If you coach, you’ve been there. You expected to have a full-ice practice and, when you show up to the rink, you find out that you’re practicing on half-ice. One of your goalies is out sick. You only have 10 of your usual 15 skaters at practice. When you combine these common challenges with the additional constraints that are sometimes placed on coaches during the COVID-19 pandemic (limitations on how many players/goalies/coaches can be on the ice, being restricted to half-ice or less for months at a time, combining groups of different skill levels into “cohorts”), it can make the already challenging job of coaching seem nearly impossible. What can you do to overcome these challenges?

            In this blog post, I will discuss some of the theoretical framework that you can use to adapt your practice design to the group and the space that you are working with on any given day. Don’t give up on me just because I used the phrase “theoretical framework.” If you go deep enough into the rabbit holes of motor learning, ecological dynamics, nonlinear pedagogy, etc. you can quickly feel overwhelmed with all the theory and jargon. (I suspect that approximately 12 web browsers around the world just closed because of the jargon in that last sentence.) However, you don’t need a degree in education or psychology to understand this post. My goal in this blog is to provide a simple approach that any coach can easily understand and begin to implement into his or her own practice design. Let’s get started!

Using the S.T.E.P. Method to Shape the Environment

Okay, let’s assume you’re in one of the situations above. You planned a certain practice, and the group or space you have is unable to make it work. Maybe it’s a group you’re not used to working with and the practice you planned isn’t appropriate for their skill level. Maybe you have less space than you thought. Maybe you have only 1 goalie. I suggest that you keep the “S.T.E.P. Method” in mind whenever you are confronted with a situation like this. S.T.E.P. stands for space, timing, equipment, and personnel. These are the four main factors that you can manipulate to adapt your current plan. It’s important to understand these concepts so you can go beyond just copying the drills/games I have listed below and learn how to make your own. We’ll take a look at these factors one-by-one.

Space

Most drills/exercises/small-area-games can be modified to fit in different size spaces. One of the main justifications for the use of small area games in the first place is that by shrinking the space in which a game is played, we automatically increase the number of times that skills are repeated while decreasing the amount of time that players have to make decisions. Both of these changes are likely to lead to increased skill development. However, it’s important to go beyond just saying that less space = more reps.

Here’s a very simple consideration. Players with weaker legs, less stamina, younger age, and/or less skill are going to get tired faster when playing in bigger spaces. If you’re working with two groups of 14U players with one group being very highly skilled and one group being less skilled, the less skilled group is going to have trouble covering lots of ice. As a result, they’ll get less reps and their development will suffer. By simply taking a small area game that works well with the more-skilled group and playing it in a smaller space with the less-skilled group, you may find that the game ends up working very well for both groups.

Another consideration with space is the adaptation you are looking to achieve. If you want your players to get good at protecting the puck in small spaces, then you are going to get more out of a game/drill by playing it in a small space. Vice versa, if you are looking for players to improve their confidence when passing, you might want to play keep-away in a relatively large area to give the offensive team the advantage.

Space can also be manipulated by moving the nets around. Try playing a game with both nets facing the same direction, or in opposite directions, or having them staggered. How does this influence the behavior of the players involved in the game?

One way in which I love to manipulate the space is to use spray paint to create different lines on the playing surface. We can use these to add an offside or icing rule or add a rule that if the puck crosses the line, one team has to change, etc. Keeping a simple can of spray paint in your bag can help you manipulate the spacing of a practice in innumerable ways.

Finally, you can manipulate space by changing the how players enter the game. Do they enter from the neutral zone or the side boards? How does this change the game situation that is being worked on?

Timing

Timing can be somewhat related to space. IE, more space is going to equal more time for the team with puck possession and vice versa. However, there are some other considerations with time that should be taken into account.

The first is the concept of work:rest ratio. Athletes of different ages are likely to have different energy system abilities. An 8U player can probably maintain a consistent level of intensity for an entire practice. With younger players, the goal is to keep them moving and engaged with a work:rest ratio of 1:0 or 1:1. On the other hand, an 18U player can play with extremely high intensity, but can only maintain this level of work for short periods. If you’re running a practice with 18U players and only giving them a 1:1 work:rest ratio, the quality of their work is going to suffer severely. They need something like a 1:3 or 1:4 ratio. In short, the older your players, the more rest they need and vice versa. A simple way to manipulate this when you have a fixed number of players is to change the number of players in a game. If you had planned to play 3v3, but this won’t give your players enough time to rest between shifts, try playing 2v2.

