PostHeaderIcon Choosing a Learn to Skate Program for Your Player

Hockey Parent 101 article.

By Paul O’Donnell

The sport of ice hockey has evolved considerably over the past few decades.  Through trial and error, the most well-known hockey authorities from around the world have come to understand the benefits that come from putting considerable time and resources into training their youngest and least experienced players.  Knowledgeable hockey administrators understand that it is crucial that a young player establish proper skating techniques and mechanics as early as possible during their introduction period to hockey.

Even though USA Hockey the nationally recognized governing body in our country has established training practices for all hockey levels, including the earliest levels of training, there is still very little consistency from program to program in how these training practices are carried out especially at the lowest level.  The vast majority of training that is offered through most skating arenas is largely left in the capable hands of the hockey directors running the programs.  Unfortunately, finding out how capable those hands are, can sometimes turn into a frustrating task without a proper knowledge base to make an informed decision.

For many families today, choosing any youth athletic program can be as easy as walking a few blocks to your local park to sign up your child.  In many cases parents who enroll their children in youth sports programs in the State of Illinois have had some experience playing the game, or at the very least, has some basic understanding or knowledge of the sport.  Unfortunately, this is not the case with hockey.

In the State or Illinois a high percentage of hockey parents are new to the game.  During my experiences though out the years I would be  generous in saying that 8 out every 10 fathers of players I have coached, have had little or no exposure to the game prior to their child’s first hockey class.  This lack of experience  can sometimes put unnecessary pressure on parents to choose the youth hockey program that will give their child the most bang for the buck.

To accomplish this task some aspiring hockey parents may believe they need to burn up hours of cell phone minutes and scour the Internet to research their decision; while others may simply choose a program close to home because they are overwhelmed or don’t have the time.  Fortunately, there is a simple, commonsense approach to choosing your first youth hockey program that may make the process a little less painless.

For most young players who have had little or no skating experience, their first introduction to the organized hockey will probably be a Learn to Skate Class. These coed classes offer a wonderful opportunity for your budding young superstar to learn essential, rudimentary skating skills in a less stressful and fun environment.  Learn to skate classes are offered at most ice arenas the area, through local park districts or various youth hockey programs. During these-hourly sessions, coaches will be concentrating on the most basic hockey skills.

To earn your business, the hockey directors in charge of these programs will usually offer a trial class at little or no expensive, prior to the start of the regular sessions. Allowing your child to take advantage of these learn to skate trial sessions, will give you an excellent opportunity to observe these classes for yourself and will help you whittle down your options to a reasonable 2 or 3 hockey programs.

For many parents, watching their child take their first few strides on the ice can be an important milestone in their young life.  While it’s only natural to become transfixed by this marvelous show, it will be important to try to spend some time observing the overall class.  While you are monitoring your child’s introductory class, paying close attention to other things happening on the ice will help you arrive at a more informed decision.

Player to Coach Ratio

Player to coach ratio is exactly what it sounds like; the ratio of hockey players on the ice, to every coach during any given session.  Why is this important?  Training very young and inexperienced hockey players can be a very challenging event for even the most knowledgeable and skilled coaches.  Not because of their lack of skill or knowledge of the game, but more because of the wide age discrepancies as well as the short attention spans of the young people they are training.

I don’t think too many coaches would disagree with me when I say that because of these young players short attention spans the average learn to skate session can sometimes be like herding cats.  This is why many hockey directors have come to realize that the only way to properly train these young people is to take a group approach that includes a good player to coach ratio.  In many cases the hockey directors will take charge of these classes himself, or delegate this task to their most experienced and skilled hockey coaches.

While some hockey directors may believe that a 10 or 15 to 1 player to coach ratio is sufficient for a typical learn to skate session, Glenview, Illinois’ Sylvain Turcotte and Hoffman Estates’ Randy Jordan believe that these ratios should be much lower.   Turcotte, the well respected hockey director of the Glenview Ice Arena believes, “The average player to coach ratio should be no more than 5 or 7 to 1”.  Jordan, Assistant General Manager of Ice Operations at Hoffman Estates, goes even further to say, “In some cases this ratio can go as low as 3 or even 2 to 1″.

Ice Management

Properly run learn to skate practices will look like a model of efficiency.  During any typical hourly session coaches should be utilizing as much of the ice as possible, at any one time, during the entire class.  Players should be properly evaluated at the beginning of the course and placed into groups by age, ability or even attention span if necessary.  These young people may or may not be moving around from station to station, but these classes should have an orderly flow to them.

