be organized so a carrot hangs at the end, meaning kids can take a couple single-edged cuts around cones (or whatever you’re encouraging) in something that ends with a puck and a shot. You simply can’t hold the interest of young kids trekking up and down the ice in waves for 25 minutes with the pucks stacked on top of the net.
Cut the fat off the meat
A fundamental rule of being an instructor is “instruct,” meaning you have to say stuff a lot. People are expecting it. Because of that complex rule, we see something like when a hockey commentator says something stupid and everyone takes a collective poop on the guy on Twitter. The dude has to talk for like, two straight hours. You talk for that long without slipping up.
Because of the “must-talk” burden, we’ve stuck in a couple lies to eat up the teaching time, and they keep getting passed down from generation to generation.
- “Follow through your shot and point at your target.” Who the f#$% does that? How is this helping with a kid’s shot? You want to encourage a follow-through (I guess?) to encourage kids to put as much force behind the puck as they can, but a better way to do that is to advise that they “put as much force behind the puck as they can.” The point at the target stuff feels like a bizarre golf tip people pick up and over-focus on.
- “Cushion the pass.” Gordon Bombay has ruined generations of children with this mumbo-jumbo. I’ve written this numerous times in the past: have you listened to a pro hockey game? When players take rocket passes it sounds like a gunshot went off. My Dad used to tell me (especially on my backhand) to essentially deaden my bottom hand (like it wasn’t on the stick at all) and let the puck smack the blade. It’ll be there for you to pick in up in a jiffy. You don’t have to tell kids to take passes with push-back, you just don’t need to make them do the big romantic sweep reception. The force of the puck will push back the blade as far as it needs to move.
All I’m saying is, don’t complicate this stuff for kids. The game is hard enough.
Mix in some hockey
I know, I know, I know. Summer hockey school is about skill development. In Canada, that means a ton of skating, and some shooting (passing…meh, just GO TO THE NET, KID). But for the love of God, I’m 11-years-old and it’s July I like playing hockey and I’m not in the NHL can we please play some while we’re all here in our equipment on the ice?
Most camps wrap-up with some wind-up game at the end of five long days (that usually includes some form of conditioning). Most make time for a few minutes of fun at the end of the skate.
But playing hockey is actually pretty good for hockey development, the kids aren’t at a work camp sewing shoes or something, so again: more carrots, more interest, more repeat customers, better players. This sport is fun all on its lonesome.
It doesn’t have to be full-ice, full-length games. Just let the kids compete at trying to put pucks past goalies and into nets. You catch more flies with honey.
Ideally, a hockey camp would have a high instructor-to-kid ratio, the sessions wouldn’t be over-crowded, the drills would have a purpose, and it could be both fun and informative. It’s harder in reality than it is in print because again, kids gonna kid. They want snacks and shiny things distract them and there’s vast talent disparities in the same age range. But it doesn’t have to be daycare on ice.
Get the kids some pucks in the early going, don’t fill their heads up with paralyzing nonsense, and let hockey stay hockey (especially for the young ones). Summer camps have the potential to be great weeks for kids.