You can also manipulate timing by restricting how much time a player can have with the puck. As players get older and more advanced, a simple way to challenge their decision making is to add a rule that they can’t stickhandle the puck before passing, or they have to make a pass within 5 seconds, etc.

Equipment

Most coaches are familiar with the blue puck. This is a simple example of equipment manipulation that was introduced into younger levels of play by USA Hockey in order to provide younger players with the age-appropriate equipment necessary to develop their skills and their confidence.

However, we don’t have to stop at just blue pucks. There are a huge variety of “implements” that you can introduce into a hockey practice. You can try blue pucks, mini pucks, white pucks, colored pucks, tennis balls, using tires instead of nets etc. Each one will provide players with a novel stimulus that can help keep them engaged and create more adaptable athletes who can change their movements in response to different stimuli.

Next, you can go a step further by adding a rule that a certain color of puck means you are playing a specific small area game. Start with a pile of black, blue, green, white, pink, etc. pucks. If you throw in a black puck, the players are playing a simple 3v3 cross ice game. If you throw in a green puck, you are now playing the “Gretzky Low” small area game and if you throw in a pink puck, you are playing the “Goal Line” game. The importance of manipulating equipment in this way is that it forces the players to engage mentally and make decisions on the fly.

Another way to manipulate the equipment is to play games where the defense have no sticks or have to turn their sticks over.

Personnel

Adapting a practice can be as simple as changing the number of players involved in drills and small area games. As I mentioned above, (1) changing from a 3v3 to a 2v2 is a simple way to give players more rest and create an optimal work:rest ratio and (2) changing from even-strength to a 2v1 or 3v2 will allow the offensive team the ability to complete more passes and develop this skill while the defensive team will be forced to skate more. These may be valuable adaptations depending on the needs of your group. A simple example in the real world would be subtracting the players on defense for a less-skilled group. While a group of highly-skilled players may be able to play successful keep-away and complete a ton of passes while playing even-strength, this may be difficult for less-skilled players. The solution? Just give the offensive team a small numerical advantage. This can also be accomplished by adding “neutral players” who serve as outlets for whichever team has puck possession.

One thing to keep in mind is the way in which personnel interacts with space. If you have 8 players in a 50’X50’ square, there is going to be a lot less total skating (and energy demand) compared with an environment that includes 3 players in a 75’X75’ square. On top of that, more space per player is going to equal more linear skating patterns while less space per player will produce more changes of direction. Maybe that works for your goals and maybe it doesn’t. It’s just something to keep in mind.

Next, I’ll provide some simple activities that you can keep in your back pocket for times when you have to adapt your practices on the fly. You might want to consider bookmarking this page on your phone so you always have it handy!

Ideas for Practices with NO Goalies

2v1 Circle Rondo

  • Play 2v1 keep away in a small area (like a faceoff circle)
  • Causing a turnover or lost puck (IE, out of your area) means you go in the middle and play defense.
  • Change all 3 players on the whistle

Curry Rondo

  • Play 1v1 keep-away in the circle
  • Players on the perimeter are on the team of whoever gave them the puck
  • Perimeter players can only pass back to middle
  • Change on whistle
  • Credit: I learned about this game from Coach TJ Manastersky of Curry College
  • Click Here for Video

2v2v2 Full-Zone or Half-Zone Rondo

  • Players are divided into three teams of two players
  • Two teams start on offense and one team is one defense
  • Offense plays keep-away against defense in a defined zone (half of a zone to a full zone are good ideas)
  • Cause a turnover or lost puck (IE, out of your area) means your team goes in the middle and plays defense. 
  • Change all 6 players on the whistle

Nowak No Goalie Transition Game

  • Play 2v2 in the middle with support players on each wall. Support players can be used by either team in the middle. 
  • The goal of the game is to regroup with the support players and carry the puck across the middle. 
  • Once this happens, you regroup with the other players and try to repeat. 
  • 1 point for crossing outside of the cones, 2 points for crossing inside the cones. 
  • Change on the whistle. 
  • Credit: I first learned of this game from Coach Zach Nowak of Kent State

Tire Game

  • Use tires instead of nets for a cross-ice game
  • You can play almost any of the games listed here while using a tire instead of a standard net. Think about what your team needs and how you can manipulate the constraints to create a productive game.

