When Matt Thomas was hired as Hockey Director in April, one of the first tasks the former NCAA Division 1 Assistant Coach undertook was revamping the practice model for the Little Caps organization.
“From the Naval Academy to my time at the University of Denver and the University of Alabama-Huntsville, I’ve found that how you practice becomes how you play,” Thomas says. “So when I arrived, I spent a lot of time looking at our time spent on-ice, both in frequency and duration—but also what our purpose was with that ice time.”
Working with the club’s Executive Director, Doug Plocki, they came up with a new practice model to develop our players. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, all Little Caps teams hold their normal team practices. But on Wednesdays, players are now participating in new skills sessions that rotate through six distinct themes and purposes.
“In our 6-week cycle there are three unique themed Wednesdays and then three ordinary Wednesdays where a team is either practicing or idle, depending on the age group” says Thomas.
Goalie/Pond Hockey Night. The first Wednesday in the cycle, the club is split into two ice surfaces. One rink, every goaltender in the club gets an hour of focused, specialized attention from Goaltending Coaches Brent Johnson and Travis Russell. Meanwhile, on the other, all the skaters in the club participate in a 60-minute session of pond hockey within their age group that are designed to give them unstructured playing time.
This is the first time that Johnson and Russel have the opportunity to have an hour focused entirely on the goalies. “It's something we've talked about for several years, and it's great to see the organization give us the ice time this season,” Russell says. “Having the Head Coaches participate alongside their goalies has been a huge part of the goalie sessions. Providing them with the goalie knowledge to bring back to their normal practices will benefit the teams throughout the season. We're continuing to build on the first few goalie sessions and excited to see what lies ahead.”
At the same time, the pond sessions allow players to use their imaginations and try new moves or make plays they might not otherwise try in a structured practice. “The pond hockey sessions are really exciting,” Plocki says. “It’s critical that our kids learn to play in an environment where the only thing they matters is their creativity.” Thomas agrees. “Pond hockey lets us nurture instinct in our players,” he says. “By removing the structure of a practice plan and opening the pace to relentless play, you can start to see raw hockey IQ. Pond hockey requires that players create time, positional and spatial advantages.”
Skills Night. The second Wednesday is a broadly themed hour based around age-appropriate skill acquisition and refinement. Early topics have included station-based drills for stickhandling, passing, puck protection, scoring, and small-area team concepts. The skills sessions also allow players to work with other Little Caps coaches’ and get their feedback and advice.
“These skills nights are definitely valuable and are a key separator for us and other programs,” says 2007 coach Mike Veneri. Assistant coach Lynn Astrup agrees. “Having an hour every week dedicated to skills is valuable in helping kids develop that extra edge. As a coach, I think it serves as a great opportunity for me to work more closely with a kid and pull them aside to work on something or give them a tip. In a structured practice, sometimes that’s hard to do when your focus is trying to work on a specific system or run a drill.”
Position-Specific Skills Night. On the third Wednesday in the cycle, the club provides both forwards and defensemen with some highly specialized, but still age-specific training at their chosen position. “Our players are learning new techniques and skills that are sometimes overlooked during team practices,” says 2006 Head Coach Ryan Yoon. “Our players have tremendously improved over these couple of weeks and will improve even further in the remainder of the season.” Thomas says “This isn’t intended to divide our player pool—after all, I’m not sure many of our players have arrived at the last position they’ll ever play—but instead to provide players with some of the basic detail that can make their lives so much easier as players.”
The club has now completed two of these 6-week practice periods, with three more to go more to go as the season unfolds. While many clubs are looking at their win-loss records at this point in the season, Thomas is more focused on evaluating the progress of the new development model.
In the weeks ahead, Thomas says, the coaches are working together to refine and improve the 6-week model. For example, he says, “I could see adapting the general Skills Night to have a more specified focus, or perhaps expanding that concept to a few different recurring themes over the course of a season. Whatever we come up with—our sole focus is practicing harder, smarter, and more purposeful.”
“Great players and great teams are forged on weeknights.”