The final 15 or 20 minutes should include small informal cross ice games that allow these young inexperienced players to skate and touched the puck is much is possible during this 15 or 20 minute time period.  But most of all the players should look like they’re having a lot of fun.  Turcotte believes,” When kids are having fun, they won’t know how hard the game is to learn”.

Player- Coach Interaction

Both Randy and Sylvain stress the importance of positive on ice interaction between the players and their coaches during their sessions.  While critiquing some of these classes, you may want to pay close attention to the interaction between the coaches and players.  These are some of questions you may want to ask yourself:

  • Are the coaches making eye contact with the players; but more importantly are the players making eye contact back?
  • Do the coaches appear to be engaging the young players, holding their attention for the task at hand?
  • From your perspective do the coaches appear to be demonstrating the drills and skills with some level of proficiency?
  • But most of all do the players as well as the coaches appear to be having fun?

Coaching Skills

For the most part coaching hockey at the learn to skate level is largely an unpaid and sometimes thankless undertaking.  If it were not for an army well-meaning hockey dads throughout the years who are willing to volunteer a substantial amount of their time and effort to coaching at this level, most of our hockey players would have a difficult time making it to the next level.

While it may be true that physical hockey skills are an important building block in the development of the average hockey coach. This aspect of coaching may not tell the entire story as you observe these learn to skate classes.  Unfortunately for the average parent it may be difficult to tell during a one hour class, which coaches can talk-the-talk, and which can also walk-the-walk!

The masterful hockey administrators will utilize, their all-important hockey dad resources, to their best advantage.  While some classes may appear to have an overabundance of lesser skilled hockey dads on the ice, the better hockey directors will usually have at least one or more highly skilled and knowledgeable hockey coaches orchestrating the cat herding effort.

Other Considerations

If you are quickly approaching the date of the first session and still haven’t made up your mind, don’t be afraid to call the hockey director and ask for a free trial class, even if one isn’t offered in the literature.  Even if you have already passed the deadline for the first session and still haven’t made a decision don’t be too worried.  These days, very few hockey programs have registration cutoffs at the learn to skate level.

While you’re perusing through hockey program literature or websites there probably won’t be any organizations that will advertise a free first-time skate; but that doesn’t mean that they will agree to.  The more reputable hockey program directors may even be willing to prorate your session fee if you sign up late.  So don’t be afraid to ask.

A Few Words of Caution

It is not uncommon for youth hockey programs to usually offer a discount for those people who sign up before a certain date.  Although this may seem like a tempting offer, don’t be too quick to jump into the pool with both feet.  You are far better off waiting a few weeks until you can arrive at a decision that you feel comfortable with.

Randy Jordan believes parents should be wary of hockey organizations which offer their child a chance to play for an organized team, right from the start.  Randy says, “There may be some organizations out there that have little regard for your child and are just trying to fill roster spots”.  You may want to ask yourself, how much ice time or fun will your child have sitting on the end of the bench, as a fourth line forward, or third string defenseman?

If offers like this should occur, remember that just because your child can play for an organized team, at this point in time, doesn’t necessarily mean that they should play.

Closing Remarks

It’s important to remember, that you are not only choosing a hockey program for your child, you are also choosing one for yourself as well.  Once you make your decision, you will also be spending a considerable amount of time at the rink in the future, interacting with the other parents involved with this skating session as well as many others in the future.   Any experienced hockey parent will tell you that hockey tends to be a close-knit community and even cliquish at times, so you better like the people you will be interacting with.

One final thought while making a decision; if you happen to be observing a learn to skate class, and you happen to notice 20 four 30 kids standing around in one corner of the ice with one or two coaches whose hockey skills are no better than the players they are coaching, feel free to cross them off your list.

2 Responses to “Choosing a Learn to Skate Program for Your Player”

  • Thanks for the at’ta boy. It’s good to know that my hockey ramblings are appreciated.

    Hopefully, as soon as my technologically challenged brain becomes more accustomed to blogging, I’ll be adding new content. Please let me know what kind of topics or content would interest you or what you’d like to see on this site. Feel free to e-mail me anytime at:

  • Esra says:

    Posted on November 7, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Totally agree LIz!I love this quote by Oprah:I believe that one of life’s grsetaet risks is never daring to risk.” Living on the edge, doing what is scary is what life is about. It’s not about being safe all the time, how boring! And facing one fear makes it so much easier to face the next one which seems so much smaller than before. So did your team win!?! Good for you!

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