Knockout

  • Start with a group of players (each with a puck) in a defined space such as a faceoff circle or the neutral zone
  • Players are trying to knock other players’ pucks out of the space while maintaining possession of their own puck
  • If your puck gets knocked out, you are eliminated from the game
  • Last player with a puck wins

Ideas for Practices with Only 1 Goalie

Nobles Transition Game

  • Play 3v3 in the zone with the net in its standard position. 
  • One team is designated on offense and one is designated as defense. 
  • The defensive team is trying to steal the puck and get it to their support players on the wall. If they do this, the original players are out and the support players attack the net while the opposing team which was just on offense is now on defense. 
  • The team that is on defense sends in 3 new players to wait on the wall. The team is trying to get the puck to these players. The game is continuous. 
  • If a team scores a goal, reward them by giving them a new puck to stay on offense. 

Swiss 4v2

  • Coach draws two lines through the dots, perpendicular to the goal line, and another line from dot to dot
  • There is a 2v1 taking place in the high box and a 2v1 taking place in the low box. In the example above, green is on offense and blue is on defense. Players cannot leave their designated box. 
  • The objective of the offensive team is to get pucks on net and score goals. They can shoot at any time. 
  • The objective of the defensive team is to get pucks outside of the dashed lines. 
  • The offensive team gets a new puck if: (1) they score a goal or (2) they get a shot on net and the puck goes out of the playing area. 
  • The teams change up if: (1) they miss the net, (2) the D get the puck and knock it out of the playing area, (3) the goalie freezes the puck or (4) if any offensive player holds onto the puck for more than 5 seconds. 
  • Rotation: low offensive players are out and go back in line, defensive players become the low offensive players, high offensive players become defensive players, two new players (in the diagram they would be blue jerseys) jump in from the line and become the high offensive players. 

1v1 Continuous Activate

  • Set the net in the standard position. Coach is in high slot with pucks. One line of players at top of each circle. 
  • Coach shoots a puck and goalie deflects it into corner. First player in each line plays 1v1. 
  • You can only go on offense by activating the next player in your line. 
  • Once all players are activated, use coach as neutral player to go on offense. 

RPI 2v2 Angle

  • Be sure that players in line alternate between black jerseys and color jerseys. 
  • On whistle, X players cross in the neutral zone and attack 2v2. The O players CANNOT skate backwards. They must angle skating forwards. 
  • On a turnover, the O players make a hard pass to the O players waiting in line who cross in the NZ. The X players who were just on offense must angle SKATING FORWARDS. 
  • If a goal is scored, the scoring team goes on defense and the next guys in line automatically go. 
  • If necessary, coach blows a whistle to end a round and the next players go. 

Colgate Continuous 3v3

  • Be sure that players are lined up in alternating jersey colors (e.g., blue then green then blue then green, etc.)
  • Coach spots a puck to the attacking players who enter the zone 3v3 and try to score off the rush.
  • One offensive player must stay above the dashed line at all times.
  • If D get a turnover, they must get above the dashed line and pass to the next players in the NZ who attack the original forwards 3v3.
  • Puck is covered, scored or out of play = coach spots a new puck

Safehouse Game

  • Coach draws a semi-circle at each of the corners of the zone. 
  • The semi-circles are occupied by neutral players who are on the team of whoever is in possession of the puck. 
  • Neutral players cannot exit their semi-circle and other players cannot enter the semi-circle to pressure them. 
  • Coach spots a puck into the middle of the ice and two players from each team compete for the loose puck. 
  • On any change of possession or new puck, the team with the puck must pass to a neutral player and get the puck back before they can score. Neutral players cannot pass to each other. 
  • Rotation: Line > middle > neutral > line 

Ideas for Quarter-Ice Practices

Curry College Hot Wall

  • Set the net up in the corner facing out. Coach is off to the side with pucks.
  • Players who are not in are in a semi-circle to enclose the active players in the corner. Should alternate red-black-red-black.
  • Coach dumps a puck in. Players must pass to a teammate before they can score.
  • Teammates on the perimeter can pass back to active player or pass to each other. The perimeter players can only shoot if it is a one timer or a two-touch shot (IE, cross body passes). If they stickhandle, they must pass.
  • Players closest to boards enter game on whistle. End of line is closest to the middle of the ice.
  • Credit: I learned about this game from Coach TJ Manastersky of Curry College
  • Click Here for Video

USA 2v2 Goal Line Game

  • Use spray paint or a marker to draw a “goal line” across the corner. The net is even with this line. It’s a good idea to only paint the area outside of the posts so goalies don’t get paint on their pads. 
  • Play 2v2 with a neutral goaltender. Any change of possession means you must carry or pass the puck below the goal line before attacking the net.
  • Change all 4 players on the whistle.
  • Perimeter players serve as boards to keep puck in play.

Loop 1v1

  •  Forward and defense start in front of their respective bumper
  • On whistle forward skates with puck and circles around their barrier. At the same time defense follows movement, pivoting around their barrier, keeping eyes and chest towards forward.
  • After loop, forward attacks 1v1 in the small corner.

Gretzky/Coffey Corner Game

  • One player from each team is support player low (i.e. “Wayne Gretzky”)
  • One player from each team is support player high (i.e., “Paul Coffey”)
  • Set-up so that support players are diagonal from each other
  • Play 1v1 or 2v2 in the middle
  • Must go to Gretzky/Coffey on change of posession.
  • Coffeys can shoot
  • Middle players cannot attack support players
  • The game can be modified for 2 goalies by stacking the nets. Place one in the crease and one in the high slot.
  • Click Here for Video

Triangle Game

  • 1v1 inside of circle
  • Other players must stay outside of circle on their half (can go behind net)
  • Try to score on opponent’s net
  • Change on whistle.

Ideas for Half-Ice Practices

2v2 Quick Up

  • Set the nets up for cross ice play. Draw a dashed line across the middle of the surface. 
  • Play 2v2 in one end with one team on offense and one team on defense. 
  • The defensive team has a couple teammates on the other half that they are trying to get the puck to. 
  • If they do this, they are out and the team that was on offense goes on defense. 
  • Rotation is: Wait for the puck > offense > defense > puck to teammates > out 

Levels with Neutral Players

  • Players can score on either of the nets. On any change of possession, the puck must be passed to a “neutral coach” on the side boards (this can also be a designated player). The neutral coach/player can only go up and down the side boards and no players are allowed to pressure this player.
  • The neutral player passes the puck back to the team that won possession and they try to score.
  • This game can be manipulated in many ways to focus on different elements. Try things like: moving the neutral players so one is above the blueline and one is below the goal line, making the team that lost possession change, only allowing goals that are preceded by a pass across the “Royal Road,” etc.
  • Click Here for Video

Ideas for Full-Ice Practices

X – Full Ice Power Play Game

  • Place each net facing the end-boards just inside the blue line. Coach chips a puck into the middle of the ice and the teams play 4v4, trying to score on the opponent’s net. Before they can attack, they must pass to the coach in their offensive end.
  • By placing the coach in the crease, you essentially create the conditions for working on the 1-3-1 power play.
  • Double whistle means the players in line enter and a new game starts with a new puck being chipped into the middle of the ice. 

3v2 Rush Game (Blueline to Blueline; Goal Line to Blueline)

  • Set the nets up at blue line (or use the 3v3 goal line to give a bit more space) and the goal line 
  • Start 2v2 in the middle. 
  • Coach spots a loose puck and the team that gains possession gets to add a third player from their line. 
  • If puck is covered by a goalie, scored or out of play (IE, beyond blue line) coach spots a new puck into play. 
  • On a change of possession, the original third player is out (red in this example) and the other team gets to add a third player 
  • Progression (Shown in diagram): In order to make the “ice geography” a little more game-realistic, we could move the nets further apart with one on the standard goal line and one on the 3v3 goal line. 

Nowak Stretch Transition Game

  • Set the nets up at the tops of the circles and use spray paint to draw a “goal line” by each net
  • Play 4v4 in the middle
  • If a puck goes below the goal line or is frozen by the goalie:
    • Offensive team must change by going to their bench (must be a legal line change with no early jumps)
    • Defensive team picks up a puck behind the net and attacks while the other team is changing. They can try to run a stretch play on the opposite side from the “benches” and try to score a goal as quickly as possible.
  • The game is continuous.
  • Credit: I first learned about this game from Coach Zach Nowak of Kent State.

Wallee 2v2

  • Set the nets up on the goal line extended. Coach in each slot with a pile of pucks. Essentially creates a 200×40 playing surface. 
  • Play 2v2 in one end with black team on offense and red team on defense. If black scores or puck goes out of play, they get a new puck. 
  • If red gets the puck, they pass to their players in line who attack the opposite net. 
  • Black backchecks and tries to get the puck to their players in line. 
  • Game is continuous. 

Covered Wagon

  • Game is played 3v3 in the middle of the ice. 
  • There is an imaginary goal line even with each net (or use spray paint). Anytime the puck goes past this line, that team immediately goes on offense and looks for a stretch pass from their coach. 
  • Whistle means 3 new players from each team and puck is dumped into middle of ice. 
  • Focus on quick transitions to offense. 

A Note On Transitions (I.E., Entry/Exit From Game)

You may also want to consider how players transition in/out of the game and how this relates to your group dynamics. If you have an evenly matched group, it is very easy to do small area games with continuous transition (like “Nobles” or “2v2 Quick Up”) and no whistles. If you have a mixture of ages (and want to keep them separated), you may have to use games that involve hard whistles so that the older group and younger group can each skate in their own “shift.”

However, don’t be too afraid to mix ages and skill levels from time to time as this type of play can have benefits for players as well. The older players get to be leaders and teachers, the younger players are challenged and have role models (for both behavior and skills), and the results of the game matter less. The kids end up just playing and having fun – always a worthwhile goal.

How to Use Two Nets with One Goalie

If you only have one goalie, but you still want to use two nets, consider some of the following options. First, you can simply put the nets back-to-back in the middle of the zone and have the goalie defend both of them. If you want to do a game in which the nets are further apart, you can use foam barriers or a shooter tutor as a simulation-goalie to defend one of them, but you need to keep the following advice in mind. Only employ a shooter tutor on the other net if you are playing a game in which the teams can score on either net. Great examples of such games are Levels and the Union Scoring Game. By playing games in which either team can score on either net, neither team feels as though they got singled out and have to play against the shooter tutor. There is also an added element of decision-making because players now have to decide whether the real goalie or the shooter tutor is the better option to attack.

Conclusion

While keeping this page bookmarked and using these games is a great place to start, understanding why certain things work or don’t work and understanding what variables you can manipulate to alter a practice plan is key to becoming a master of this process. Once you understand the foundations, you develop this coaching skill the way you develop any other skill: with purposeful repetition over the long term. If you want to get better at adapting practices, you have to actually adapt some practices, make some mistakes, and get better little by little. Remember, good coaching is not about designing the “best practice” it’s about designing the best practice for this specific group, in this specific space, at this specific moment. 

Brandon Reich-Sweet

Brandon Reich-Sweet is a former AAA hockey player from Colorado, currently a coach for the historic Littleton Hockey Association south of Denver, a lead instructor with the Ice Ranch’s Learn to Play Hockey Program and a private instructor offering lessons and small group camps. He is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with Distinction (CSCS*D), a Level 4 USA Hockey Certified Coach, a Level 2 USA Weightlifting Certified Coach and a strength & conditioning coach with the Colorado Rampage AAA Hockey Club. He is the founder of BRS High Performance Hockey, a hockey skills and training company dedicated to comprehensive and long-term player development through the 4-pillar approach of fundamental skills coaching, game-representative problem solving training, strength & conditioning, and athletic development. Brandon is currently pursuing an M.S. degree in Applied Exercise Science (Sports Performance Concentration) at Concordia University Chicago.